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Today I Stumbled Upon: Lowpines

a0331914498_16Opting not to search for meaning through the choreographic medium of aggressive guitar and drum or indeed the synthetic doldrums of pop music can be a hazardous route to follow given the abundance of wannabe singer/songwriters desperate to discover the elusive steps to the stage at Wembley Arena. As with any musical explorer if you are prepared to look hard enough then the real stuff will always float to the top, which brings me onto Lowpines.

Lowpines build songs on fragile foundations where tilting structures are exposed to the elements of a desolated environment, which allows the lyrical intimacy of each song to resonate. Scrambling through the Bandcamp jungle one evening in 2015 this musical explorer stumbled across Lowpines self-titled  full-length album. The album’s opening track ‘October’ is a self-assured opener that would not go a miss on a Lambchop, Nixon era album. The quality of songcraft is carried throughout the album and has become a regular headphone destination when seeking to escape the stress of everyday life.

A new EP emerged this February entitled, ‘That Bridge Washed Away in the Storm’ and with the prospect of new material this year suggests the trajectory created by Oli Deakin, the creative force behind Lowpines will be maintained. I recently caught up with Oli for a chat about his influences, back catalogue, and tracks from ‘That Bridge Washed Away in the Storm.’

Who are your musical influences and why? I think my musical influences are always changing. I’m forever finding new things to listen to, and hearing new things in records I’ve listened to for years. It’s rarely a particular artist or song that’s inspiring, so many bits of things I hear in different songs. I start wanting to listen to how the different pieces stuck together and make new songs out them. I’ve been obsessing over drum sounds recently, how they can completely change the tone of the whole song just with the kind of reverb or distortion or whatever. The sound of recordings has always been something I’ve been fascinated by, and certain patterns in the records jump out to me. Eels, Sparklehorse, Bonnie Prince Billy, Elliott Smith, Shins, Smog. Records that sound like they’re recorded close-up, so you hear the details, the mistakes, and breaths, the things that make it real.

What music was playing around the home when you were growing up? Classical music, all the time. I couldn’t say what exactly, but that’s what my parents played and taught. So it was a constant feed of music heard from the next room, that I never got to know by name. I never actually engaged with it, not in the way I’d get hooked on the Beatles or Nirvana or pretty much anything with guitars and drums when I eventually discovered it. I tried learning instruments and learning to play classical pieces, but I found it way too stressful having to play what was written on a page note for note. I wanted to make up my own tunes and make records. So I borrowed a guitar and got a tape 4-track and set about trying to figure out how to play, sing, write songs, make a record. Still figuring that out…

What is your view on the current state of the music industry? It’s interesting, seems to be changing all the time. I think for a lot of smaller indie labels and DIY artists, those who never planned on selling a lot of records anyway, it’s never been easier to keep being creative and reach new people with your music. Huge profits were never part of the plan so they don’t miss them in the way big record labels must do. Sure, it’s hard to make any money, but we just have to try and be inventive with how we do that, I don’t see any sense looking backwards. There was a time when sheet music was big business, songwriters at the time must have thought recordings were the death-knell of their trade when they first started being manufactured on a mass scale.

How old were you when you first performed live, where and what song did you perform/sing? The first time I got up on stage with a band, I was about 14. Along with my school friends had formed a band and played our debut show during lunch break in the school coffee bar, to about 40 other students. I sang Basket Case by Green Day. Almost certainly ruined it for a lot of my peers but I that didn’t cross my mind at the time.

Tell me about a song (by another artist) that has remained with you throughout the years – why does it matter? One song I consistently come back to is Dylan’s ‘Farewell Angelina’. I never tire of it. It goes on and on, verse after verse, getting stronger all the while. I think one of the things I like most about Bob is he sets a mood for a song and then just seems to have fun with the lyrics. I don’t think you can ever take him too seriously, which makes records a good companion. It’s up to the listener to do the work and figure out what they hell it may or may not be about.

What other career choices did you consider and what made you chose to be a musician? About 8 years old I thought I’d be a writer so I sat down to write my first book. Half a page later I was exhausted, my hand hurt from writing, and I was all out of ideas. So I scrapped that idea and decided to focus on songwriting. Fewer words needed. I don’t think I ever made a decision to be a musician but just knew that’s what I was doing and had no interest in doing anything else. I guess I just assumed it was a given that it’d be a viable way to spend my life. Fingers crossed.

Tell me about the creative steps between writing material and then performing it for the first time. It varies greatly… Some songs arrive fully formed like they just fell out of the guitar or something. So those ones I tend to take out and introduce to some people, see how they get along. But more often than not I spend some time creating a lot of the song within the recording, layering up and adding parts as I go. So once its done I have to start over figuring out how I’m going to play it live, with or without a band. I don’t see the shows as a reproduction of the record, more a response to wherever I’m playing and who I’m playing with.

I love the track ‘Loose Canon’ from the 2015 album. Tell me about the song. Thanks. That was one that fell out of the guitar… I was a bit suspicious of it for a while, I couldn’t see much of myself in it. I was reading a lot at the time, mainly short stories and some of the people and places I was reading about were actually lodged in my mind. I think the song belongs to them. But after trying out live a few times, it seemed to settle in, and now we get along just fine. In a way, it’s about exactly that, finding something of yourself somewhere you didn’t expect it, and not being totally sure how you feel about it.

The ‘October’ track from the same album makes me very melancholy and yet strangely uplifting. Tell me about it. October was written in January the previous year. I guess it’s about having a marker point in the year where you take stock of things, looking forward and backward and deciding if you’re on a right trajectory. October is that month for me, summer is over, and we’re often back out on the road playing shows. The leaves are turning, the end of the year is in sight, so it’s a good moment to consider if you’ve done the things you set out to do while there’s still time to do something about it. I wanted the song to have a good balance of reflection, regret and resolve, and also humour. I think any kind of self-reflection needs fun, or you just get too bummed out to do anything.

That Bridge Washed away in the storm (2016 release) in many ways (to me) seems increasingly reflective – what were the influences driving this new material especially on tracks like ‘No Hercules.’ This song on this record started out as entirely fictional, based on stories borrowed from books and films. I wrote all the songs over a week, from notes and little scraps of recordings I’d done through the previous year. I soon started to recognise a lot of things that actually applied to me, reflecting my own experiences. So I started digging into those memories and seeing how I might be able to weave it all together. By the time I’d finished it, I couldn’t remember what I’d made up and what actually happened. ‘No Hercules’ started from an idea of someone finding strength in pretending to be strong and accepting that they may have bitten off more than they can chew. I’m sure most people find themselves doing that to some degree at one time or another. I think I also wanted the song to have a definitive end point, to draw some conclusions. The minute I finished mixing it I started writing new songs, and it felt lighter like I’d drawn a line under something. I’m not sure what, but I think the next songs will form a new chapter somehow.

