Woody Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land (1944)

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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.

Asian Dub Foundation, Free Satpal Ram (1998)

ADFRafi'sRevenge

Artist: Asian Dub Foundation
Title: Free Satpal Ram
Description: single; album track, Rafi’s Revenge
Label: FFRR
Release date: 1998
First heard: 1998

Kicking up a fuss because it could happen to us …

Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs. I would go further than Edwin Collins in A Girl Like You and say that there are not enough protest singers, either. In Dorian Lynskey’s book 33 Revolutions Per Minute, he dissected 33 such songs. But the problem with a protest song is that sometimes the protest is more admirable than the song, or vice versa. I have to be in a very forgiving mood to listen to Give Peace A Chance, but its message speaks to me. Likewise The War Song. Conversely, I love Another Brick In The Wall, but I’m note sure protesting against boarding schools is quite as vital as, say, railing against the tactics of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. And so it goes.

Free Satpal Ram is for me the very definition of a classic protest song. Its message is crystal clear and the song is robust, catchy and energising. It’s impossible to hear it and ignore its plea. (Whereas, for instance, David Cameron was able to listen to Eton Rifles and miss the point, or ignore it, entirely.) Whether or not Free Nelson Mandela – a comparably effective union of medium and message – led directly to the freeing of Nelson Mandela is immaterial, and an irrelevant test of the song. You cannot always measure the crackling of social synapses. But Free Satpal Ram was ingrained into the campaign of the same name, and, it being a local issue with national implications, there’s an argument that ADF actually freed Satpal Ram.

Asian Dub Foundation were the band of the moment in the late 90s, perhaps by dint of the very fact that they weren’t really as easily pigeonholed as “a band”. They were, and remain, more of an amorphous collective, their own arts council, an umbrella beneath which creativity and activism can coexist. But in 1998, with the release of their unassailably coherent second album, when even the NME had become re-politicised in the wake of Tony Blair’s first and second betrayals, the hour was theirs. Their ethnicity itself was political as institutionalised racism became a big issue and lessons that ought to have been learned in the riot-torn 80s proved anything but. Indeed, although Satpal Ram is by definition a single-issue song, the lyrics contextualise with the élan of a score-draw.

Birmingham six
Bridgewater four
Crown prosecution, totting up the score
Kings Cross two
Guildford four, Winston Silcott, how many more?

One more. Satpal Ram was arrested in 1986 after an altercation in a Birmingham restaurant after a group of white men abused the staff over the choice of music playing. Ram was attacked with a broken glass by one of the men, whom he stabbed in self-defence with a knife. Ram was convicted of murder and went to prison, despite what was later identified as misinformation from his QC about the self-defence defence, as it were, and the lack of an interpreter in court to translate for Bengali witnesses. But enough of my dry interpretation of the facts.

Out on the town
Thought they had something to prove
Self defence, only offence
Had to protect himself from all the murdering fools

It’s rap, by definition, but this song is firmly in the English folk ballad tradition. It tells a story, it delivers the news.

Cutting remarks on account of his race
A plate to his chest and a glass to his face
An Asian fights back, can’t afford to be meek
With your back against the wall you can’t turn the other cheek

It helps if you sympathise with the plight of the defendant, of course, but listening to this recording – and I can only imagine the visceral, inclusive power of hearing it performed live – might just turn your head. If anger is an energy, it powers this three-minute-44-seconds of righteous fire. It begins, quietly, with what sounds to my untrained ears like an Eastern, Bhangra-style stringed instrument, looped presumably by turntablist Pandit G, although it’s arguably anathema to single out individuals from an autonomous collective. (All songs on the Mercury-nominated Rafi’s Revenge – the title a reference, by the way, to a Bollywood playback singer – are credited to Dr Das, Pandit G, Deeder Zaman, Sanjay Tailor and Steve “Chandrasonic” Savale.) When the thudding, metallic beat kicks in, nirvana is instantly sealed.

There’s a less subtle, even more hobnailed remix by Russell Simmons on disc two of ADF collection Time Freeze, but it seems only fair to induct the original, whose mix is credited to Brendan Lynch and Primal Scream. The protest in the lyric (“Self defence is no offence!”) would be stirring and true enough with an acoustically strummed backing, but beefed up with industrial beats, scratching, dub effects and hardcore electric guitar, the meeting of mind and matter is literally impossible to walk away from. The break at two-minutes-eleven where the sound drops out rebuilds from a rumbling threat through the aforequoted rap, then an echobox frenzy, before hitting full throttle again. The arrangement is masterful and subtle. No blunt instrument, this.

