Woody Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land (1944)

WoodyGThisLand67

Artist: Woody Guthrie
Title: This Land Is Your Land
Description: recording; track This Land Is Your Land
Label: Folkways
Release date: (recorded) 1944; 1967
First heard: 1998

There are some entries on my insoluble identity crisis of a CV that I have no actual record of. One of them is a documentary for BBC Radio 4 that I presented in the year 2000 called Harry Smith and the Folk Anthology. Even typing the words, I wonder if perhaps it ever happened at all, and if it did, why was I selected to link such an august-sounding music programme? Some kind of administrative error? (I’ve looked it up at the BBC Genome archive and there it is, produced by David Morley: it aired on 7 September 2000 at 11.30am, repeated on 1 May 2001 at 1.30 in the afternoon.) I wish I had a copy, but this was an ancient time before the emailing of compressed sound files was commonplace. Harry Smith was one of those amazing, tireless cultural historians, an eccentric hippie in fact, who collected out-of-print field recordings from the 1920s and 30s of the folk music of the United States of America, made at an ancient time when its transmission was still essentially oral. (Many of the recordings were made at social gatherings, not even concerts.) The resulting, six-LP Anthology of American Folk Music was released in 1952. Its influence is in music’s very blood.

To be fair to myself, having been unfair to myself, I had announced myself as Billy Bragg’s official biographer by the fag-end of the century, and in the same year as the biography’s publication, 1998, he’d also announced himself as the living musical executor of Woody Guthrie’s legend, anointed by the Guthrie estate, via his daughter Nora, to bring a whole tranche of the leftist American folk icon’s lyrics to life, with the band Wilco, packaged as the Mermaid Avenue sessions. My link to Woody Guthrie may have been at one remove, but that was as close as I’d ever been. I channeled his limited extant repertoire while writing and researching my book via a 1993 compilation album The Very Best Of Woody Guthrie, and read Joe Klein’s definitive biography.

In the same way that the early recordings of Robert Johnson had captivated me from across the decades in the early 90s – I was driven to purchase after reading the early, inspirational chapters of Charles Shaar Murray’s Hendrix biography Crosstown Traffic, which traces Jimi’s place in the firmament back to Johnson at the crossroads – this scratchy stand-up-and-be-counted dustbowl folk quickly had its hooks in me. I usually risk the sin of generalisation and say that popular music doesn’t truly get going for me until the early 60s girl groups and the drone of garage rock, but that’s too exclusive. For a start, my favourite patch from around 80 years of recorded movie scores has to be the 1930s and 40s, the great age of Waxman, Korngold, Steiner and Newman. And This Land Is Your Land, for all of its elemental timelessness, anthemic credential and iron durability, is best known as a 1944 recording by Folkways boss Moses Asch of a song written in 1940 – to all intents and purposes the 1930s! – in response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. I’m listening to it right now.

As a child raised on the sound of 8- and 16-track recordings who lived through the technological revolution of MIDI and Roland and Linn at a formative age, I was hardwired not to appreciate the sound of one man with a guitar on his knee in a booth singing folk songs in the year before D-Day. But Woody – and it feels perfectly OK to call him Woody – spoke to me.

The context helps: named after Democrat president Woodrow Wilson, he endured a childhood in pre-Depressed Oklahoma wrought with tragedy, hereditary illness and unfortunate circumstance, awoken by the blues, politicised on the road, he wrote ballads about the grim combination of bad land-management, bad weather and bad landowners that drove him out of the farmland. He wrote about what he knew, and balanced pop and politics in a way that would fundamentally speak to Billy Bragg, finding fame on the radio while writing a column for a Communist newspaper, and switching to anti-fascist songs once the Soviet Union had sided with Hitler, all the while adding university-of-life hillbilly verité to the more middle-class socialist scene he thrived in.

That he was laid low by the still-undiagnosed Huntington’s disease that saw his mother institutionalised when he was a boy (it’s something of a genetic lottery for the family line that carries it) lends his story a final and protracted tragic twist. He lived until 1967 but was isolated for a decade, difficult to get on with and unable to play his guitar.