What does the rest of 2016 look like for Lowpines? So far, I’ve spent most of this year writing and recording, and there’ll be lots more of that. I try to move around as much as possible when I’m writing, so I’ll be travelling quite a bit. I think the songs benefit from a change of scene while they’re being written. It’s easy to get a bit short-sighted if everything is written and recorded in one place. I like to hear the songs in different lights, different climates. They can sound so different. Other than that, I have some shows dotted throughout the year. I’ll be playing in Norway in the summer for Indiefjord Festival, which I’m excited to be playing at. I grew up surrounded by mountains, so the Fjords sound like somewhere I should take my songs.

Lowpines will be supporting Benjamin Francis Leftwich on Wednesday 11th May 2016 @ The Forum, Royal Tunbridge Wells. Click here for Tickets and keep an eye open for new releases and further live dates here Lowpines

Today I Stumbled Upon: Elvis Depressedly:

New Alhambra is the album by Elvis Depressedly. 9 tracks of  dreamy folk pop blending TV samples with lush harmonies, which are reminiscent of early Prefab Sprout material. All tracks are accomplished with the opening song ‘though shall not murder’ setting the underlining dark tone of the album. The album is a carefully calculated balance between heartfelt sadnesses and restful Sunday strolls in the countryside.

Each track, like the album itself is boiled down and focused to avoid any unnecessary fat. The longest track coming in at 3.25. There is an art to developing these types of albums, to long and the listener gets bored, to short and it can leave the listener dissatisfied. This album hits the nail on the head and is available on a name your own price basis, but well worth investing in. Enjoy.

No more heroes anymore

James Dean Doll

James Dean Doll

On July 23, 2011 singer Amy Winehouse was found dead in her London apartment at the age of 27.  During her short life, Winehouse accumulated a net worth of $10 million, but like so many other celebrities she may end up earning more money in death than in life. Dying young captures the eternal spirit of a musician and artist, which helps create a mythology that often projects the person behind their human fragility to one of almost god like status with fans increasingly desperate to be connected in some way with their deceased hero.

The first sign of this phenomena was actor James Dean who died in a car crash September 30, 1955 (aged 24). Dean’s major films identified him in roles like Jim Stark’s Rebel Without A Cause depicting the dilemmas of a teenager, who feels that no one, not even his peers, can understand him. During the 70s no self-respected adolescent facing the doomed prospect of being young would be seen without their James Dean t-shirt. Today James Dean merchandise is in abundance and fans can if they so wish reacquaint themselves with their hero via the James Dean doll for £25. Michael Jackson posthumously earned millions from music video marathons, radio airplay, and album sales immediately following his death. The dad of death merchandise goes to the proclaimed King of Rock n Roll Elvis Presley. who remains one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century. Commercially successful in many genres, including pop,blues and gospel, Elvis  is the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music. He died August 16, 1977 (aged 42). The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll has long earned money after his death, largely due to an immense portfolio of licensing and merchandise deals and Graceland admissions. Given the manner of the Kings death some of the mechanise should, shall we say is beyond contempt?

Kurt Cobain doll

Purchasing one of these dolls is like buying Courtney Love lifelong memberships to the NRA. (copy right Bill Hicks)

“You Know You’re Right” was written in 1993, making it one of the last known Kurt Cobain compositions. A studio version of the song was recorded at Nirvana’s final session, on January 30, 1994.  By 5th April 1994 Cobain was dead at the mere age of 27 following several attempts at suicide he finally succeeded. The recording became the object of much legal wrangling between Courtney Love and the surviving Nirvana bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. Grohl and Novoselic had wanted the song for a planned Nirvana box set, but Love blocked its release, and a battle over Nirvana’s legacy ensued. In September 2002, the lawsuit between Love and the surviving Nirvana members was settled, and it was announced that “You Know You’re Right” would arrive on a one-CD history of the band. What is not disputed is the business empire that emerged following Cobain’s death, books, films, posters and of course the obligatory t-shirt that is later years would also include Cobain’s suicide note. Fans may also want to purchase the Kurt Cobain doll with replicated rife, so to rein-act their heroes desperate final hours. Death of course does not stand in the way of the deceased artist contributing to new commercial venture. Several artists have been resurrected from the grave to help generate new sales and revenues streams for their “estate.” The advent of new technologies  has also enabled new material to be produced (sic)! Unforgettable is a popular song written by Irving Gordon. The most popular version of the song was recorded by Nat King Cole in 1951. In 1991, after Elvis Presley’s musical director Joe Guercio had the idea, Cole’s original 1951 recording of the song was edited and remixed to create a duet with his daughter, Natalie.

John Lennon was resurrected in 1995 through the magic of technology to ghost voice with the remaining Beatles on the lacklustre Free as a Bird track that did little to undermine Lennon’s image as a creative icon. Originally recorded in 1977 as a home demo by John Lennon the track was released as a single by the Beatles, 25 years after the Beatles break-up and 15 years after the death of Lennon. George Martin, who had produced most of the Beatles’ 1960s recordings, turned down an invitation to produce Free as a Bird due to, “hearing problems” though he subsequently managed to produce and direct the Anthology series. The track ends with the voice of John Lennon played backwards. The message, when played in reverse, is “Turned out nice again.” A sentiment that would not be shared by many die hard Beatles fans given production for the track went to Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra fame. So it came to pass that the Beatles would be morphed into a derivative of the ELO sound and production. There was to be one more foray into Lennon’s demos with the equally suspicious Real Love track, which would be thankfully be the last released record of so called new material credited to the Beatles. The Beatles of course set the business template for pop merchandise during the 1960s with everything from t towels, models to lunch boxes being mass produced to support album releases. Given the band by the mid to late 60s were predominately a studio based enterprise this source of merchandise became an increasingly important element of their business.


Hmmmmm No.

When Dr. John Bannister pronounced Jimi Hendrix dead on September 18, 1970 the story of this iconic musician should have come to graceful ended with his legacy being the foundation for old and new fans alike, although unlike his predecessors Hendrix was already subject to the unscrupulous dealings of the dark side of the music business. By 1967, as Hendrix was gaining in popularity, many of his pre-Experience recordings were marketed to an unsuspecting public as Jimi Hendrix albums, sometimes with misleading later images of Hendrix. The recordings, which came under the control of producer Ed Chalpin, with whom Hendrix had signed a recording contract in 1965, were often re-mixed between their repeated reissues, and licensed to record companies. Hendrix publicly denounced the releases, describing them as “malicious” and “greatly inferior.” These unauthorized releases have long constituted a substantial part of Hendrix’s recording catalogue, amounting to hundreds of albums.  In 1993, MCA Records delayed a multi-million dollar sale of Hendrix’s publishing copyrights because Hendrix’s father Al Hendrix was unhappy about the arrangement. Under a settlement reached in July 1995, Al Hendrix prevailed in his legal battle and regained control of his son’s song and image rights. He subsequently licensed the recordings to MCA through the family-run company Experience Hendrix LLC, formed in 1995. In August 2009, Experience Hendrix announced that it had entered a new licensing agreement with Sony Music Entertainment’s Legacy Recordings division which would take effect in 2010. Legacy and Experience Hendrix launched the 2010 Jimi Hendrix Catalog Project, starting with the release of Valleys of Neptune in March of that year.  

