Thursday, 24 March 2011

'So easily excited, we were having a party but we weren't invited.' - Peter Laughner

I wouldn't imagine Acute Pancreatitis is a nice way to go. The sudden and severe inflammation of the organ that regulates digestion resulting in unbearable abdominal pain, usually sending the body into shock, leading to multiple organ failure doesn't sound like a walk in the meadow. It's usually brought on by heavy alcohol and/or drug abuse.

Consuming large quantities of alcohol and drugs was probably the thing that Peter Laughner was third best at. He succumbed to the aforementioned disease in 1977 (ironically, the year that Punk, a genre he helped to create, finally took off) at the astonishingly young age of 24 after sustained substance problems, and initially left barely a scratch on the music world he was so desperate to be a part of.

If I was going to hazard a guess at what Laughner was second best at, it would probably be music writing. He contributed regularly to CREEM magazine, idolised Lester Bangs and championed a number of artists, including The Velvet Underground and Television. The man had taste. 

His forté was undoubtedly as a songwriter, though. For a man that there's hardly any record of actually entering a recording studio, he managed to get down a sizeable amount of material, mostly home recorded demos, and later some live recordings, and one thing that is absolutely staggering to appreciate is how varied, interesting and versatile he was as a songwriter and guitarist. Capable of proto-punk savagery with Rocket From The Tombs (most notable for their song Ain't It Fun, covered by Guns 'n' Roses on The Spaghetti Incident?) as well as more interesting, experimental work with Pere Ubu (a band that he did actually manage to record with, but left after just two singles due to his ongoing battle with drug addiction), he was also a stunningly poignant, sensitive lyricist, capable of the lighest touch. In fact, it is arguably this versatility, making him impossible to pigeonhole, that limited his reach among potential fans and would-be admirers of his work.

The best example of Laughner's lyrical prowess and emotionally wrought delivery is on the posthumously released compilation Take the Guitar Player for a Ride, a record sadly now out of print and therefore unavailable, aside from a rather below-par bootleg version. On the magnificent Amphetamine, he eschews any sneering, punk sensibilities to deliver a harrowing Springsteen-esque vocal that is both poignant (given his subsequent demise) and emotional. It dances along for over eight minutes, yet never outstays its welcome.

Peter Laughner was and is a criminally underrated contributor to modern music. He was undoubtedly a key protagonist in the birth of Punk and New Wave in the United States. In my view, he was arguably as important as The Stooges and The MC5, without which there'd be no Ramones. A man whose life seemed to be tarnished with such disappointment and personal problems culminating in an untimely and painful death deserves to be lauded for the beautiful, understated music he created.

'Come around, make it soon. So alone.' - Syd Barrett

It’s interesting how, while some artists will go to great lengths to build up a myth, others have one built for them. Syd Barrett is probably most well known for his mental disintegration, culminating in him dying at the age of 60 in 2006 as a recluse in his hometown of Cambridge. Not only had he not spoken to the press for nearly 40 years, he’d hardly spoken to anyone at all.

The tales about Barrett’s antics are as tall as they are numerous, but behind the mystique and absurdity was an almost unrivalled talent. Syd Barrett was one of Britain’s songwriting greats.
A lyricist and musician way ahead of his time, Barrett joined the nascent Pink Floyd (then called ‘The Tea Set’) sometime in 1965, and once they got their let’s-do-loads-of-American-RnB-covers stage out of the way (as seemed to be the custom for just about every fledgling British band of the time), he guided and steered them into a visionary outfit, forging ahead in psychedelia and improvisational performance with his innovative, virtuoso guitar playing and inspiration.

Unfortunately, the beginning was also the end for Barrett, as with each passing song written and each live performance completed, he became more and more odd and unpredictable before leaving the band altogether in 1968. At that point, he’d contributed around 90% of the band’s songs (including two of the greatest singles of all time: the fantastical, voyeuristic Arnold Layne and the timeless See Emily Play), but had stopped performing with them live; he would amble across the stage, guitar slung aimlessly around his neck and stare into space.

It is at this point it becomes almost impossible to separate the myth from the reality. One thing we do know for sure is that Barrett did take more mind-altering drugs than was healthy. But that’s only part of the story. He was a fragile character from the very start. In fact, Dave Gilmour remarked that Barrett’s nervous breakdown would have ‘probably happened anyway’. His propensity for LSD exacerbated the problem rather than seeding it.

It is, however, unfortunate that his breakdown stole the limelight over his ability as a songwriter. Everyone knows the stories:

Syd’s mate locked him in a cupboard for three days straight while out of his mind on LSD, Syd locked his girlfriend in a room and only fed her biscuits under the door, again, while high on acid. Syd crushed Mandrax into his Brylcreem and let the stage lights melt it all down his face.

All three stories obviously involving heavy drug use, but all three stories probably untrue.

