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“Songs for a Tailor”: Another Woman Sidelined

I’ve been listening to Jack Bruce’s first solo album, the 1969 Songs for a Tailor, a recording which features songs that were directly in the lineage of the best Cream studio songs off Disraeli Gears, Wheels of Fire and Goodbye. with lyrics by Pete Brown. I’d been aware of the album since the early 70s, but it was very much in the Division Two of the recordings of the time, for a cash-strapped teenager, so I only got to properly listen to it a few years back.

It’s a rich and rewarding album, featuring among the best of that period’s UK jazz musicians, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Chris Spedding, Harry Beckett, Henry Lowther, Art Theman, Jon Hiseman, John Marshall and, of course, Jack Bruce himself. Bruce was probably the first musician, along with The Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, who demonstrated to me the improvisational possibilities of the electric bass guitar in rock music, and his melodic prowess is on full display here. ‘Theme for an Imaginary Western’ and ‘Weird of Hermiston’ are especially recommended, with Bruce’s distinctive vocals at their best. His following solo album Harmony Row is also high recommended, but the reason for this blog is not that these are excellent and overlooked classics from the early ‘progressive rock’ period. (The 1970 instrumental jazz album Things We Like is also well worth tracking down, recorded at the same time as John McLaughlin’s timeless Extrapolation, and featuring both the guitarist and Heckstall-Smith.)

I only recently discovered that the ‘Tailor’ of the title was, in fact, the clothes designer Jeannie Franklin, who was responsible for many of the preening- peacock regalia of psychedelic bands such as Cream, as well as, slightly earlier, the suits of many Motown bands, such as The Four Tops and The Temptations. She was also the girlfriend (of only a few weeks) of Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson, who she was accompanying at the time of her death, when the band’s van was involved in a road accident in 1969, which also resulted in the death of Martin Lamble, their drummer. And that is how she has been remembered, as the late  partner of a famous guitarist, not as a considerable influence on the ‘look’ of a myriad bands in the mid- late 60s. (‘Astrid Kirchherr syndrome’, perhaps? i.e. A talented woman, whose achievements have been largely expunged by her more celebrated male significant other.) Now, I’m not especially a fan of ‘high psychedelic’ couture (Franklin ran a shop in Santa Monica Boulevard, which sounds very much like a correlative to Chelsea’s Grannie Takes a Trip on these shores), but there is no doubting the influence these clothes had on memorialising the ‘scene’ of 1967/8.

The point that I am making is just how much women’s contributions to musical movements can be sidelined, especially if they are not actually musicians. In free improvisation, for example, I have previously highlighted the unacknowledged influence of Janice Christianson, a former long-term partner of Derek Bailey, and a significant promoter of the music through her Albion Music events, and yet who received not one reference in Ben Watson’s Bailey hagiography, an unforgivable memory ellipse (or a Freudian ‘parapraxis, perhaps?) by both the guitarist and his biographer.  Kirchherr’s influence on the Pre-Fab Four’s sartorial style cannot be underestimated (or can it?). Jack Bruce couldn’t find it in himself to call his album ‘Songs for Jeannie’, an omission that probably helped to consign her to 40 years of  relative oblivion, before the 2003 CD release of Songs for a Tailor put the record straight. Let’s start giving credit where credit’s due, shall we, rather than cloaking it in indirect allusion? #MeToo has many tentacles, and will hopefully reveal other previously opaque contributions from women, across all creative fields.

Shane McGowan: Part the Second

I was always of the opinion that Spider Stacey’s tea tray head-bashing was as much a part of The Pogues’ magic as MacGowan’s poetese. The band’s subject matter could be boiled down to (i) London and an accompanying nostalgie de la boue (ii) The immigrant Irish experience and identity (iii) Booze. The melding of these three was the particular genius of the band and MacGowan’s lyrics. It undoubtedly filled the vacuum after the demise of post-punk and the musical  non-event of ‘New Romanticism’. The Pogues, The Fall and The Smiths (the ‘The’ bands?) offered us hope in the mid-80s (as did, to a greater extent, Americans such as Sonic Youth, Big Black, REM, Big Black, The Replacements, Husker Du and The Butthole Surfers).

