Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pictures With Words In Deep Shades of Blue

The Art of The Singer Songwriter.

According to my spellcheck the word “songwriter” doesn’t exist, well at least not as a single word. Folksinger, as a single word, is acceptable, which says a lot because Singer Songwriter became the hipper name for Folksingers when record companies and managers wanted to distance their charges from the bushy beards, bulging beerbellies and sweaty caps of the minority and (apart from Mr. Zimmerman) waning folk genre for their own newer wave of charges who were not considered part of the blossoming rock market but who were very keen to become recording and performing artists.

It would appear that the singer songwriter term was first used to help James Taylor shed his Apple Records skin for his brand new Warner Bros. coat of many colours. But because of the obvious Beatle connection I bought Mr. Taylor’s Warner Bros. Debut, Sweet Baby James, and added it to my fledging collection, which in hindsight could be classed, either directly or indirectly, as being biased towards singer songwriters.

As a reference point here is my all time

Top 20 Classic Singer Songwriter Albums.

(Listed alphabetically)

Beatles - Abbey Road (1969)

Jackson Browne - Late For The Sky (1974)

JJ Cale - Troubadour (1977)

Leonard Cohen - Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)

Crosby, Stills & Nash - Crosby, Stills and Nash (1969)

Neil Diamond - Hot August Nights (1972)

Nick Drake - Bryer Layer (1970)

Lesley Duncan - Sing Children Sing (1971)

Bob Dylan - Time Out Of Mind (1997)

Carole King - Tapestry (1971)

Cat Stevens - Tea For The Tillerman (1970)

Van Morrison - Moondance (1970)

Don McLean - American Pie (1971)

Gilbert O’Sullivan - Himself (1971)

Paul Simon - SongBook (1965)

James Taylor - Sweet Baby James (1970)

Loudon Wainwright III - More Love Songs (1986)

Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombone (1984)

Hank Williams - The Best of (1998)

Neil Young - Everyone Knows This is Nowhere. (1969)

How did I amass this collection? Well mostly by word of mouth. In those pre Amazon days, way, way before their, “if you like this, you might also want to try this,” approach, the key was really self-discovery. Graham Nash was a member of the Hollies and I enjoyed their singles and distinctive vocal approach and I was intrigued by the fact he’d gone to America to form Crosby, Stills & Nash. David Crosby I knew was a member of the Bryds. I’d been introduced to their music because they’d successfully covered a few Dylan songs, not to mention the fact that they’d openly praised the Beatles. Stephen Stills I only knew of his work through the Supper Session album (1968), which I’d bought because the other two key musicians on the album, Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, has done some recording with Dylan. Anyway the CSN combination was enough to tempt me to part with my hard earned cash. I bought the CSN album the day it was released and I loved it, still do. Then there was some CSN connection to Neil Young so I bought his then current album, Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) and loved it so I also purchased his other album, Neil Young. Then David Crosby produced Joni Mitchell’s first album and I bought that, then I read somewhere – probably Rolling Stone, that David Crosby and Graham Nash sang on an album by another new artist called Jackson Browne, and what a reward his album Jackson Browne (nicknamed Saturate Before Use due to the sleeve artwork) turned out to be.

With Nick Drake I bought Bryer Layer because it was on Island Records, that was enough in those days, and I couldn’t believe the absolute heart-wrenching gem I discovered within. Tom Waits was also an Island artist, yes he started on Asylum Records but with his first release on Island (Swordfishtrombone) he totally re-invented the singer-songwriter genre using colours no one had ever dreamed of using before. Around the time of Elton John’s first album, I went to see him and his (then) band Hookfoot record a BBC Radio “In Concert” and during the performance he mentioned Lesley Duncan as being the writer of the hypnotic Love Song, one of the great songs in his set. I scouted out her album, Sing Children Sing, shortly thereafter, probably in Musicland in Dean Street. I was absolutely convinced she was going to become a major artist and perhaps if she’d been based in USA and on Warner Bros. or Asylum, she would have. I was hooked on Gilbert O’Sullivan’s head-turning, gobsmacking, classic single, Nothing Rhymed, but I still wasn’t prepared for how strong his debut album would be; absolutely every track turned out to be a perfectly crafted song. Don McLean was a similar process for me, the singles (American Pie & Vincent) hooked me and the album reeled me in the whole way. Simon and Garfunkel were another matter. I quite liked some of their songs, liked them a lot in fact but I found the production somewhat unsympathetic to the songs. Then I discovered The Paul Simon Songbook and all was fine because I’d another lifelong friend in an album. On and on I worked my way building up my record collection, some – mostly the ones on the above list became life-long friends – while others are tied to memories of a time or a face.

But these were the writers who preferred to do their own songs. At the same time other talented artists like, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, The Carpenters, Jennifer Warnes, Otis Redding, Don Williams and Christy Moore where doing great work interpreting some of the great songwriters of the day and perhaps those albums are for a future top 20.