There are enough true stories to go on if you’re that way inclined. For example, he probably did walk all the way from London to Cambridge when he’d had enough of England’s capital never to return, he did walk out on recording sessions halfway through with no explanation (in fact, it got to the point that when the rest of the musicians saw him turn left out of the studio they knew it meant he’d gone for a cup of tea and would probably be back. If he turned right, he’d gone and that would be that), and he did turn up to a Floyd recording session years after he’d left the band, almost completely mute, brushing his teeth while holding the toothbrush still and jumping up and down to clean them. He’d also shaved all his body hair off by that point and was much heavier than his slender figure of days of yore to the point where no-one recognised him.
He had gone from this to this.

Again, there are enough true stories about Barrett to keep those of that persuasion firmly entranced, so the other apocrypha shouldn’t get in the way. But the important thing to remember is that Barrett’s songs are by far the most effective way of getting inside his character and finding out what he thought, did and felt. From the very first songs he contributed to Floyd to his final, disjointed solo work, the songwriting is a journey into his soul.
The song I’ve chosen to accompany this entry is Here I Go, the centrepiece of Barrett’s first solo record The Madcap Laughs (Harvest/EMI). By this stage, Barrett had progressed from his rangey, psychedelic wig-outs to a more rounded, lyric-led style and to the uninitiated, it’s a classic slice of 60s British pop; a young man, rejected by a girl, woos her sister instead. But it’s so much more than that. The tempo speeds up and slows down seemingly at random, the imagery it conjures up is at the same time surreal yet also vintage 1960s England. It’s classic Barrett. You want to know the time signature? Just try to keep up. You want to know what I’m REALLY talking about? Listen a hundred times, you’ll get there eventually.
He had a tremendous ability for projecting exactly what he was feeling onto record and sharing it with the listener. In fact, it’s hard to think of a British songwriter that could execute that particular facet of songwriting more effectively. David Bowie is the obvious retort to that claim, yet he is, by his own admission, heavily indebted to Barrett.

Everyone with a passing interest in music knows a story about Syd Barrett. Indeed, he was surely the most extraordinary eccentric British popular music has ever produced. But how many people have taken the time to listen to his work? Because in my mind, there is no better way to appreciate his remarkable talent than by putting on some headphones and actually listening to what he had to say.

'They say the blind man don't see nothin' when he dreams.' - CW Stoneking

In the mid-1930s, Robert Johnson transformed himself very quickly from an ‘embarrassingly bad guitarist’ (not my words, the words of the great Son House) into one of the most important blues musicians of all time, and the King of the Delta Blues style that underpinned much of what followed in popular music.
As the now often recounted tale goes, he was alleged to have sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads near a plantation in Mississippi in exchange for the ability to master the six string weapon he was attempting to use to tell his stories of love, loss and hoodoo. The Devil apparently took his guitar from him, tuned it, played a couple of numbers (I don’t know which ones, but I’d certainly love to find out) and handed it back to him. Johnson was transformed into a mesmerising, complex guitarist, who was suddenly not only adept within Blues, but also other related genres too. My favourite Johnson moment is undoubtedly the ragtime-influenced ‘They’re Red Hot’, which arguably isn’t even Blues at all.
The veracity of this tale is clearly up for debate. The more time passes, the more sceptical we become, and this sort of Faustian tale isn’t going to wash with the majority of right-thinking people in 2011.
But, to question the veracity of the story is to miss the point.
Throughout the history of popular music, the best artists have built a world and a myth around them and resided within it. They’ll construct a series of tales that add to their legend and blur the lines between fiction and reality. When Bowie transformed himself into the androgynous Ziggy Stardust, it was not enough to dress like him and sing songs about him. He had to believe there was only Five Years until the end of the world, he had to become him. Johnson’s tall tales were simply an extension of his myth, which he propagated further with his songs ‘Me and the Devil’ and ‘Hellhound on my Trail’. The music may have been primitive, but he knew the value of a good story.
C.W. Stoneking is a character. No-one can live in the manner that he apparently lives; taking sloops to Africa, being washed up in shipwrecks and owning the last Dodo in existence. But he means it. He lives it, and because he lives it, we believe it. To see Stoneking live is to take a time-machine back 75 years as he stops to tell us about his time as a Hoodoo Doctor’s assistant, before breaking into another song with his Primitive Horn Orchestra.
To listen to Stoneking on record is to be transfixed to the point of hypnosis for 40 minutes as he gallivants around the Deep South, administering potions to would-be sweethearts after escaping 25 years hard labour (the sentence sent down by a ‘monkey in an old wicker chair’, naturally) in sub-Saharan Africa where he was washed up in a shipwreck. Meanwhile, he pays homage to General Douglas MacArthur and his sterling efforts in the Pacific in World War II.
As an aside, the reason the homage to MacArthur, emotively titled ‘Brave Son of America’, is such an important song on his Jungle Blues record is because it adds context. To reference a prominent figure in history within the era you’re trying to resurrect is a smart move, it covers the entire set of stories with a varnish of authenticity.
The song I’ve chosen to accompany this post, the yodelling ‘Talkin’ Lion Blues’, isn’t necessarily his strongest work on his second record Jungle Blues (out on King Hokum), but it perfectly encapsulates the importance of building a myth as an artist. Our protagonist starts off as a gold miner, has a brief tête-á-tête with a talking lion, and, well, I’ll leave the rest to Mr Stoneking. He’s a much better storyteller than me.