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 BBC Four’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.”

A few years ago (although it’ll have been repeated many times since), 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, part-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.