In the months before his death, Hendrix recorded demos for a concept album tentatively titled Black Gold, which are now in the possession of Experience Hendrix LLC. The demo tapes consist of 16 songs, all created by a solo Hendrix armed only with his voice and a Martin acoustic guitar. Months later, at the Isle of Wight Festival, Hendrix gave the tapes to his drummer Mitch Mitchell to have him listen and comment on the necessary rhythm section requirements for recording the songs. After Hendrix’s death in September 1970, Mitchell simply forgot about the tapes, apparently unaware that they were one-of-a-kind masters. For 22 years, the Black Gold tapes sat in a black Ampex tape box that Hendrix tied shut with a headband and labelled “BG”. It was not until 1992 that Tony Brown, the avid Hendrix collector and biographer, interviewed Mitchell and learnt that the mythical Black Gold tapes, thought to have been stolen from Jimi’s apartment by vandals who ransacked it for collectibles soon after his death, were lying in Mitchell’s home in England. Mitchell also possessed the Martin guitar that was used to create the material. Brown was invited to review the tapes and published a summary of his account, but to date the material has not been released and is not available to Hendrix collectors. Mitch Mitchell’s association with Experience Hendrix LLC was an indicator that Black Gold might see worldwide release. Mitchell’s death, however, means that the future and whereabouts of Black Gold are even more uncertain. In March 2010, Janie Hendrix stated that Black Gold will be released this decade. “Suddenly November Morning” was included in the album West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology, released in November 2010.  This is the only track from Black Gold ever released.

Jim Morrison Infant Snapsuit

Jim Morrison Infant Snapsuit

An American Prayer is the ninth and final studio album by the Doors. In 1978, seven years after lead singer Jim Morrison died and five years after the remaining members of the band broke up, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore reunited and recorded backing tracks over Morrison’s poetry (originally recorded in 1969 and 1970). The album received mixed reviews and still divides critics, yet it has managed a platinum certification in the US. When the album was originally released, longtime Doors’ producer Paul Rothchild labeled the album the “rape of Jim Morrison.” Morrison himself, prior to leaving for his ill-fated Paris visit, had approached composer Lalo Schifrin as a possible contributor for the music tracks meant to accompany the poetry, with no participation from any of the other Doors members. Since the demise of The Doors as a functioning band their back catalogue of albums has  been subjected to all forms of digital re-editing, special anniversary mixes, bonus material that inevitable consists of weak studio outtakes of classic tracks, as wells banal studio chitchat. The dreadful licensing of tracks to superstar DJ’s who in turn have managed single-handily to tear the heart of the material for a so called new generation of fans. Over 20 live official live albums have subsequently been released, including Live at the Aquarius Theatre: The First Performance and Live at the Aquarius Theatre: The Second Performance. In 2002 two of the original Doors, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger reunited and produced a new version of The Doors, called The Doors of the 21st Century. The lineup was fronted by Ian Astbury of The Cult.

John Densmore the bands original drummer subsequently claimed that he had not been invited to take part in the reunion. By February 2003, it was reported that Densmore filed an injunction against his former band mates, hoping to prevent them from using the name The Doors of the 21st Century. It was further reported that both Morrison’s family and that of Pamela Courson had joined Densmore in seeking to prevent Manzarek and Krieger from using The Doors’ name and in July 2005 Densmore and the Morrison estate won a permanent injunction. This caused the new band to switch to the name D21C. Densmore has been steadfast in refusing to license The Doors′ music for use in television commercials, including an offer of $15 million by Cadillac to lease the song “Break on Through (To the Other Side)”, feeling that that would be in violation of the spirit in which the music was created. Densmore wrote, “People lost their virginity to this music, got high for the first time to this music. I’ve had people say kids died in Vietnam listening to this music, other people say they know someone who didn’t commit suicide because of this music…. On stage, when we played these songs, they felt mysterious and magic. That’s not for rent.”  I guess it cannot be put any better.

When The Wheels Stopped Turning

Beethoven was deaf

Beethoven was deaf

The normal format for the TV programme Britain’s Got Talent starts with the judges scouring the land to discover those they consider may have the magical talent. The initial auditions are like a medieval crusade with a host of cringe worthy performances by eccentrics paraded in front of the TV camera, screened directly into our living rooms and considered ‘light family entertainment.’ It is a short cut to celebrity stardom for a handful of budding artists, which plucked Susan Boyle from obscurity in 2009. Boyle finished 2nd place in the competition to the dance troupe Diversity. The day after the final she was admitted to The Priory, a private psychiatric clinic in London.   Her stay in hospital attracted widespread attention. The Press Complaints Commission following press reports about Boyle’s erratic behaviour and speculation concerning her mental condition,  wrote to remind editors about clause 3 (privacy) of their code of press conduct.  Her family reported “she’s been battered non-stop for the last seven weeks and it has taken its toll, but her dream is very much alive,”  Boyle left the clinic 3 days after her admission. Bullied at school and cruelly nicknamed ‘Susie Simple’ by fellow classmates Boyle spent most of her young life believing she had a learning disability, although she was  later diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Boyle continues to be subjected to ridicule by professional comics and one liner joke merchants who trade on her physical appearance and disability as a crutch for their own creative limitations. There is in existence whole pages on the internet dedicated to cruel observations of Boyle, yet it is hard to imagine Andrea Bocelli the blind Italian opera singer being subject to the same level of ridicule.  What is evident with Boyle is that she is faced with a multi layered onslaught of discriminatory attitudes cutting across disability, gender and class. If becoming a successful musician was not difficult enough, becoming a successful musician whilst disabled is simply remarkable regardless of the genre of music and demands respect.

It is an aspiration many disabled artists are increasingly unlikely to achieve given the obsession with image and safe marketing that often results in disabled people being portrayed as secondary characters, weak individuals, to be made fun of, or to be pitied. Transport issues and inaccessible venues are just some of the issues facing musicians with a disability. Yet the existing and historical musical landscape is a rich, diverse and creative movement that has borne witness to disabled people as creative pioneers and leaders.

As Ludwig Beethoven (properly the worlds first punk) approached his 26th year in 1796 he was already facing deteriorating hearing and by the time he composed his 9th and final symphony he was totally deaf.  Richard Dale Miller was born November 28, 1942 in Dallas County, Little Richard Miller Born Without Arms or Legs.Texas. An evangelist, travelling across US preaching his interpretation of the Gospel through song and testimony. Richard Miller’s full stage name is Little Richard Miller Born Without Arms or Legs. He is an organist and guitarists who has recorded several albums mainly in the country style.

Robert Wyatt was the drummer and vocalist in the band Soft Machine, part of the so called ‘Canterbury Scene.’  A loosely based network of progressive rock, avant-garde, jazz musicians based around the city of Canterbury, Kent, UK. Since an accident in 1973, when he fell drunkenly from a fourth-floor window at a party, he has been paraplegic and confined to using a wheelchair for general mobility. In the 1970s the producer of BBC 1 ‘Top of the Pops‘ programme wanted Wyatt to perform from a normal chair on the grounds that his use of a wheelchair ‘was not considered suitable for family viewing.’ After strong arguments and support from his fellow band members, which included Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) and a young Andy Summers (The Police) Wyatt won the day. In September 1974 Wyatt performed his cover version of ‘I’m a believer’ on national TV in his wheel chair, whilst the audience danced along. Wyatt also recorded, what many still consider to be one of the finest anti war songs ever recorded, ‘Shipbuilding’ a song written by Elvis Costello.