I apologise in advance if anyone is offended by the fact that I’ve included a few artists I was lucky enough to go on to work with, but… I would also like to point out that in all cases it was the artist’s work, that sooooo made me want to work with them in the first place. Apart from Abbey Road I have not included any bands on the list. The Beatles: okay, okay, I hear you say; it’s PC so the Beatles can’t be very far away… but… in my defense I’ll say by the time of Abbey Road they were not so much a band but more a collective of the finest English songwriters this side of Ray Davies. So what I’m saying is not that Abbey Road is my favorite Beatle album but it is my favorite Beatle album in the singer songwriter category. I’ve also not included more than one album by any artist. It was hard enough to squeeze in all I wanted to include, so several Dylans, or Jackson Brownes, no matter the temptation, was just out of the question. I opted for Van’s Moondance rather than the classic Astral Weeks for this list only because the tracks on Moondance work better as stand alone songs. I’ve also tried to resist including in the above list amazing yet obscure albums; you know, some incredible album, where no one but myself, and literally a few others are aware of said album. So, with this in mind I’ve tried to stick to albums that have enjoyed at least some degree of critical and commercial success.

It’s also most definitely worth noting that the sleeves of all of the above, maybe because of the stature of the albums or maybe because of the physical size of the artwork – 12 inches square - also became iconic.

And finally a special mention in the best-songwriter-never-to-make-an-album section: I’m talking about one of the all time great songwriters, Mr. Bob McDill. He’s had over 30 (and still counting) No. 1 hit singles on Bilboard’s US Country Charts. He’s been covered by everyone from Alan Jackson, Waylon Jennings, Perry Como, Jerry Lee Lewis to Bobby Bare, who recorded an entire album of his songs called Me and McDill. And a very fine album it was too, but, in my humble opinion his songs are at their best when showcased by Don Williams who always included 2 or 3 Bob McDill songs on his excellent collection of successful albums. When I was in Nashville once I tried to track down Bob McDill if only to see if he’d ever made an album. I ended up speaking on the phone to someone from JMI, the publishing company Bob McDill was signed to. The gentleman I was speaking to turned out to be none other than Cowboy Jack Clements and we’d a great long chat. Mr. Clements originally worked as a producer and engineer on sessions with the likes of Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash for Sam Philips at Sun Records. Word has it, it was he who ‘discovered’ and recorded Jerry Lee Lewis when Sam Philips was outta town. Anyway Jack Clements said he’d never been able to persuade Bob McDill to make a serious attempt at a recording career of his own. The writer was more than happy spending his time writing songs and lecturing English classes at a local University. Just as I was giving up hope and feeling I was in danger of overstaying his hospitable welcome, Cowboy Jack Clements mentioned in passing that Bob had recorded several of his songs, just with a few good friends you understand, and mainly for a demonstration disc to be sent out to producers who were considering recording some of the songs for artists they were working on.

“Oh, any chance of buying one of those?” I said with all the subtly of an X Factor contestant.

He laughed (as you do).

I got the picture (as you do).

We chatted some more and as he was closing he did throw me a scrap by saying he’d have a wander around the office, next time he’s a moment to spare and see if he could find a copy of the McDill demo album lying about ... before adding something like, “…but that was ages ago and we didn’t press up very many copies.”

I got back to London, forgot all about it until one day a month or so later a mint copy of Bob McDill’s extremely rare album turned up in the mail. The album was called Short Stories, It escaped (the opposite to having a proper release) in 1972, self-produced, front-room sounding, and contained 10 beautiful songs Bob McDill had written or co-written in 1971 and 1972. The, ‘some of his friends’ who played on the album turned out to be musicians who became regulars on Don Williams albums and tours. The album was in a classy sleeve, complete with lyrics on the back and made from the very stiff American cardboard, which protected the album and the art. Which is probably why I still have it today, and why it’s still in such good condition. Now the reason for the tale is not so much to show lucky I was, because I most certainly was, but more to demonstrate – with his courtesy and eye for detail - how Cowboy Jack Clements ended up being so successful. These things don’t happen by accident.

Maybe more about collecting in the future, but in the meantime...

This time I’ve seen in the cinema:

Black Swan
Get Low
True Grit
The Fighter
Harry Potter Seven Part 1.
Fair Game
The American
Little Forkers
Rabbit Hole
King’s Speech
Blue Valentine
Love and Other Drugs
Season of The Witch
Next Three Days
Never Let Me Go
The Company Men
Barney’s Version
Inside Job
All Good Things
How Do You Know
Country Strong

What can I tell you? I was on holiday and it rained a lot! If it were up to me all the Oscars would go to Hereafter, Low, Fair Game and Inside Job with a special mention for the best trailer to Blue Valentine.

And on the small screen:

The 5th series of Bones
The Apostle

And listened to all of the above albums, which is where we came in, so, until next time…