Taking in not just racism, miscarriage of justice, police brutality and direct action, Free Satpal Ram also finds time to have a pop at the Freemasons and the CPS. Better fix up your brain, indeed.

Satpal Ram was released from prison in June 2002 after a European Court of Human Rights ruling.

Blur, Song 2 (1997)

Blur_song_2

Artist: Blur
Title: Song 2
Description: single; album track, Blur
Label: Food
Release date: 1997
First heard: 1997

Woo hoo

It would be nice to write an essay about Song 2 that was as short as Song 2 – that is, two minutes and one second. (Never underestimate that last second.) However, there is so much to say about it. I reviewed its parent album, the band’s difficult fifth, the self-redefining Blur, across a double-page spread for Q, the magazine of which I was, incredibly, the editor, at the beginning of 1997. (By the end of 1997, I would no longer be its editor, by my own hand. It was a self-redefining year for me, too.) This is what I wrote (it seems so long ago, it’s almost of historic interest):

“The weirdest tracks on 1991’s debut album Leisure were Repetition and Sing. Either would sit comfortably on Blur, if they were re-recorded through a sieve first.”

That is accurate, I think. Although no offence to ever-resourceful producer Stephen Street, whose work herein is sympathetic and empowering. I go on to declare opener Beetlebum as “safe”, a “slightly menacing Free As A Bird“. However, here’s where the review, which is typically Q, gets going:

Song 2 is where the going gets tough. A clipped two minutes, it’s fuzzy, it’s DIY, it goes ‘Wee-hoo!’, and the guitar grumbles, straight out of The Fall circa This Nation’s Saving Grace. It is as addictive and heady as any Charmless Man or Sunday Sunday, if considerably less likely to chart.”

So, I was prescient and tuned-in enough in early 1997 to know a key track when I heard it – and I think my phonetic expression of Damon Albarn’s abandoned exclamation (“Wee-hoo”) is close enough – but you’ll have spotted that I was not wily enough to identify Song 2 as Blur’s biggest hit. We didn’t know the lyrics then, either. We do now.

I got my head checked
By a jumbo jet
It wasn’t easy
But nothing is, no
Woo Hoo

The Blur album was a wiping of the Etch-A-Sketch, a bonfire of Britpop’s vanities, a rethink, not to mention a bound manifesto which echoed New Labour’s that year, except in terms of crowd-pleasing. Which is why Song 2 is so glorious. Yes, it foregrounds Graham Coxon’s guitar technique, something he told me as far back as 1994 he was studiously “unlearning”, and replaces the ironic bounce of Country House with something more abrasive and headbanging (“When I feel heavy metal“), and no it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense in broad daylight (“I got my head done, when I was young”), but it’s two minutes and one second of maximum joy. You’re invited to think: there was no Song 1.

Woo Hoo

I go back nearly all the way with Blur, and considered them acquaintances at the height of pre-Britpop when Camden was Mecca and my hair was way too long for the scene. I gave Leisure a lukewarm review in the NME and Damon Albarn was still quoting it back at me a decade in pop later. The great coming-together for me and Blur came when Parklife had lift-off and Q, where I’d just touched down, needed these new cover stars explaining. It was my mission and I chose to accept it, sitting down with all four of them and getting their life stories down in definitive fashion, and stowing away at the media-blackout gig they played for their old music teacher at Colchester Sixth Form College with a 17-piece school orchestra. A year later, I sent myself to Paris to present them with their first Q Award. I saw them live a lot, each time a bigger venue, in clubs, in festival tents, on festival stages, at palaces, arenas and stadiums. I watched Damon cry on the Pyramid at Glastonbury ’09.

Oddly, I never think of Blur as one of my favourite bands, but they must be. You might think my long and varied relationship with them as fan and journalist would sift out something a bit more subtle, surprising or obscure from their vast back catalogue of experimental pop than Song 2, the one that broke them in a recalcitrant America and became ubiquitous on videogame and TV episode alike and still resounds around stadia when any number of US sports teams score a home run or touchdown. But no matter which gaudy, commercial, plastic-cup context it finds itself played in, it still sounds like a giant, cosmic safety valve, from which hisses and squeals all of a four-piece band’s pent-up emotion up to that point. Overuse cannot destroy it.