If like me you have fumbled about with a guitar trying to learn 3 chords and then desperately sought to put these twisted sounds together in order, so they rendered the simplest of recognisable tunes. Then you can hardly start to imagine what it takes to do the same without the sense of sight.  During the 1960s Bob Dylan chose the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt for an early recording session. His choice of pseudonym was a nod to the delta blues singers, who were such an influential to him. Arthur Blind Blake (1893-1933), Blind Willie Johnson (1897–1945), Blind Boy Fuller (1907–1941), Blind Willie McTell (1898–1959), Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893–1929) to name a few.

Following in the footsteps of these incredible musicians Ray Charles (1930-2004) was a true musical pioneer and genius.  During the 1950s he started to fuse together rhythm and blues and gospel music.  This style emerged into the blueprint we now understand as popular soul music. Stevie Wonder was to take this blueprint and push it to another level during the 1970s via classic albums like Talking Book, Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. At the same time an unpretentious, middle-of-the-road cabaret act scored a massive hit that would elevate them to international stardom. Lennie Peters (1933-1992) was one half of the duo Peters and Lee. Peters was an uncle of Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts. He had  lost the sight of one eye at 3 years old. He lost the sight in his remaining eye when 16 and immersed himself in music by teaching  himself to play the piano. Peters & Lee enjoyed their number-one hit ‘Welcome Home’ in July 1973 and went on to become platinum album artists with two and a half million sales enjoying 4 British top 20 hits and 4 top 10 albums.

At the age of 7 the genius singer, song writer and actor Ian Dury (1942-2000) was stricken by polio. He suffered the long-term effects of the disease throughout his life, which left it hard for him to walk. In 1981 Dury released the song Spasticus Autisticus, which was written to show his disdain for that year’s International Year of Disabled Persons, which he saw as patronising and counter-productive. The song was banned by the BBC given the lyrics were uncompromising, “so place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin and thank the creator you’re not in the state I’m in, so long have I been languished on the shelf. I must give all proceedings to myself.”  

In August 1990, a lighting rig fell on soul legend Curtis Mayfield (1942-1999) during a sound check before a New York concert. His 3rd, 4th and 5th vertebrae were all broken, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Despite the fact that he was unable to play an instrument, Mayfield would lie on his back in order to catch enough breath to sing. Mayfield created another album before his death. In 1984, Rick Allen the drummer with Def Leppard was involved in a car accident that resulted in the loss of his left arm. To accommodate his missing arm, Allen had a specially made drum kit and continues to performed to this day. Adrian Anantawan is one of the world’s most accomplished young violinists. The young man sometimes closes his eyes as he plays, as if lost in the music. If his audience closed their eyes, too, they would never know the violinist standing before them has no right hand.  Social networks and assistive technology have allowed blind jazz keyboardist/pianist Andre Louis to perform, even though getting to gigs is a real challenge.  “None of the gigs I’d like to do are near where I live in west London. If I were to take public transport, it would be me, a laptop, a keyboard stand and a cane, trying to navigate the underground. Taxis would be around £35 so costs would get high quickly.” 

Toyah Willcox was born with a twisted spine, clawed feet, a clubbed right foot, one leg two inches shorter than the other and no hip sockets.Dianne Shuur Because of this she endured years of painful operations and physiotherapy. Her physical condition was a cause of difficult times at school. “When I was bullied at school, it was coz of my character. I was a weak child, I was incredibly small. I had a speech impediment, I was the perfect bait for bullying”. Willcox had 8 Top 40 singles, released over 20 albums, written two books, appeared in over 40 stage plays and 10 feature films, and voiced and presented numerous television shows.  Diane Schuur is an American jazz singer and pianist. Nicknamed “Deedles”, she has won two Grammy Awards, headlined many of the world’s most prestigious music venues, including Carnegie Hall and has toured the world performing with the likes of Quincy Jones, Stan Getz, B. B. King, Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, Ray Charles, Joe Williams and Stevie Wonder. Like Stevie Wonder, Schuur was blinded at birth due to retinopathy of prematurity.

It was the 3rd of November 2001 when I managed to see perform an artist who would go on to become one of my personal favourites. It was at the Barbican Hall, London and the event was billed as Beyond Nashville with Howie Gleb and others.

I was invited by a friend (Derek) and to be honest I had mixed feelings about going. My approach to music is very much slow burning. It normally takes quite a while after a particular music genre has been hip before my musical taste catches up and so it was to be with the so called Americana genre. The Others referred to on the concert billing, included an astounding array of bands and solo artists, Giant Sand, PJ Harvey, Evan Dando, Kurt Wagner, Mark Linkous, as well as Vic Chesnutt.

6a00d83451b93369e20120a786de68970bVic Chesnutt (1964–2009) was a truly remarkable talent. Involved in a car accident in 1983, which left him partially paralyzed; he used a wheelchair and had limited use of his hands. During his career he released a total of 17 albums (2 produced by Michael Stipe of REM fame). Chesnutt performed 5 or 6 songs that evening with Kurt Wagner (Lampchop), which were haunting, funny and poignant including, Is A Women, Girls Say and My Blue Wave. An unassuming man on stage, sitting in his wheelchair, strumming his guitar with a delicate voice that brought a concentrated silence from across the whole audience. Chesnutt described his relationship with his native America as “centred around the love/hate axis with a bit of Stockholm syndrome thrown in.” It was the many contradictions of the worlds richest country, which  provided him with the source for such of his material, alienation, isolation, human failings of the body and heart, hope, war and everyday observations.

JK - Silver LakeSilver Lake was Chesnutt’s 11th Album and while it sounds like a Vic Chesnutt album through and through, it is a better than average introduction to his work, filled with quirks. The album kicks of with the emotionally shattering ‘I’m through’ one my favourite Chesnutt tracks. The corner stone of any Chesnutt album are the stories that underpin each song.  The songs on Silver Lake are honest and pull on every emotional chord possible no matter how surreal the narrative. Throughout Silver Lake you will hear heart-tugging beauty. On December 25, 2009, at the age of 45, Chesnutt died from an overdose of muscle relaxants that had left him in a coma. Chesnutt had attempted suicide 3 or 4 times before.  According to Chesnutt, being “uninsurable” due to his quadriplegia left him $50,000 in debt from his medical bills, and had been putting off surgery for a year. A tragic, unnecessary and sad end to a remarkable genius and one of the reasons which  you need to give Silver Lake an honored space in your record collection.