This land was his land. He travelled the length and breadth of it, very often on the boxcars of myth, bound for glory but not driven by it. His songs did what folk music had been doing since Robin Hood times in this country and across the great continents of the world, and that’s tell stories. Woody’s were about economic hardship, being a migrant (how’s that going to find any resonance in the modern age?), bankers, boll weevils, oil, living conditions, Tom Joad and – why the hell not? – the Grand Coulee Dam, as commissioned by a federal hydroelectric power company, a totem of the Roosevelt New Deal. His song was called The Grand Coulee Dam.

Woody comes, as Billy says, “from the ballad tradition that goes back to Elizabethan England. If you want to find an American lyrical poet as powerful as Woody Guthrie, you’ve got to start at Walt Whitman.” He’s said to have written a thousand songs in his lifetime. None can touch This Land, adopted by some as an alternative national anthem (its original title was the slyly ironic God Blessed America), and never truer than it feels at the very moment in history that you hear it.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

It’s a mighty long way down rock’n’roll, but you could start here. The lyric opens with this tour itinerary, and already you can hear the miles on its author’s clock. Rock music has always striven for authenticity, whatever that is, but no striving is required with Woody Guthrie. He picks out such poetic details as a “ribbon of highway”, the “endless skyway” and “the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts” while he sums up a great nation in just a handful of verses, the “dust clouds rolling” a Yin to the Yang of those “wheat fields waving.” He may be a ramblin’ man, but he doesn’t ramble as a writer. Like Blake, he sees angels in a grain of sand, and discerns God in every golden valley (“all around me, a voice was sounding”). This song, which is your song, is as terrestrial as it is heavenly. There’s dangerous left-wing politics in a verse often omitted that tells of a “high wall” in the protagonist’s path, with a painted sign that said, “Private Property … But on the back side it didn’t say nothing.”

This land was made for you and me.

It’s the simplest song in The 143 – matched only by Blackbird, another unaccompanied snapshot of the world – but it goes on giving. Billy found Woody through Dylan (reading about him in Anthony Scaduto’s 1972 biography Dylan). I skipped Dylan, found Woody, then came back for Dylan. It really is the circle of life. An anthology in just over two minutes.

Advertisements

Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding (1982)

Shipbuilding

Artist: Robert Wyatt
Title: Shipbuilding
Description: single
Label: Rough Trade
Release date: 1982; 1983
First heard: 1983

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

I wish I had the guts just to type out those three lines and leave it there. What more needs to be said about this lyric, written by Elvis Costello, that’s as profound as Strange Fruit, A Nation Once Again or What’s Going On, and a tune, written by Clive Langer, as mournful and affecting as the best blues? Shipbuilding couldn’t have come at a better time. It was the worst of times, in fact: the cruel, galvanising pomp of the first Thatcher administration, in which re-election hopes were boosted by a long-distance war with a South American country that claimed sovereignty over two island off its own coast that had been declared a “royal colony” in 1841. Such dominions were usually seized by war, and for trade purposes in the age of Empire. Whether or not the Falkland islands should or should not be classed territorially as “British” rather rests upon your feelings as to whether or not the same ought still to be said in the late 20th century of Virginia, Singapore, Rhodesia, Malta, Kenya or indeed any other far outpost stamped with the royal seal at a time when Britannia ruled the waves.

Well I ask you

The story of this mild-mannered, velvet-gloved protest song is complicated. In short, Langer, formerly of Deaf School, by 1982 a producer of great note (usually with Alan Winstanley: Madness, Dexys, The Teardrop Explodes), wrote the song for Robert Wyatt, formerly drumming vocalist with Soft Machine, now solo and surely the West’s most famous paraplegic Communist. Langer asked Elvis Costello (whose landmark Punch The Clock album he and Winstanley would produce a year later) to write some better lyrics and he did. Boy, did he.

The boy said, “Dad they’re going to take me to task, but I’ll be back by Christmas”

The single recording, produced by Langer, Winstanley and Costello, with Mark Bedford of Madness on double bass, Steve Nieve of the Attractions on piano, Langer on keys and Martin Hughes a quiet whizz on the drums, was released on Rough Trade in August 1982, two months after the capture of Port Stanley and the Argentine surrender. Too soon. A reissue in April 1983 charted, a historic first for Rough Trade. 

Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

A modest number 35 chart hit, then, but already hailed in corners as a modern classic and number 2 in the 1982 Festive Fifty behind New Order’s Temptation. (It was number 11 in the all-time Festive Fifty compiled in 2000.) Wyatt’s performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test remains a definitive document, and the beret and the beard worn in the little-shown video harken to his jazz roots. He had been paralysed from the waist down in 1973, but his appearance in a wheelchair – quite an arresting sight in those pre-diverse TV times (he’d had to argue his way onto Top Of The Pops when he had a bigger hit with I’m A Believer in 1974; the producer seriously tried to sit him in a chair so as not to frighten the faint-hearted) – seemed to amplify the power of the song. It does not shout. It does not scream. It does not call in expectation of a response. It cannot be sung at barricades. And yet its rage is intense. Wyatt’s high, plaintive vocal, tempered against overstatement by that hint of a lisp, could break your heart in two.

Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin

It has all the will in the world. It cuts deep with Costello’s observation that death in the South Atlantic will mean new shoes and a bike for working-class families on the Clyde. We should never forget that 255 British service personnel died in the pointless conflict and 649 Argentinians (including 16 civilian sailors), as well as three civilians on the Island. I was 17 at the time, and greatly affected. The Crass single How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead? is the only other that I remember to address this electioneering war. Sadly, it did not chart. Costello doesn’t write in slogans; rather, he pricks our conscience with passing, well-known idioms like “next of kin” and “back by Christmas”. In such short, simple phrases, he recalls other wars, other conflicts, other political campaigns and other political casualties. He even gets away with a pun (“take me to task”), proving that wit is permitted in all seriousness. The choice of “somebody” and “someone” before “people” is another sublime lyrical decision.

Sometimes, and it may only happen a couple of times per generation, a combination of voice, lyric, tune, instrumentation and timing says it all. Even, in this case, the choice of sleeve illustration: Stanley Spencer’s magnificent Shipbuilding On The Clyde series, painted between 1940-46 as a response to the Second World War, when a lot of rumours were spread around town. (The owner of the Glasgow shipyard where Spencer worked, Lithgow, did not approve of his interpretation, which is all you need to know about the art’s greatness.) You do wonder sometimes when you get to my age whether a constellation of talent as rich and influential as the one in the early 80s that gave British music 2-Tone, Stiff, Rough Trade, Costello, Langer and Winstanley could ever happen again.

Amid all the emotion and solidarity and protest, I remain in awe of Costello’s rhyming of “filled in,” “killed in,” “skilled in,” and “shipbuilding.” The Stanley Spencer of the Thatcher years.

James, Sometimes (1993)

James-Sometimes

Artist: James
Title: Sometimes
Description: single; album track, Laid
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1993
First heard: 1993

Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes
I swear I can see your soul

Brian Eno has had his oblique fingerprints over so much music I have loved over the years. From the overt – his wonky, front-of-house contributions to early Roxy; the perplexingly poppy early solo work, which I discovered via the Russell Mills illustrations in the gorgeous book More Dark Than Shark and its attendant compilation album while I was an art student; the Bauhaus cover of Third Uncle; the mind-blowing My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with David Byrne; a lecture I saw “the Prof” deliver in 1992 at Sadlers Wells about mapping smell – to the covert – in other words, his production work for other artists, most of whom grew or mutated under his tutelage.

While at one end of the production-credit scale the utilitarian Steve Albini “records” artists, Brian Eno seems to inhabit an artist’s soul and become a de facto member of a band. Low, “Heroes”, Lodger – what more is there to add to Bowie’s purplest patch? (He already added it.) From The Unforgettable Fire to Zooropa, he helped place U2 for a lot of people.

So it was with folksy Madchester beneficiaries James, whose jerky, ornery, pastoral early promise found a public address system in the early 90s where they were baggy-sleeved anthem-suppliers by appointment. I understand they sought him out, and well they might. By the time of their fifth album Laid, they were in the public domain, a festival-headlining, multitude-seating, arms-in-the-air, merch-shifting, Gold-certified Top 3 Big Band. Their artistry was not in doubt, but they’d cracked the commercial sphere and needed saving from themselves, perhaps. For my money, Brian Eno steered them to their greatest glory; Laid remains the pinnacle of their commercial/creative duality. And the life-affirming, untarnishable, soul-deep Sometimes is the fulcrum. The album’s biggest hit in the UK, but not the one that broke them in the US – that was the title track itself.