Yeah, yeah

Alex’s bass complains like a toothache, Dave’s drums typically stick-shift between nimble and knuckleheaded, Graham’s lo-fi guitar lets magic in upon light and Damon just Janovs his way out of there, tired of big words.

Yeah, yeah

Imagine if Song 2 was the only remaining trace of Blur after some terrible cataclysm. Archaeologists would get the picture.

Now, for that last second:

Oh yeah

Nancy Sinatra, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (1966)

Nancy_Sinatra_single_cover_These_Boots_Are_Made_for_Walkin

Artist: Nancy Sinatra
Title: These Boots Are Made For Walkin’
Description: single; album track, Boots
Label: Reprise
Release date: 1966
First heard: circa 1970s

In his fourth volume of memoir The North Face Of Soho, Clive James makes this astute observation about legendary lyricist Johnny Mercer and in particular his words for One For My Baby, written with Harold Arlen, “which today still sets my standards for the way a colloquial phrase can be multiplied in its energy by how it sits on a row of musical notes.”

Though originally sung by Fred Astaire in the musical The Sky’s The Limit, it was popularised by Frank Sinatra, who was a man who really knew how to sit a phrase on a row of notes. In fact, it ran in the family.

Sometime in the mid-90s when I was working at Q, Albums Editor John Aizlewood gifted me four of Nancy Sinatra’s seven solo Reprise albums, released we must assume for the first time on the new-fangled Compact Disc. My familiarity with Ms Sinatra’s catalogue was limited to three songs* so I eagerly immersed myself in Boots, How Does That Grab You? (on whose sleeve she is dressed in boots, a nice jumper and – whoops – no trousers), Nancy In London (where of course she is perched at the back of a London double decker) and Sugar (a thumb hooked suggestively in the waistband of a pink bikini in some pampas grass), all four of which came out within two years.

*The three songs, by the way, were John Barry’s theme song for You Only Live Twice, Somethin’ Stupid with her dad, and These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, which I owned by way of the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack. Kubrick’s film had cemented the song and the Vietnam war in my mind, although I hadn’t known then that Boots had actually been adopted by US soldiers on the ground. In my ignorance, I thought the cruel fade at two minutes 26 seconds – when the song gets going, the song gets going – was imposed upon it by the compilers of the soundtrack. Wrong. It fades at that very moment in the original single edit. It was designed to do that. Planned. Choreographed. Just as Nancy asks her boots if they’re ready and instructs them to “start walkin'”, the tempo changes, the horns blast, the world does the twist and the volume reduces. It may be the cruelest ten seconds in pop.

It’s like there’s a party starting  but you’re not invited. It’s happening behind this door that’s just about to close in your face. Maybe this adds to the intrigue? It certainly speaks of a commanding level of self-confidence – that this record has already done quite enough. The coda is just a coda. Get over it. Singles in the 60s faded out before they outstayed their welcome.

These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ is the very height of musical expertise, of knowing what goes where and how. Ex-serviceman Lee Hazelwood had given tips to Phil Spector before Reprise lassoed his studio acumen and tasked him with rebooting the career of Nancy, who was about to get dropped from her Daddy’s label after five years of nada in the US charts. A Svengali of pop Hazelwood may have been – he lowered her voice and instructed her to think lewd thoughts while singing, all of which matched her new short-skirted, bottle-blonde, Carnaby Street image – but like the man in the James Brown song, it wouldn’t mean nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl. Boots is all about her interpretation of that swaggering lyric. Some of the higher female pop voices of the time, many of them more admired than Nancy’s, lack her screw-you attitude. Maybe five years of failure on your father’s tab gives you that.

“You keep saying you’ve got something for me,” she snarls, impatiently. “Something you call love, but confess.” This is not a woman torridly imploring a man to take her back, this is a woman grinding her heel into his chest. He’s been messin’ where he shouldn’t have been a messin’, after all, not to mention lyin’ when he oughtta have been “truthin'” (touché, Mr Hazelwood, a “colloquial phrase” for the statute books). Her boots are going to carry her out of this unsatisfactory situation, but not without an over-the-shoulder threat as she leaves: “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.” (She might well take one for her baby, too.)