Today I Stumbled Upon: Ghost to Falco

Ghost to Falco_behind_tumbleweedI find myself walking alongside the River Thames. It’s a walk I take most Thursday evenings whilst making my way to Waterloo Station for the long train journey home. It is a pleasant evening as I occasionally glance over to the House of Commons,  Big Ben, wearing my headphones and navigating the tourists, whilst flipping through the Bandcamp app on my iPhone. I’ve just pressed play. The Soft Shield album by Ghost to Falco kicks in with openner Enemies Calling and I instinctively stop, take a public seat and listen to the whole album whilst viewing the river and the features on the opposite riverbank. Finally finding my way home I purchased the album and email the brain child behind Ghost to Falco, Eric Crespo who lives in  Portland, Oregon, USA.  This blog mainly consists of email exchanges between Eric and myself, as well as the virtual digging I have managed to undertake. Portland of course has one of the most vibrant music scenes in the USA. My earliest recollection of a band from Portland was The Kingsmen, who had the hit Louie, Louie in the early 1960s. It’s a little know fact that In February 1964, an outraged parent wrote to Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney General of the United States, alleging that the lyrics of Louie Louie were obscene. The FBI investigated the complaint and, after four months of investigation, concluded that the recording could not be interpreted because it was “unintelligible at any speed”.

Eric Crespo was born in Los Angeles, California where he lived until eight years. at this ripe age his parents moved the family to Burlington a small town in North Carolina. Burlington is situated 40 minute drive from Chapel Hill, which would prove to be a critical influence to Eric given its underground rock music scene. Eric recalls Chapel Hill has a college town.  “In the time (mid 90’s) there was a quite a scene there.  The most noteworthy bands from Chapel Hill that were active when I started going to shows were Superchunk, Polvo, and Archers of Loaf.  Polvo was my favorite out of those three but I’d go see all of them, and they’d usually have some other interesting bands on the bill with them.  And all the touring bands would come through.  While I was a teenager I 10264709_10152161629904302_3003215836447863725_nsaw bands like Dirty Three, Mogwai, Guv’ner, Modest Mouse, Shudder to Think, Fugazi, June of 44, Pavement, Storm and Stress, Sebadoh, Blonde Redhead, US Maple, Elliot Smith, Unwound, and many more all playing at various small clubs–sometimes to about 10 people.  I saw Sonic Youth play secret shows in Chapel Hill on two different occasions at a smallish club (probably 650 capacity?) called The Cat’s Cradle.  I even saw Radiohead once at the Cat’s Cradle right after the Bends came out.  I wasn’t really a fan (and I’m still not) but I’d just go to shows..”  Eric then moved to Asheville, NC to go to college.  In his sophomore year he found himself living with friends and rightfully having fun. “I knew I had to leave though.  I felt like I was just waiting for something important to begin. I played in two bands that toured around the region a bit.  We’d go play in Atlanta or DC, but my bandmates in those bands weren’t really up for touring like I was.  Touring was all I really wanted to do at the time, so I was trying to come up with ways to play out alone just so I could tour as much as I wanted.  I may have never started Ghost to Falco if the people in my bands really wanted to tour like I did.”

10371438_10152270693314302_1731744634009158020_nSo how did the solo work start to evolve? “When I first started thinking of playing out solo my first idea was to go the acoustic guitar/singer-songwriter route.  I had a nylon string classical acoustic guitar, but I felt like I needed a steel string acoustic for some reason, and oddly enough I actually ended up finding one on the street one day.  In the middle of a crosswalk in downtown Asheville.  It seemed like it had fallen out of a car or something.  So I started trying to write songs on that but it wasn’t happening.  I had no frame of reference really for being a singer-songwriter.  I had no interest or knowledge of folk singers or anything like that.  I kind of put the acoustic away after a few months (or weeks—I can’t remember).  A little later I started messing around on my electric guitar with a looping pedal and I put my newly acquired monophonic 70’s analog synthesizer into the mix and I started making up these loose song structures that sounded pretty full even though I was the only one making the sounds, and that excited me. I thought maybe I could play shows like that but wasn’t sure. Around this time I was also getting interested in a lot more stuff that was outside of what I had grown up listening to.  Minimalist composers (Steve Reich, etc.), late 70’s industrial music, Glenn Branca, and “freer” bands of the era. Another thing about starting Ghost to Falco is that I had played in bands since I was fourteen years old.  I didn’t know how not to be in a band.  It was, and still is the way I find friends, my motivation to travel, my motivation to do anything really.  So, starting a band that could never break up unless I wanted it to was pretty appealing.  I left North Carolina in October of 2001.  My bands played our final shows, I got my wisdom teeth taken out, and then hit the road to Portland.” 

The Ghost Falco moniker began in 2001 as a solo project consisting of electric guitar loops, synthesiser sounds and field recordings. The band has gone on to became something of an underground institution with a rotating door of musicians have joined for tours and recordings bringing with them a whole range of instruments. “The first Ghost to Falco show I ever played was in Athens, GA (a place I have never lived) on the way to Portland, followed by shows in Shreveport, Louisiana, Lubbock, Texas, and a kid’s garage in a suburb of Los Angeles.  These shows were painstakingly booked by sending out a cassette of a song I sneakily recorded in the studio of my college on an exam day of my last semester.  I didn’t really know how I would feel about doing Ghost to Falco live, but it turned out that I generally felt pretty good about it so I decided to keep doing it.  I always thought I might add some band members to the mix at some point down the line and I did that in 2005 and live shows have gone back and forth between being me solo and having bandmates.  Nowadays I prefer to have bandmates in the band.”

So what are the challenges facing an artist like yourself? “Probably the biggest challenge in getting my music out there is the music I’m making!  It’s sort of always existed between worlds.  I designed it like that initially.  I liked avant-garde music and I liked good songs with singing.  I sort of wanted to do something to unite these two worlds, and in doing so I didn’t really create a new scene, but I just sort of made Ghost to Falco this free floating entity.  When you’re doing something different and it doesn’t adhere to the tenets of an established scene, or have enough people involved to create a new scene you just end up existing as a free floating anomaly.  People might agree that it’s good but people want to align themselves with things that make them a member of a tribe or a community.  People want connection.  Most of the time it takes some kind of noted tastemaker (preferably with lots of money) to step up and champion it before even a decent amount of people will take notice.  We’ve had a few minor taste makers sing our praises over the years, and that’s why today we can boast that we have 980 Facebook likes”  
Then there’s the whole music establishment?  “Let me just go off on this for a minute, because I’ve been meaning to write this down for a little while.  Within the realm of the kind of music we’re making, this is my perception of how things generally work (of course there are  exceptions):  It’s a 1978818_10152266495739302_3771852591971329847_n big whirlpool where everybody is paying each other.  The noteworthy record labels, (not even talking major labels unless you count Merge, Sub Pop, and Matador as majors, which I guess are majors at this point) are probably like the sun that all the other planets of the industry revolve around.  So these labels pay the PR firms.  The labels buy advertising on Pitchfork and other popular blogs and music magazines.  These popular blogs and music magazines are obligated to write about bands that are being pitched by PR firms who are hired by the record labels, who buy advertising on these blogs and in these music magazines, which pays the salaries of the people who run the blog or music magazine. When these bands get written about by the popular blogs and magazines then the booking agencies start calling and then these bands get a booking agent.  The booking agent book the bands on high profile tours and festivals and the bands get popular.  This system doesn’t work if the popular blogs and such write about anything that any nobody band sends them.  Then no one gets paid.   And the booking agents aren’t going to want to book a band with no hype behind them.  You can’t blame people really.   There’s only room for so many bands and writers and promotional agents and such in this world.  And there’s even less room for people who are making risky music.  To make a food analogy: Even a big city can only support a certain amount of high end vegan restaurants, while the pizza places on every other corner are turning a fine profit.  People like pizza and it’s fast and it’s cheap and it fills you up.   There’s nothing wrong with pizza.  I like pizza.   The music I tend to make requires a little more patience and a little more time, maybe it’s a little harder to find the entrance to the place, but I hope that in the end it’s going to be more nutritious.”  
 Back to the whirlpool, “there are bands that get thrown into it and don’t connect with people that happens all the time, and then they just fade away.  And some are on the edges of the whirlpool and some are right in the middle of it.  Ghost to Falco has never been in this whirlpool at all and never really had the chance to connect with a lot of people in this way. No one at a popular label (or management company who gets you on the popular label) has had enough of an interest to take Ghost to Falco on.  I wonder how we would do if we were to get thrown into that whirlpool.   We might do fine, but who knows?   It’d be nice to be able to connect with a lot more people, but it’s sort of cool running the band how we do.  We only tour when we want to and we can play whatever kind of venue and play with whatever bands we want to play with.  No one is shaping our career.  It is a freedom I appreciate.  We don’t really make money, but it’s never a situation of the label is making us tour, this sucks, kind of thing.  I’ve had friends in those situations and it seems terrible.”  