The Crock of Gold goes some way to explaining Shame McGowan’s pathology: the film starts with him being unconscionably rude to the film maker, boorish, spoiled and out of it (natch). Like it’s meant to be somehow pathognomonic of Shane’s essential ‘honesty’ and ‘telling it as it is(n’t)’? A great start to the film, and nothing after this made me alter my opinion as to his essential smallness of spirit, whatever the ass-kissers say. The first part is possibly the most interesting: I found it noteworthy that there was a lot of hand-held video film of the MacGowan family available, very unusual in the early 70s, and somewhat contradictory to the narrative of noble rural poverty that is being actively  promoted in the narrative; the young Shane’s proud boast of being introduced to booze and fags at a very early age is left unquestioned (it obviously adds to the epater la bourgeoisie de l’angleterre image?); the admissions of bullying at school (clearly designed to avoid being bullied himself) leave a nasty taste in the mouth, delivered as they are with the typical MacGowan snickering, aversive cackle / ‘death rattle’. Punk basically validated his antisocial tendencies and gave them shape and purpose. (Even if only to form the entirely forgettable Nipple Erectors, the ‘controversial’ name of which was entirely in accord with the ‘headline grabbing’ shot of our hero with his ear being compromised by a female fellow attention-seeker., the point at which most of us became aware of ‘Shane O’Hooligan.) But Punk did, for a very brief time, offer misfits like our Shane a way in.

The Pogues, like The Libertines and The White Stripes later, are very much a ‘Greatest Hits’ band. 1984′s Red Roses for Me remains, for me at least, the quintessential original Pogues vinyl  product. It has the most solely MacGowan -composed songs (six in all), more than on any subsequent Pogues album. In  Temple’s film, Bono and Depp slaughter ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, as does Cave with, of all songs, ‘Summer in Siam’, one of MacGowan’s lesser songs. It all goes to show how fragile the magic was. His later band, The Popes, were mediocre in the extreme (with The Pogues’ essential spirit being leeched out in favour of a mere ’rock band’), only a shadow of The Pogues’ essence, i.e rock syncretic with Gaelic music, bonded by a ‘punk attitude’. By my reckoning, MacGowan was responsible for 16 songs on the first three albums, only half of the total tracks. Without the input of Spider, Jem et al, the magic was gone. As the man himself opined, after releasing such rubbish as ‘Fiesta’ on the third album, “I hated what we were doing - we became what we hated, the basis of my self-hatred” (apparently the excuse needed to get fully into Siam’s most popular exported product). 

I’d have more sympathy for Shane MacGowan if he wasn’t so clearly a rather unpleasant individual. However, judging from the fawning below the line comments about the film, I’m very much in the minority. Full credit to Julian Temple for making a typically generous account of the man, with a mix of family shots, those of Irish life in general, and of vintage live material across the years. As he did with The Sex Pistols, revealing the the less ‘rotten’ side of John Lydon and the less ‘vicious’ side of John Beverley. Temple is surely the true artist here.

Shane MacGowan: A Crock of ****? Part One

So, we had Julian Temple’s film about Shane MacGowan on BBC4 the other night, called The Crock of Gold.. And hard work it was too; I had to watch it in three separate viewings. Just like having to spend an evening with an unpleasant and patronising drunk. (Think Sid Vicious in Temple’s film of the Sex Pistols,The Filth and the Fury, nodding out by the side of Nancy, and making about as much sense.) Now, I’m a big fan of Temple’s work, including his peon to London, London: the Modern Babylon, and the city in some way provides a link between all three of Temple’s documentaries. I’m not proposing to discuss MacGowan’s ‘Irish  poetic genius’, but do want to explore why he has been proposed as such, and to why some (mostly) men are so sycophantic and brown-nosing around and about him. An alternative title for this blog was Just like Keith Richards, in that both men have been lionised by a particular type of music fan, despite having produced nothing of any value for several decades. Both have been spuriously celebrated for being still alive at this point in time - the difference is that Richards is quite likeable and seemingly modest, and seems to be in reasonable shape. MacGowan lacks both qualities.