It’s dark material indeed when she dissuades this ungrateful cad of the notion that he’ll “never get burnt.” Ha! She’s found a brand new box of matches that says otherwise. If you want to hear a singer go “Ha!” with all the contempt of someone taken for a ride, take a seat. As gleefully repeated in all his obituaries in 2007, Hazelwood instructed Nancy to sing “like a 16-year old girl who fucks truck drivers.” Like Frank eventually, she proved a good actor.

Billy Strange needs saluting, the arranger of this dirty, defiant warning shot across the patriarchy’s bows, which credits five guitarists (including Strange himself). Between him and Hazelwood, rows of musical notes were slotted together with sparkling orginality, not least the descending scale played by double-bassist Chuck Berghofer that puts us all in the mood at the start. While Nancy does her thing, you’re mainly hearing gossamer strummed guitars and a brushed beat, with a brass section politely underpinning in the background, barely noticed. Sultry doesn’t quite cover it.

After this, it was hits, hits, hits all the way for the rest of the 60s. How does that grab you?

Ha!

James Brown, Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine Part 1 (1970)

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Artist: James Brown
Title: Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine Part 1
Description: single
Label: King (UK: Polydor)
Release date: 1970
First heard: 1980s

Fellas, I’m ready to get up and do my thing!
Yeah! That’s right! Do it!
I want to get into it, man, you know?
Go ahead!
Like a, like a sex machine, man.
Yeah!
Movin’, doin’ it, y’know?
Yeah!
Can I count it off?
Okay!
One, two, three, four!

On 21 March, 1983, BBC2 repeated an edition of Pop Carnival featuring band of the moment Echo & The Bunnymen, live at Sefton Park in August 1982. I taped it, as we used to say in those days, and played it on a loop. Captivated in general by a lithe, smooth-skinned, coolly possessed Ian McCulloch in close up, lit in red and green and sliding out of a wide-necked t-shirt, I was particularly taken with his trademark, Jim Morrison-inspired freeforming. During a memorable protraction of Do It Clean, he yelled these instructions at the audience, separated from the stage by an actual moat:

“Get up! Get on up! Stay on the scene! Like a sex machine!”

Ill-educated at that tender stage in the riches of soul and funk, I wrongly assumed these provocative words to be of McCulloch’s own wild invention and not, as it turned out, a sincere tribute to Mr James Brown.

As the decade wore on, the goalposts of my mind were moved exponentially, and a James Brown best-of was added to my collection under “essentials”. Sampling had breathed new life, if not new royalties, into the Godfather of Soul’s knockout canon, and by the end of the 80s, his horns, his rhythms and his catchphrases belonged to the world. For me, it may well have been Sefton Park that cast a special aura around Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine – a critical moat, if you like – but no matter how deeply his other greatest hits burrowed under my skin, it was unimpeachable. His biggest hits in the UK up to the mid-80s had been It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and Get Up Offa That ThingSex Machine only reached 32 on initial release in 1970 and barely charted at all in endless, greedy reissues – and then that blatant bid for glory Living In America put them all in the shade. But for an artist whose back catalogue goes classic, classic, classic, classic, classic, you need your own criteria for selecting one.

To say that it’s his best work is to perhaps undersell the marksmanship of the JB’s, who’d only just been assembled in 1970 and the horn section are relatively quiet on the track after that signature “count-off”. But in some ways, the lack of arrangement gives the music air, and over that modest but hypnotic guitar phrase from Bootsy’s brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins and the low-energy beat from “Jabo” Starks, Brown and co-writer Bobby Byrd are able to effectively duet, affecting a funky version of bants (“Dig it!” “Right on, right on!” “Shake your money maker”). When Byrd’s piano adds some fleeting colour, it’s about as complex as the five-minute studio version gets. This is stark stuff. Like a machine, in fact.

When – after teasing the band once again with a call-and-response – Brown takes them to the surely definitive bridge, and then counts it off “one more time”, nothing miraculous actually happens. It barely even goes up a gear, for all the fanfare and spoken preamble. And that’s the way I like it: the way it is. There’s steam coming off this recording, and yet the lid stays on; it constantly pulls its punches, but such restraint takes skill and judgement. It’s what, for me, renders it so irresistible, a tune you go back to again and again and again. There are elongated live versions on wax (featuring the returning Fred Wesley), but you’ll never top this original take for sheer precision and, yes, discipline.

The JB’s had a tough boss, but, y’know, dig it, James Brown ran a tight ship, he docked people’s wages and he got results. To lift a call-and-response from my second favourite James Brown tune:

What you gonna play now?
Bobby, I don’t know. But whatsoever I play, it’s gotta be funky.
Yeah!