Extricate Sometimes from its video if you will, but the sight of James – always an unwieldy number of men, but vital, no passengers – belting it out in a water tank, soaked to the skin, is an elemental image it’s hard to shake off. Some videos just capture the spirit of a song. That it’s so very literal is not a drawback. This is a song that’s all about the weather.

“There’s a storm outside, and the gap between crack and thunder is closing in, closing in …” warns Tim Booth, who we may assume penned the lyric, a hymn to the spillage, if you will. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the rain falls: it “floods gutters”; it “lifts lids off cars”, spins buses “like toys, stripping them to chrome”; it picks up fishing boats and “spews them on the shore.” It never rains but it pours in this Biblical flood, recreated at Pinewood in the tank they usually joosh up for Bond movies.

Perhaps, like Travis Bickle’s “real rain” it will wash the scum off the sidewalks. Booth always seemed a man pure of heart, a vegan, a spiritual observer, a thin, rangy man always reaching out to touch faith.

We haven’t even got to the incredible music yet, but the imagery is so compelling: “On a flat roof, there’s a boy leaning against the wall of rain, aerial held high, calling, ‘Come on thunder, come on thunder!'” That boy is surely Booth himself, willing on the apocalypse. He ends up thunderstruck, “lit up against the sky, like a neon sign”, his inert form “delivered on” by the deluge, the “endless rain”.

The mid-90s nucleus of the band – Booth, Larry Gott, Jim Glennie, Saul Davies, Mark Hunter, David Baynton-Power – sound telepathically on point for this session, united I romantically imagine by Eno’s sure, enabling hand on the tiller in studios in Bath and Wrexham. The soft, rattling snare intro, quickly accompanied by guitars tracing the same cantering rhythm (is that really why the title sometimes appears with the name of jockey Lester Piggott in brackets?) sets the pace with disarming simplicity, but whatever works. The urgency rises with the water and over the next four and a half minutes seems to hit peak after peak. You can almost touch the texture of it and see a tin roof deflecting it back upwards in jewels, the waves “turning into something else”. Sound waves, perhaps? Booth sings of “a great sound on concrete”: it’s a song about acoustics.

The chorus – “Some-ti-i-imes …” – has all the singalongability of Sit Down or Come Home, but without barking orders. Some-ti-i-imes when he looks deep in your eyes, he swears he can see your soul. Surely it’s not asking too much to intuit Eno’s sonic strategy in the way the song almost sounds like a rehearsal or a run-through? It sounds so natural and felt, you wonder if it’s an early studio take that would only be sullied by technical improvement. Maybe it’s a once in a lifetime deal.

When the others join in on the harmonies and “Some-ti-i-imes” becomes a gospel chant, gorgeously committed, we’re all praising the open heavens, dripping wet together. The last minute of this heavenly outpour is one you don’t wish to end. Sometimes really is something.

Hose it down. Hose it down.

Kevin Coyne, Dynamite Daze (1978)

KCDynamite_Daze_cover

Artist: Kevin Coyne
Title: Dynamite Daze
Description: album track, Dynamite Daze
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1988

Revolution!

I don’t expect people to have heard of Kevin Coyne. I know I hadn’t when a friend with more left-field taste than mine introduced me to his work in the late 80s. By then, the square-peg troubadour had put out about 20 albums, including live ones and a double LP he recorded in 1980 at the time of his nervous breakdown, backed on Disc 1 by Robert Wyatt and Disc 2 by the Ruts, a bizarre cocktail that might help place the prolific, self-propelled and often uncategorisable ex-psychiatric nurse from Derby. Like Wyatt, he forged his own towpath and sang the blues; but he also embraced the punk spirit, having a dig at the record industry and his label boss Richard Branson in Having A Party, and dedicating the title track of Dynamite Daze to Sid Vicious.