The Crock of Gold was financed by Johnny Depp, in the news recently for his own particular contribution to #MeToo. Depp clearly so wants to be ‘rock and roll’, and seems to find McGowan’s every utterance unutterably hilarious (they aren’t, being mostly incomprehensible). Ditto the usual suspects, Bobbie Gillespie and Nick Cave (similar exponents of macho posturing, vide Murder Ballads and Vanishing Point, for example). Even Bono gets in on the act. MacGowan’s  posturing about the IRA (in person to Gerry Adams, ffs) invites similar ridicule to Gillespie’s around The Black Panthers and Cave’s around Stagger Lee and the reductio ad absurdum of the utterly tedious ‘O’Malley’s Bar’ (on Murder Ballads). Add The Clash to make a toxic stew of white male testosterone (beefed up by unhealthy doses on narcotics, in most of these cases, Strummer excepted). Despite the incredibly loyal Victoria Clarke, MacGowan’s audience seems to be overwhelmingly masculine. (The live Pogues film clips show the audience to almost entirely consist of shouty, sweary and sweaty blokes, intoxicated with their own belligerence and pissed swagger.) The violence against women in Cave’s oeuvre has drawn much comment, but MacGowan mainly reserves his own ire for those who have somehow upset him for whatever reason, Bob Gelfof (now I wonder why?), the English generally (”I feel guilty for not joining the IRA” is one of his more preposterous  bon mots), W.B Yeats.

MacGowan’s self-presentation of a horny-handed man of the Irish soil and public house seems rather contradicted by his obvious tipple of choice (and it ain’t Guinness or whiskey): the sheer fact that he’s nodding out in nearly every ‘shot’ is testament to Thailand’s favourite export. Despite the whole ‘survivor’ shtick (which has served Keef so well), he seemed confined to a wheelchair at the time of the film, having apparently fallen down the stairs (can’t think how), coincidently the mode of death of Sandy Denny and John Balance (or lack of same, unfortunately). He looks absolutely TERRIBLE, and yet this seems to only spur on the sycophants and celebrants, who giggle at his every pronouncement and tablet from the mountain. (Sample: “the most popular Irish word is “fuck”, cue side-holding and tear-wiping from the likes of Depp and Clarke: ‘feck’ might have been more accurate?) The down side of this sort of hagiography is that it continues to promote decades-old ‘jazz cliches’ about substance abuse and creativity: McGowan’s brief spurt of creativity (approximately 1984-8) seems to have finished once he discovered the joys of narcotics.

The Pogues’ first three albums were wonderful (up to a point), but I think comparisons to Yeats himself, Joyce, Behan, O’Neill, Synge, etc. (as on the inside sleeve of If I Should Fall from Grace with God) stretch credibility, and underestimate the considerable contribution of the other band members. (For example, the best track on the latter album was by Phillip Chevron, ‘Thousands are Sailing’ and the ‘ka-ching’ fave, ‘Fairytale of New York’, was co-written with Jem Finer, it needs stating.)

To be continued…

#Billie HolidayToo

In these days of #MeToo and the appalling death-by-cop of Sarah Everard on Clapham Common recently, it is worth remembering how long women have been putting up with aggression, both active and passive, from men, in all branches of life. (Or ‘menfolk’ as one of Billie Holiday’s blase cousins rootsily calls us, in Linda Kuehl’s documentary Billie: In Search of Billy Holiday, available on Netflix.) Kuehl’s story is a strange one. (She fell to her death from a third story window in 1978, an event which her sister makes a conspiracy theory out of, at the end of the film.) Made in 1971, Kuehl interviewed many of Holiday’s surviving family, friends and musical colleagues, and tells the story of a short life (dead at 44) of one of jazz’s greatest singers, one that can be truly described as ‘tragic’ - the idea of her being portrayed by Diana Ross is one of cinema’s greatest inappropriate castings.