Tom Waits, Jockey Full Of Bourbon (1985)

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Artist: Tom Waits
Title: Jockey Full Of Bourbon
Description: single; album track, Rain Dogs
Label: Island
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1988

The Everyman, an independent arthouse cinema, Hampstead, North London, 1988. A venue I have never visited before in a steep, rarefied area of London I have only driven through. The very concept of an arthouse cinema is still new, and mightily alluring. I’d made a new cinephile friend, Nigel, a medical student, who was also blowing my postgraduate mind with Burroughs, Ballard and Vidal. His tastes in cinema were for the American new wave (he was nuts about Scorsese and Coppola, as was I, but also the more commercial Brian De Palma) and their indie successors: Jim Jarmusch, Alex Cox, Wayne Wang. I’d broken my arthouse duck with Chelsea School of Art co-conspirator Rob when we’d discovered the coded delights of Peter Greenaway in the last year of college. But it was Nige who whisked me off to the Everyman, with its then-radical flapjacks and carrot cake for sale in the lobby, to see Down By Law.

A slow-moving, European-influenced bayou prison break movie, shot by Jarmusch in high-minded black-and-white, I will never forget the sensation of seeing its open credits. (They remain among my all-time favourites.) Cinematographer Robby Muller’s camera glides from right to left past row upon row of porch-fronted clapboard New Orleans houses, shotgun shacks, parked cars, weatherbeaten projects, French-quarter balconies and even graves while a twangy guitar, stand-up bass and bongos accompany. The voice, low and ravaged, sings of drop-dead suits, mohair vests, downtown trains and “a two dollar pistol”, perfectly in synch with its surroundings. (Even though it was written three years earlier and probably about New York or LA or Minneapolis, it fitted the pictures as if written in the stars above Louisiana.) Hello, Tom Waits, pleased to meet you.

Now, as an NME reader of many years standing, I knew of Tom Waits. The album from which Jockey Full Of Bourbon was timely ripp’d, Rain Dogs, had gone straight to the top of the paper’s end of year scorecard for ’85. (I guess I was too busy listening to Psychocandy, Steve McQueen and Meat Is Murder to investigate.) His previous, Swordfishtrombones, was adjudged the sixth best LP of all time by the staff in a 1985 poll, when, let’s be fair, it was fresh in their ears. I’d heard his crooned songs in Coppola’s One From The Heart, which I’d seen on video in the early 80s, but felt he wasn’t my cup of tea.

Thanks to the keen ear and eye of Jim Jarmusch, who’d also cast Waits alongside another musician John Lurie in Down By Law, thus making the connection complete for the uninitiated, I was now on the case and compensating. I purchased Rain Dogs (whose slower Tango Till They’re Sore had also been chosen for the Down By Law soundtrack), then Swordfishtrombones, then Franks Wild Years, and what a rich and nourishing ride into underbellies, back alleys and lounge bars it was. Since that first flush, I’ve filled in Waits’ entire back-catalogue, buying every new release from Big Time onwards, his first that I was able to purchase when it came out.

Waits is a performer who gets wierder and harder to like the older he gets, which is refreshing. (His first albums are almost easy listening, but God I’ve learned to love Closing Time and Foreign Affairs.) Jockey Full Of Bourbon represents all that was unique about his less wild years, when critical acclaim and a modest commercial equilibrium were not incompatible. (Rain Dogs, praised to the heavens, only scraped into the Billboard Hot 200, but geniuses are not always recognised in their prime.) Having made his name at the piano, Waits was now throwing in everything including the kitchen sink, with more emphasis on guitars, double bass and all sorts of things you could hit. There’s a whipcrack sound in Bourbon that really drives things along. If the image of a slow crawl in a car wasn’t already burned into your consciousness, you’d still have this down as a song in transit.

Waits’ imagery draws deep from the well of the most cinematic kind of Americana, from box cars and handguns to whiskey shots and doughnuts “with names like prostitutes”. It may be that it’s even more poignant and tasty to romantic outsiders, tourists like me and my friend Nige. We were based in ugly but honest South West London; even being in Hampstead made us feel like we had a day pass, never mind the “Cuban jail” or the “Hong Kong bed” where Bourbon took us. “Hey little bird,” he growled, “Fly away home.” You don’t need the sullied, figuarative, X-Factor version of the word “journey” in the case of Tom Waits. You need a ticket.

With each passing year, I’ve grown more attached to Tom Waits. Subsequently discovering the panoramic works of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth – and in cinema, Michael Cimino – gave new colour to the landscapes Waits was painting with words, accordion, marimba, tin lid and grunting. I once did a karaoke impression of him onstage at the 100 Club wearing a pork pie hat and a stick on “soul tooth”. Whatever it sounded like to the assembled, inside it felt like I had surrendered myself to him. Like Woody Allen’s Gershwin, his tunes always sound like they’re in black and white. To me, he’s the great American songwriter, greater even than Springsteen or Young or Stipe or Carter.

In the second part of Down By Law‘s opening crawl, the camera goes from left to right this time, and the view gets rougher: a black man assumes the position against a police car, skeletal cars are dumped on waste ground, the air gets dusty, there’s writing scrawled on a plasterboard wall … and then Tom Waits appears at a door. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

The Beatles, Blackbird (1968)

Beatleswhitealbumfront_index

Artist: The Beatles
Title: Blackbird
Description: album track, The Beatles
Label: Apple
Release date: 1968
First heard: 1988

Alright, I know what you’re thinking. This is a Paul McCartney song. He wrote it. He plays it. He sings it. No other Beatle was involved in the making of this song at EMI Studios on November 11, 1968, unless you count George Martin as the fifth Beatle. McCartney even taps out the rhythm himself with his shoe. It’s a solo record in almost every sense, except the sense that it was recorded for a Beatles album called The Beatles and is credited to the Beatles.

You might also be thinking that it’s willfully perverse to consider the 200+ songs the Beatles recorded between 1962 and 1970, many of which altered the direction of popular music, many more of which are lodged in the global imagination for all time as modern standards, some of which are as barnstorming and unforgettable as A Day In The Life or Strawberry Fields or She’s Leaving Home or The Fool On The Hill or All You Need Is Love or Tomorrow Never Knows, and to pick fucking Blackbird.

But Blackbird it is.

Purism whispers in my ear and tells me that actually, what I really like listening to is the sound of a blackbird. Maybe so. But it was Paul McCartney who started thinking about the civil rights struggle in the southern states of America while he was up in Scotland and worked those thoughts into a folksy ditty that awkwardly pivots on the fact that “bird” is – or was – swinging slang for a “girl”. I’m quite partial to the sound of a blackbird singing, whether it’s in the dead of night, or the light of the afternoon, but I also appreciate the sentiment that McCartney is heralding the black population’s arrival at its “moment to be free”. It is both a delightful hymn to the natural order of things, and a stirring nod to racial emancipation (and indeed, a return to the natural order of things).

Sandwiched between the literal I’m So Tired, an India-penned Lennon tune, and Harrison’s Baroque but barely listenable Piggies – both played by the whole band – Blackbird is a blessed relief from the padded-walls insania of the bulk of The White Album and a welcome burst of melody on the largely tune-deficient Side Two, which has a certain bestiality to it, with a certain raccoon also on the slate.

A simply picked tune on a Martin D 28 acoustic (you know I looked that up), recorded outside, there is on the millpond surface so little to it, musically, although archaeology reveals roots in a tune for loot by JS Bach, Bourrée in E Minor, and that rather suggests, shockingly, that Paul McCartney knows what he’s doing when he sits down to write. None of this is news. But I do love the context of the song. The Beatles is a rollercoaster of highs both foot-tapping and head-pounding, and lows both minor and major. Blackbird is like a little, two-minute, sitdown chillout about a third of the way through.

Not sure why I’m making apologies for one of my all-time favourites. It was number 38 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Beatles Songs.

I was lent the vinyl album in the late 80s by my more classically schooled friend Chris. (He also brought me up to speed with Lennon’s solo albums and Peter Gabriel’s, for which I remain eternally grateful.) I later splashed out on the CD, which was, of course, a disappointment in physical packaging terms, with its tiny inlays and its frightfully ugly white plastic spine. It doesn’t matter, in the end. It’s still my favourite Beatles album.

So, we’ve done it. We’ve added the Beatles band to The 143. It feels good to bring them into the fold, even if George and Ringo were literally on holiday while the song was recorded (and John was in another studio doing Revolution 9); the Beatles are in. And so is birdsong.

Should I have gone for Dear Prudence?