Dynamite Daze, one of Coyne’s raucous, rattlebag English-psychedelic “band” albums before a marked left turn into sparser, less populated recorded material, was the first of Coyne’s albums I heard in full, and although I’ve dug deep into his bottomless back catalogue since then – and thoroughly enjoyed his 21st century work, from the sweet Sugar Candy Taxi to his unintendedly posthumous swansong One Day In Chicago with Jon Langford (he died in 2004 after two years of living with lung fibrosis) – it remains a beacon. Its highlight is always a two-horse race for me, with the opening title track neck and neck with Amsterdam, an equally lively rock-out that heralds what we used to call Side Two and hymns the aromatic delights of the Dutch capital (“Down in the Melkweg, the heat is on, it’s smoking and knocking them out”).

The reason Dynamite Daze pips it is because it so brilliantly, breathlessly captures the sound of a musician enjoying his work. Coyne had a curious voice, squeaky, rasping, definitely melancholy in the blues tradition, but prone to outbursts of joy, too. I could recommend any number of Coyne’s quieter, more intimate ballads – on this album alone there’s the mournful, lovesick I Only Want To See You Smile, accompanied by yes-him Tim Rice at the piano, and the lilting Are We Dreaming with Paul Wickens on accordion – but Dynamite Daze is an unabashed stomp, counted in by a couple of guitars, one electric, one acoustic, and a whump.

That punk spirit I mentioned? “You see me and I stand outside the Palais de Dance, I’m rattling my bones, I’m pogoing.” (That’s the Hammersmith Palais by its more historic name.) He goes on to state for the record that he’s “in a rage, in a rage, waiting for the dynamite days … You little punks, come out to play.” However, a hairy man in his mid-30s, he’s under no illusions about being part of Generation X, and with typical world-weariness, he crows, “Revolution! Seen it all, seen it all before!”

The beat gallops, time is kept, guitars are thrashed, and through it all, Coyne’s almost comedic gurgle; impossible to tear your ears away from, it hiccups and free-forms, rising to a crazy, yodelling falsetto with total abandon, and then he cackles into the second verse, chuckling away like the “luna-luna-luna-luna-luna-luna-luna-tic” he evokes elsewhere (this is a man who will title a later album Sanity Stomp without irony). His voice is a unique instrument, his delivery unhampered by selfconsciousness or any foolhardy desire to sound authentic. Coyne’s kind of authenticity is not earned, it is innate. In his best East Midlands drawl, he ends Dynamite Daze with a throaty “Git ard of it!” which – despite the geographical remove – reminds me of one of my Northamptonian elders.

Coyne should be as cherished as any other in the canon of English musical eccentrics: Barrett, Stanshall, Moon, Brown, Davies, Harper, Lydon, Sensible, Albarn, Haines. In my world, he is.

 

Faces, Ooh La La (1973)

oohlala

Artist: Faces
Title: Ooh La La
Description: album track, Ooh La La
Label: Warner Bros
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1997

Poor old Granddad, I laughed at all his words

This song came to me, belatedly, thanks to Billy Bragg. That it eventually became the theme tune to my first sitcom, Grass, links it to Simon Day. Two of what I always self-mockingly call my “close personal showbiz friends.” (When I turned 40, I still presented Round Table on 6 Music, and was indulged to the point where I chose “all three” of my close personal showbiz friends as guests on the programme: Billy, Simon and Stuart Maconie.) It’s a glorious, sunshiny, folksy ditty about the passage of time and I do wish that I knew what I know now when I was forty.

While researching Billy’s official biography in the year after I left my day job at Q – when I was still, in fact, a journalist he’d met him on a number of professional occasions and subsequently vetted for the job of “Billy Bragg’s Boswell” – I invested in a lot of music that helped put me in the right place for total immersion in my willing and generous subject. I already had the Bragg records, of course, but I augmented them as the soundtrack to toil in my garret with all sorts of tangential tunes that footnoted Billy’s 40 years: the Rolling Stones, Phil Ochs, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, some fine, lefty folk from Dick Gaughan and Leon Rosselson, Ronnie Lane’s solo stuff and – you’re ahead of me – the Faces.

I’d grown up with Rod Stewart’s greatest hits, but had, at that point, never thought to excavate his past. At Chelsea, my friend Rob regaled me with Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake by the Small Faces and through it, I recognised the eccentric genius of Steve Marriott and by association Lane and Kenney Jones (who was on my radar as Keith Moon’s replacement due to a Tommy-led teenage yen for The Who). I know now, and I wish I’d known then, that the good ship Faces rose from the ashes of the Small Faces, with Rod at the prow. They had a good few years. And because Billy had grown up on them, I bought their third and fourth LPs, A Nod Is As Good As A Wink … To A Blind Horse and Ooh La La.