Even though In Search Of… was made by a woman, it seems to glorify in titillating and lubricious material about its female subject (sex, drugs, domestic violence, physical, emotional and economic exploitation), much of which the  various interviewees seem to take for granted (directly expressed attitudes were different 50 years ago, even if men’s behaviours seem to remain largely unchanged today in so many ways). One of the most disturbing features of these interviews is that many of her family and so-called friends seem to have completely bought into the notion that Holiday both invited and enjoyed violence against herself. A cousin says, in complete seriousness, that “she wasn’t a slut”, as if that completely clarifies matters. The complete absence of a father figure, and her mother’s own alleged prostitution are not deemed worthy of comment; “menfolks played on her when she was a kid” says John Fagan matter-of-factly. Maybe we have actually come some way since 1971, as these comments now seem to belong to a different age. Just like the recent Shane McGowan documentary by Julian Temple, the dysfunctional aspects of abnormal childhoods find no echoes in the adult manifestations of disturbed behaviour, in terms of the film’s observations. 

Holiday seemed to be the target of malevolent (bogey)men - Harry J. Anslinger, as fucked-up a man as J.Edgar Hoover (a very high bar), was gunning for her from the start of his own ‘war on dugs’ and she eventually served a year in a segregated prison in 1947/8. Like many women abused in childhood, she appears to have picked men who would perpetuate abuse: clips of both Billie and Bessie Smith in early video shorts, in which both women are abused by pimp-like figures, are particularly telling, yet both have been criticised for their multiple presentations of women as ‘victims’ of male abuse (also implicitly somehow “revelling in it”, goes the narrative?). The sections in the film about life on the road in the Deep South are compelling, and demonstrate the stress of not only being a black woman in Jim Crow America, but also being a woman in a particularly sexist work environment (issues around destructive envy are rampant throughout). Count Basie comes across well (his relationship with Kuehl is given some attention), his drummer Jo Jones less so (petulant and put-upon). Particularly repugnant are John Levy, the exploitative and pathologically greedy ‘husband/manager/bigamist’ and (ditto) the despicable Louis McKay, both of whom seem to have been universally loathed, and who make the concept of ‘self-loathing’ a clinical reality when trying to understand the psychology of the great jazz singer. These men descended to physical violence to control Billie, just as depicted in the shorts.

It’s a documentary that is well worth seeking out on Netflix, only slightly tarnished by an excessive amount of time spent dwelling on the late film maker herself. It makes this particular viewer wonder what demons Kuehl might have been trying to exorcise when she obsessively trawled around Holiday’s troubled life and times. The film’s ending seems to attempt to almost make Kuehl an equal victim, as her sister makes out that she may have been murdered because of her investigations, an allegation that frankly appears rather ludicrous, given that Holiday was 20 years deceased at the time of her own demise. But, just like male violence, conspiracy theories seem to be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

So, Do You Remember the 80s ‘Jazz Revival’?

Prodded by my memories of Rip, Rig & Panic, (the group, not the Roland Kirk number), I’m taken back to the UK ‘Jazz Revival’ of (roughly) the 1985-1990 vintage. For a brief period, in London at least, jazz music experienced its very own Retromania, and seemed to as cool/hot and hip/hep as it thought it had been back in the ur-bebop and hard bop days. Much has been written about the ultimately conservative nature of this revival, with its memorialising of ‘sharp men in even smarter Italian suits’ (anyone remember The Tommy Chase Quartet?) and the Blue Note, ‘instant classic’ photo artistry of Francis Wolff, but which ultimately served to the disadvantage of the more experimental and ‘risky’. (It’s easy to lay the blame at the feet of Wynton Marsalis, but the seeds were always there for absolutism, from the very start, with influential USA critics like Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, early neo-cons who increasingly decried the avant garde and post-Free Jazz experimentalism.) For me, this era coincided with my own reintroduction to jazz music, a process which began around 1981, and represented a return, this time permanent, to a music that I had first explored in the early/mid-70s, but which had been sidelined by punk and post-punk from 1976-1981. Bands like Rip, Rig & Panic served as a gateway back to jazz (and beyond), and the New Musical Express (NME) helped me in this, through such writers as Richard Cook, Andy Gill and Graham Lock. So this ‘revival’ was at once both personally-experienced and externally-informed.

