Faces, Ooh La La (1973)

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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 who’d met him on a number of professional occasions and was 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 …

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

BlindBoysAlbamaSpiritOfTheCentury

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

When you walk through the garden …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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