It was Ooh La La in its rather disturbing, pale sleeve that announced itself as an instant favourite, and the title track (and album closer) was its irresistible highlight. I assumed that Rod Stewart sang it, just as he sang most of the other tracks, and pictured him doing so for many years, until dissuaded of this notion by the facts. It’s not even Ronnie Lane, who wrote or co-wrote most of the album. It’s Ronnie Wood’s filter-tipped tones with “all the words”, which makes the song even more special.

The plucked guitar and gently weeping violin of the intro, followed by the penny whistle which joins in with the riff, root the song in a pastoral setting. You imagine a canal, or a gypsy caravan, on a dewy early morning somewhere far from the industrial revolution, and far from the psychedelic underground. The flavour of much of the rest of the album is honky-tonk barrelhouse; Borstal Boys is siren-accompanied pub rock. This is the Faces unplugged. And what a restful way to go out.

Wood rasps of a two-generation gap, in which “poor old Grandad” is revealed not to be a “bitter man” after all, but a wise one, whose knowledge of “women’s ways” turns out to be hard-won, but something that can’t be easily handed down. He tells his grandson: “There’s nothing I can say/You’ll have to learn, just like me/And that’s the hardest way.” It’s a delicious lyric, full of tobacco-stained nostalgia for the can-can, some backstage paddock and the twinkling stars, and it speaks of the infinite power of womankind (“When you want her lips, you get her cheek”, a line I choose to interpret as physiological). Lane was not yet 30 when he penned it, Wood 26 when he sang it. But these men were worldly before their years.

A few years after the book, Still Suitable For Miners, was published, I met Simon Day at a prearranged “blind date” in the BBC canteen. His musical palate was broader and more catholic than my own; it ran from the Wu Tang Clan, over whose oeuvre we immediately bonded, to Steely Dan and America, who I’d yet to catch up with. Grass, which we wrote together, was about Billy Bleach, a permed man in his 40s who was cast from the world he knew in South East London into the wilderness of East Anglia via the Witness Protection Programme. It was the first line that Simon had latched onto, about laughing at all the words of “poor old Grandad”, and it seemed to sync with our protagonist, who feigned knowledge a lot of the time (on The Fast Show, Billy had been thumbnailed as “the pub bore”), but had innate wisdom all the same. He, too, was misunderstood, especially by the younger generation.

When you’re planning and writing a television programme in an airless room, you fantasise about its soundtrack as a way of getting through the day, and Simon and I succeeded in having (Careful) Click Click by the Wu Tang Clan as the accompaniment to a paranoid scene in Episode One on a bus, although it had to be replaced on the DVD due to rights issues. The Faces’ version of Ooh La La was our preferred theme tune. We dug in. It came to pass. Few people watched Grass when it aired on the just-rebranded BBC3 and BBC2 in 2003 and 2004 in those dark days before social media and iPlayer, but I hope a few of those who did appreciated the music. Eddie Marsan sings Hold Me Close by David Essex in his pants in a hotel room in one scene. I wish that was on YouTube. It was Babooshka by Kate Bush in the script, but Simon was on-set and will have approved the Essex.

Ooh La La, which is my favourite Rod Stewart song without him actually on it, has also been used in the film Rushmore, and, on TV, in Blackpool, Californication and Entourage. But it’ll always be the Grass theme to me. And a select handful of others.

Don’t ever let it show …

Crosby, Stills & Nash, Marrakesh Express (1969)

crosbystillsnash

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.

Bob Dylan, Tell Me That It Isn’t True (1969)

Bob-Dylan-Nashville-Skyline

Artist: Bob Dylan
Title: Tell Me That It Isn’t True
Description: album track, Nashville Skyline
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1969
First heard: 1995

We’re playing with the big boys now. Any 143 best songs limited to one entry per artist might include the Beatles, the Stones, Roxy Music, David Bowie, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan. And some of these giants may yet turn up (don’t want to ruin it for you). I don’t have an intimate relationship with Dylan. I am patently not a disciple of his music. But neither do I have a problem with him, as some do. I like his honking voice. He’s self-evidently a keystone artist of the 60s and his influence is unfathomable. Without him, folk may never have turned into rock music. And, like Bowie, who wrote a song about him, his staying power and ability to change hats is not in doubt.