There are a few literary signifiers that help to sum up these times, times which, in retrospect, seem to have been somewhat of a triumph of style over substance? (The 80s also arguably marked a significant lessening in quality in rock and reggae music, and we still await a definitive account of this entire troubled decade.) Have a look at the development of The Wire typography, once it became a monthly rather than a quarterly publication (i.e.from 1984 onward): The Face pointed the way forward, an alternative to the ‘inkies’ of the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, and The Wire in turn fully bought into the aim of  more stylish presentational values, with the increased involvement of designers and ‘creatives’, as what clothes the musicians wore seemed to become as important as what they played. The Wire remained both a pleasure to read (featuring, despite everything, mostly more ‘left field’ jazz players, with even free improvisers also in evidence), and also to look at (the front covers were events in themselves, as they still remain). The bubble, however, had burst by 1990, and the covers began to feature the likes of Michael Jackson, Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, a reflection of the decreasing influence of ‘pure’ jazz, and an inexorable move towards what ‘hip’ young people were actually listening to, once they found out that Art Blakey and Max Roach were not, in actual fact, “great to dance to”. Electronic dance music soon became the default option of the tragically hip, an option which The Wire was soon to take up, especially after Drum and Bass / ’Jungle’ upped the avant stakes. (Main’s Hydra-Calm, from what I remember, won its 1992 ‘Album of the Year’, for an example of the magazine’s ‘new direction’).

In 1986, three of the older older NME writer ‘purists’, Roy Carr, Brian Case and Fred Dellar, put out ‘The Hip: Hipsters, Jazz and The Beat Generation’, which was a self-explanatory coffee table book, and exactly suited the whole ‘jazz revival’ shtick, “Hip has shifted more shades than any other philosophy throughout history”, proclaimed the back cover, rather vaguely, but which at least demonstrated that the authors didn’t take it all entirely seriously, unlike Robin Tomens. The latter published (only one printing, I must assume, in 2000?) his ‘Points of Departure: Essays on Modern Jazz’, a rather ambitious title for what was essentially a collection of what would now be called blogs, trying to demonstrate how hip and jazz-anointed he was (he doesn’t cover free improv, however). Although the book is often cringeworthy, in its attempts to glorify its author’s second-hand insights into various examples of the post-WW2 jazz modernists (mostly American), I have always had a sneaking fondness for it, as it in many ways mirrors my own tentative paths of discovery in the same time-period (1982-1988), alluding to a shared gaucheness, as we both tried to negotiate the various entries into the music, at points at which it all seemed insurmountable. His accounts of shopping in Ray’s Jazz Shop and Mole Jazz are priceless, and his reflections are basically those of a fan first, writer second, a position to which I can completely relate.

I’m no-one to talk: I sent in my own list to The Wire of ‘10 albums that I am currently listening to’, a regular spot in the magazine at the time (to show off my listening tastes, basically and embarrassingly, in retrospect), and which appeared in a 1986 edition of the magazine, from what I can recall (it soon, very correctly, ditched the whole daft concept). It seems that I wanted my own ‘brilliant corner’, however tiny and naff (to use a very 80s word), in the ‘revival’! What put me off, eventually, was the almost inevitably cosy, ‘closed shop’ mentality that most cliques and ‘scenes’ tend to engender (and which Tomens, for one, appeared to love), but which quickly prove to be so transient and gone-so-soon. 

We can now, thankfully, postulate another ‘revival’, one centered on Cafe Oto since its opening in 2008/9, one that appears not to seek validation in places like The Wag Club. (Oto’s various presentations usually transcend ‘jazz’, or, at the very least, transmutes it, and transmutation should be something that jazz has always welcomed?) With more musicians of colour and more female improvisers, this updated ‘scene with no name’ seemed built to last, at least until Covid-19 put it all on hold (at least in the area of live, in-person performance). One of the positives of the 80s scene was the clearly increased involvement of women and black musicians: this was undoubtedly an incremental and undoubted fact by 2020, exemplified, for me at least, in the line-up, at Oto in 2018, of a group led by Louis Moholo, and featuring Jason Yarde, Shabaka Hutchings, Alexander Hawkins and John Edwards. No women in this band though…Doh!! ( If I remember correctly,I think they called themselves ‘Five Blokes’!)

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.