Soft Shield is Ghost to Falco’s fourth full length album. The albums initial sessions began at the Portland-based Type Foundry Studio (known for producing recorded output by the likes of  Dirty Projectors and R.E.M. among many others) in June of 2009. A few days after the first sessions Eric left town for six months of touring and traveling. When he came back with his limited funds, Eric realised that going into debt on an album at a top-of-the-line recording studio maybe wasn’t the smartest thing to do. But it was too late.  He earned money from odd jobs and spent it on studio time, and/or relied on generous favours from recording engineers. It took three-and-a-half years to finish Soft Shield. Eight different studios were used in all. The album is properly the most cohesive of any record in Ghost to Falco’s discography.

Soft Shield still casts a wide net that marks most of Ghost to Falco’s output, one could find evidence of just about every rock- affiliated musical movement of the past fifty years, but Soft Shield corrals those disparate elements into a vision that feels firmly planted in the American-West. Trippy desert guitar lines and arid pedal steel are intertwined with a lush and intimate, Northwest-specific, Twin Peaks style of mystery— a duality that points to both Eric’s love of the American desert canyon country and his longtime Portland address.  As Eric says, “There’s contentment, anger, humor, regret, fear—and hell, some of it you can even dance to” and I could not put it better myself.

During my virtual journey of discovering Eric and the Ghost to Falco’s back catalogue I came across another of Eric’s projects Centers, which was formed by Jay Demko and Eric Crespo in mid 2010.  Whilst I absolutely adore the Ghost to Falco catalogue and have no hesitation in recommending them the Centers album is also a piece of magnificent beauty and worthy of any serious music collection. 

Eric Crespo is a musical chameleon who weaves genres together and pushes creative boundaries, avant-garde sound structures, alt-country, world fusion with carefully crafted lyrics all blended together. He is the is type of artists we should increasingly celebrate given the quality of his work and the creative space he occupies often results in very few finding full commercial success. His craftsmanship finds itself at odds with the conveyer-belt of mass consumed music that is often found seeping through many a MP3 player.  Neil Young is credited with saying, “When people start asking you to do the same thing over and over again, that’s when you know you’re way too close to something that you don’t want to be near.”  It’s an interesting observation from an artists who is respected and who has influenced many. Neil Young of course had the means to take a left-field turn from middle of the road comfort before he cranked up his amplifier. In reality the true creative forces on this highway are artists like Eric Crespo, who did not take the middle of the road in the first place.

The Night of the Hunter

Harry Powers

Harry Powers (Cornelius O. Pierson)

On the 20th September 1931 Harry Powers was hurriedly taken by police to Moundsville State Penitentiary for his own safety. A large and angry crowd had gathered outside the small County Jail demanding Powers be handed over to them, so they could dispense mob justice by lynching him in the streets. The local Fire Department set their water hoses upon the crowd in an attempt to disperse them, but it would take the engagement of tear gas before the authorities could gain control of the situation.  

Moundsville State Penitentiary, West Virginia was an imposing gothic style building that would not go a miss in a Stephen King novel.  On March 18, 1932, Harry Powers was taken to its scaffolds. Upon his arrival he was offered the opportunity to make a last statement, but declined. A cap was placed over his head and at 9:00 am the guard pushed the button. Powers dropped through the trap door and 11 minutes later he was pronounced dead.


Cornelius O. Pierson

Operating under the alias Cornelius O. Pierson, Harry Powers wrote a succession of letters to Asta Eicher who was a recently widowed mother of 3 children. After a brief romance Powers took Eicher on a trip leaving her 3 children with a friend, Elizabeth Abernathy. Shortly afterwards Abernathy received a letter advising her that Powers would be coming to pick the children up to join their mother. Powers then made contact with Dorothy Lemke, who lived in Masschuetts and was seeking love through a lonely hearts advert.  Asta Eicher, her 3 children and Dorothy Lemke all disappeared with no explanation.

Police investigating their disappearances became suspicious when the name Cornelius O. Pierson appeared as one of the last known contacts of Asta Eicher. The police quickly established there was no one registered under the name of Cornelius Pierson, but his description matched that of Harry Powers who was arrested and a search warrant was issued for his home.  Blood, clothing, hair and a burned bankbook where all found and following the excavation of freshly filled ditches the bodies of Asta Eicher, her children and Dorothy Lemke were uncovered. Postal records later indicated that Powers had opened up his own lonely hearts ad using his alias Cornelius O. Pierson. Replies to his advertisement were pouring in at a rate of 10 to 20 letters per day. Love letters were also discovered on the property addressed to several women, whom he intended to kill and steal their money.

Romance, musicals and mellow dramas

The 1950s are synonymous with films featuring the likes of James Dean, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. The majority of these films tended to be musicals, clean cut American westerns, mellow dramas and comic romances. Whilst films presenting more challenging narratives were starting to emerge like Rebel Without a Cause these films were rare due to the emergence of TV. The big film studios did not want to potentially disturb or frighten away their family audience who also brought vast amounts of  popcorn, ice-cream and soda drinks during the cinema visits.

Strange Author 

The author Davis Grubb had a distinct characteristic of only being able to write whilst on a train. An extreme recluse, refusing to travel in cars and seldom spoke to anybody.  Using the case of Harry Powers, Grubb in 1953 wrote The Night of the Hunter.  In the book Grubb explores murder, social corruption, misogyny, domestic violence, the hypnotic force of religion, family breakdown, alienation, poverty and child cruelty. The book’s main character (Harry Powers), who after serving a sentence for stealing a car presents himself to the outside world as a prison chaplain. Using information he discovered in prison from his soon to be executed cellmate the “Reverend” Powell cons his executed cellmate’s widow into marrying him with the hope that her children will tell Powers where their father hid the $10,000 from his last bank robbery. After killing their mother Powell embarks on a hunt for the children.