But I don’t have a snap answer to the question, “What’s the greatest Bob Dylan album?” or its woollier twin, “What’s your favourite Bob Dylan album?” (I have stock answers to the same question with the Beatles and the Stones substituted, but not Dylan.) When I worked at Q magazine between 1993 and 1997 and passed the big three-oh, I acted accordingly, and opened myself up to all sorts of “classic” music.

Our office was almost on top of the flagship HMV on London’s busy Oxford Street, and – in full-time employment, with pension and shares scheme, remember – I would often avail myself of the 3-for-2 offers on non-chart CDs. My intention was to fill the gaps in my record collection with important LPs with which I was not acquainted. I remember snapping up a couple of Dylan standards during that consumer flurry – Freewheelin’, Blood On The Tracks, Desire – and gave them a few spins. But if I’m honest, I never really truly got beyond the hits.

The permanent office CD collection at Q was motley. We had a battered CD single of Showgirl by the Auteurs (that went on a lot when the lagers came in), an album by Jackie Leven, something by Strangelove, and Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan. I found myself putting this on more than once during the working day, but it was not a single that grabbed me – the more familiar, singalong likes of Lay Lady Lay or the Johnny Cash duet on Girl From The North Country – but track three, side two, Tell Me That It Isn’t True.

Due to a rare lapse in journalistic instinct, I know for a fact that I took my touchstone track Tell Me That It Isn’t True to be Nashville Skyline Rag, which is track two, side one. Not 100% sure why. But when I’d left Q – and left full-time employment; the shares were worth shit – and invested in my own copy, I jumped ahead to Skyline Rag and was deeply disappointed. Not a Proustian peep. However, as soon as I heard the first line, “I have heard rumours …” followed by that resonant Dobro (I’ve looked this up; don’t finger-wag me if I’m wrong, guitar freaks, it could be Pete Drake’s pedal steel …), I was back in love.

Historically, the 1969 album – a number one hit in the UK – was an evolution from the acoustic-leaning John Wesley Harding, also recorded in Nashville, and showcased a new, smoother “crooning” style of vocal from Dylan. As I’ve picked up on his albums in the wrong order, I don’t hear them chronologically, but I shared an office with a man who not only did, he did so religiously. He was John Bauldie, one of the UK’s foremost Dylanologists and Q’s part-time production guru. (As editor, I once took John out for a lunchtime pint to encourage him to apply for the full-time post, but he was happier with the freedom to pursue his Dylanology when he wasn’t at his post. You had to respect that.)

The dedicated publisher, editor and chief scribe of Dylan fanzine The Telegraph, John – or “the Great Bauldini” as Danny Kelly playfully christened him – was our font of all Dylan knowledge. A lovably grumpy soul, capable of long-running feuds where Dylan was concerned, we all admired him, which is why we so affectionately but constantly took the rise out of him, stuck in his ways and reliably mistaking a techno record for the noise of the fax machine for comic effect.

So, this song reminds me of working at Q, and working with the legendary John Bauldie, who was cruelly killed in a helicopter crash in 1996, which was a bad day at the office for all of us. It’s only right that a Dylan tune should help us remember, and remember fondly.

It’s a lovely, lilting lament from a spurned lover to another (“They say that you’re planning to put me down … they say that you’ve been seen with some other man”), less than three minutes long but lifted by an enthusiastic drum part from Kenneth Buttrey, twinkling with all those guitars, enhanced with a bit of honky tonk piano and made airborne by Dylan’s almost cheekily accessible vocal. He doesn’t know it, but he’s prefiguring the life’s work of David Gedge, with his imagination running paranoid riot (“I know that some other man is holding you tight/It hurts me all over/It doesn’t seem right”).

Why have I illustrated above with the back sleeve of the CD of Nashville Skyline? Because I’m pretty sure the inner booklet had been lost in the ravages of office life and the CD sat in a coverless jewel case. I recognise the back more than the front as a result. It’s such quirks that make our lifelong relationship with music more vivid.

There will be another song I associate with Dylan and John Bauldie in The 143, recorded by another artist. Wait and see what it is.