NightofthehunterposterIn 1955, the book was made into a film. Remaining true to the narrative of the book the plot focuses on a corrupt reverend-turned-serial killer Harry Powers, superbly played by Robert Mitchum. The director of the film was no other than the legendary actor Charles Laughton. The lead role of Powers was initially earmarked for Laurence Olivier, but the studios were not eager to associate the clean Olivier image with the film. When approached by Laughton to play Powers, Mitchum is reported to have replied, “If you are really going to make a movie about a wife murdering, child stalking manic of a preacher, doing his evil deeds in God’s name, them count me in.”  

The author of the book Davis Grubb was also an accomplished artist who drew sketches of the characters he would write about. Learning of this Charles Laughton kept in contact with Grubb and repeatedly asked him to send visualisations of facial expressions he had in mind when writing the book. Grubb obliged by sending over 100 pen and ink drawings during the making of the film. This process helped contribute towards the stark realism and bold expressionism throughout the film.

I first came across The Night of the Hunter in the mid 1970s one Saturday evening in my teenage years. Having seen the name Robert Mitchum listed in the TV schedule I decided to tune in and was expecting a run of the mill western. The opening sequence quickly dispelled that notion as Miss Cooper’s (the savour of orphans in the film) disembodied head narrates from a heavenly night sky, “Beware of false prophets…”  Robert Mitchum is then introduced singing hymns as he travels in search of his victim. Tortured by his hatred of women Mitchum’s character carries a switchblade pocket knife, which he considers his holy sword.

The murder of the Shelley Winters character is reminisce of a vintage black and white silent movie and shortly afterwards  the children hiding in the cellar of the family home whilst Mitchum sits outside calming singing to the children inside before he starts to terrorise them is particularly unnerving. As the children make their escape on a boat downriver Mitchum pursues them on horse bank.  Upon seeing the silhouette of the murderer on the ridge of the hill cast by the moonlight one of the children chillingly remarks, “Don’t he ever sleep?”  After the films first private screening with only  Charles Laughton and Paul Gregory (producer) present both sat in complete silence as the last of the film flickered through the reel. They had not expected the film to have been so odd. Gregory turned to Laughton (who was a fragile soul at the best of times) and said, “Charles they’re not going to know how to sell this picture and I think we are going to be in trouble.” He was right. The Night of the Hunter was not a commercial success upon release and Laughton fell into deep depression. Whilst he had several film projects lined up Laughton would never direct another film.

In many respects the film has not faired well with time. Its dialogue, script, acting and editing through today’s eyes may seem clumsy and even corny,  but the authentic innovation and atmospheric feel the film presents has influenced many film makers Spike Lee, The Cohen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese have all tipped their hats to The Night of the Hunter as a major influence on their craft. Whilst dated this highly original and brilliant good-and-evil parable, with “good” represented by a couple of farm kids and a pious old lady, and “evil” literally in the hands of a posturing psychopath is rightly considered a classic.


Oh bondage up yours!

This girl is no fool

This women is nobody’s fool

“Biblically chauvinistic” is how the Rolling Stone magazine described the James Brown 1966 record “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” As a record it certainly takes some beating when promoting a stereotype. A stereotype, which has been continuously reinforced throughout the music business since its conception.

Whilst the mainstream charts may be dominated by female artists research constantly reveals that women working in the music business earn far less than their male counterparts – a staggering 47% of women in the music business earn less then £10,000 per year.

It is a business that is dominated by male executives who control its means of production, marketing and recording output. Recording artist Lily Allen recently observed, “You will also notice of the big successful female artists, there is always a ‘man behind the woman’ piece. If it’s Beyoncé, it’s Jay Z. If it’s Adele, it’s Paul Epworth. Me? It was Mark Ronson and the same with Amy Winehouse.”  These attitudes prevail throughout the music business right down to the basement end of manufactured pop. The banality of Miley Cyrus ‘tweaking’ caused a media stir, which was possibly related to Cyrus’s history as a child star for the Disney Corporation. Whilst Cyrus’s performance might be seen as silly and tedious the fact is Iggy Pop has been ‘twerking’ for 40 years, including the odd penis exposure as well as regularly humping his amplifiers on stage – yet he is considered a rock god.

There is something very disturbing about a popular culture that increasingly portrays women as disposable commodities frequently being hunted down by a serial killer or subjected to the creepy attention of a male artist who is acting like a potential candidate for inclusion on the sex offenders register. Although given the recent spate of celebrities facing sexual assault charges in the UK they may not be acting. Equally repugnant are those fellow men who shout “political correctness has gone mad” every time these issues are raised. Let’s be honest if you are the type of tool who enjoys women being portrayed in this way then it is highly unlikely you have read this far into this blog and you are properly jerking off to that misogynist Robin Thicke video.

“Ignore it” you may say after all there is an off button I can push  Well I did, but ignoring it does not make it a right. Switching off a TV does not mean switching off your brain and that is the real choice here. I am not for one minute advocating censorship far from it. In my view those who produce this material should be exposed to additional taxation. The revenues generated should be earmarked for support services for women who become victims of male violence. If a sovereign country was inflicting such harm on another country surely we would be expecting intervention, possibly economic sanctions.

Those women who have stood up, challenged and turned the tables on the status quo have faced ridicule or worse. The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, actress, author and philanthropist Dolly Parton has throughout her career been the subject of ridicule from taunts of trailer trash, cheap, dumb blonde and least we forget the breast obsession. Web sites are dedicated to crude jokes about Parton.  Realising these circumstances Dolly Parton played the card of self-parody as well as deploying her very clever business brain. This has enabled her to amass a financial fortune and make music that she wants to make.  This attitude towards women is not a modern phenomenon, which has  been cooked up by dead beat rappers with their pathetic lyrics of ‘hoes and bitches.’


Billie Holliday – used and abused

The harrowing demise of Billie Holliday in the 1950s is a prime example. Most media stories concerning Holliday’s torturous death tend to focus on sexual violence and illicit substances. What is often overlooked is that in her final years Holliday was swindled out of her earnings and died with $0.70 in the bank.  As an incredibly gifted, yet troubled artist Holliday was hounded to the very end. Whilst dying police raided her hospital room and placed her under arrest until she passed away on 17th July 1959. She was 44 years old.

The magnificent Nina Simone became the catalyst for change in the 1960s. Strong, intelligent, outspoken and a versatile musician she became a role model for musicians (female and male). Simone started playing the piano at 3 years old and by the age of 10, she was perfuming piano recital in the town library. Like Holliday, she was ripped off by the record companies. She saw very little money from her first record, the top 20 hit of “I Love You Porgy.” Simone always characterised record companies as “pirates.”   

Over the coming decades, Simone took increased control over her career and destiny as an artist, which not only provided financial rewards but enabled increased creative freedom. At the time this was unparalleled for both a female and Black artist.  The song Mississippi Goddamn, which she released in 1964 was written by Simone after the murder of Medgar Evers. Although the song contains a jolly rhythm it is a scathing anti-racist tour de force.  Towards the end of her life Simone became increasingly erratic with legendary mood swings. In 1985 she fired a gun at a record executive whom she considered was stealing her royalties claiming that she tried to kill him, “but missed.”

The 1960s produced many iconic female artists Dusty Springfield, Nico (Velvet Underground) Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane) and Janis Joplin for example. It is a decade that increasingly witnessed the use of  ‘tabloid sensationalism’ as a weapon against women. Singer, songwriter and actress Marion Faithfull were subjected to sordid and untrue media reports in 1967 concerning her sexual relationship with Mick Jagger. Whilst the headlines and speculation did little to hinder Jagger’s career. In fact, the stories further enhanced his bad-boy reputation, but for Faithfull, her career was badly damaged. 27 years later Faithfull observed, “It destroyed me, a  woman in that situation becomes a slut.” Before Beyonce, there was Diana Ross (formerly of The Supremes).

The Supremes were a product of Barry Gordy’s Motown conveyor belt of popular hits during the 60s and 70s. Gordy was the original Simon Cowell with the gift of identifying and bringing together pop talent, along with tightly controlling and carefully managing their public image. Whilst Ross and Gordy were romantically entwined for Gordy it quickly became a case of biting off more than you could chew syndrome when it came to Diana Ross.

Whilst The Supremes were on a UK tour in the 1960s Gordy insisted The Supremes perform a version of Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You.” Gordy believed that such a performance would enable The Supremes to access a slot on a mainstream UK television programme. Ross refused outright. “I could not explain anything that made sense to her,” Gordy said. “She refused to do it completely.” That’s when Gordy realised, “if she didn’t do it, I knew I could not manage them.” Ross went on to become one of the biggest selling female solo artists in music history.

Joni Mitchell produced and released her seminal Blue album in the early 70s whilst at the same time Jazz drummer Karen Carpenter was persuaded to move centre stage and sing for the brother/sister duo the Carpenters. It may have taken until 1979 for Suzi Quatro to score a hit in her country of birth (USA), but Quatro was a constant presence throughout the 70s in the UK charts. Quatro’s trademark leather jacket, jeans, bass playing leadership and pop-rock anthems presented an altogether edgier imagine that had a significant influence and impact. An influence that has sadly been underestimated given for many young people Suzi Quatro was the first female artists who were seen to be the leader of the pop-rock group on mainstream TV. By the mid-70s Kate Bush and Patti Smith emerged. Two diametrically opposed artist who commanded respect through their craft. Smith went on to release what many still consider to be one of the most quintessential and influential rock album’s of all time ‘Horses.’  

1975 also saw the release of the electro-pop ‘Love to Love You Baby’ by Donna Summer that pounded the dance floors of every credible disco. The song, which featured Summer moaning and groaning as if in the raptures of an organism would cause controversy around the world. It also presented the artist in a highly sexually charged way that would take Summer years to shake off. The song and its producers eventually left Summer feeling like she had no control over her life and went on to suffer from bouts of depression and insomnia. Summer would later become a born-again Christian and sue the producers of the record. After the legal settlement Summer decided to exclude “Love to Love You Baby” from her concert playlists and did not perform it until 25 years later.

As the 1970s were drawing to a close there was something quite different about the female artists who were emerging outside the mainstream. Whilst the recording output varied according to taste. The confidence and attitude of the female artists was not in dispute. Operating within an increasingly political environment a whole bunch of strong, independent, intelligent and often conformational female artists were playing a leading roll in the rock scene.  It was a time when Siouxsie Sioux (Siouxsie and the Banshees), Fay Fife (The Rezillos), Gaye Advert (The Adverts), Debbie Harry (Blondie), The Slits, Pauline Murray (Penetration),  Tina Weymouth,(Talking Heads), Joan Jett (The Runaways) and the glorious Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex) to name a few took a male-dominated world and shook it by the throat. A quick search on Google for Penetration performing ‘Don’t Dictate’ live will emphasis the point as Pauline Murray tackles men in the audience head-on. It was another song from this period, which had a greater influence on me personally.

Released in 1977 “Oh bondage up yours” was the debut single by X-Ray Spex.  Polly Styrene was the bands’ lead singer and main songwriter who described the song, “as a call for liberation. It was saying: ‘Bondage—forget it! I’m not going to be bound by the laws of consumerism or bound by my own senses.’ It has that line in it: ‘Chain smoke, chain gang, I consume you all’: you are tied to these activities for someone else’s profit.” 

As I grow older and start to see the world more holistically I can often look back at key moments when a stake was placed in the shifting sands of my life. These stakes are important because they create a focus point when somethings clicked. When I get a cold chill after being exposed to yet another pile of misogynist crap by a retarded hunk in plastic bling rubbing his small codpiece against a scantily dressed women. I can point back to buying the original 12″ vinyl version of “Oh bondage up yours” in 1977.

Every cause has a counter effect and what had been achieved in the 1970s was to be challenged throughout the 1980s free for all and sod thy neighbour attitude. Samantha Fox’s was 16 years old when her mother submitted several photographs of her daughter in lingerie to a Sunday tabloid newspaper competition (Girl of the Year amateur modelling contest). By the 198os Samantha Fox was a popular topless glamour model in a daily tabloid. In 1986 Fox choose to take up a new career as a pop star. Her first release was the tacky ‘Touch Me (I Want Your Body)’ that reached No. 1 in seventeen different countries. She went on to sell more than 30 million albums and co-wrote the song “Dreams” for girl group All Saints’s 2000 album, Saints & Sinners. Although she was credited as “Karen Wilkin” because the group refused to record the song if Fox’s real name was used. In 1984 Sheena Eastern had a hit with a Prince written song ‘Sugar Walls’ a pseudonym for Eastern’s vagina.  By the close of the 80s Cher was to be seen cavorting around a battleship in a fishnet body stocking rattling out the hideous ‘If I could turn back time.’  Amongst this drivel there were occasional rays of sunshine from the likes of Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders) and the Sugarcubes whose lead singer Bjork was to became one of the most original and innovative female recording artists of all time.


Thank god for Bjork

As with most cases in life, it is not those at the vanguard who reap the rewards of their struggles. Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Courtney Love (Hole), PJ Harvey, Riot Grrrl, Sleater-Kinney, Grace Jones, Beth Ditto (Gossip), Poison Ivy Rorschach (The Cramps) and the stunning Skin (Skunk Anansie) were to find their journeys just that little bit more easier because of the women who had gone before. In turn, this made for a more creative and fertile music scene for the rest of us to enjoy. It would of be interesting to hear the views of these female artists regarding female artists in the mainstream pop world today. I can only guess that for many it will be a case of raised eyebrows and recognition that syrup manufactured girl pop groups will always have a place.

I struggle to envisage many will sign up to the ‘girl power’ of the Spice Girls call to arms, “I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna really really really wanna zigazig ha.”  In truth, their struggle and achievements will seldom be recognised in the mainstream, because the mainstream needs to be controlled and manipulated from above. The advent of technologies has in many ways released the creative artist to pursue their particular path, but success on a scale that will enable economic independence remains a long way off for many female artists.  As a father of 3 daughters, it is with great relief that when foraging around Bandcamp I have discovered such an amazing range of female artists who are producing some truly magnificent material. To name a few: