39. Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key – Woody Guthrie

Thank you all for singing these songs…it’s kind of like a sci-fi vaccination, awakening 50 year old sleeping lyrics with everyone’s various kisses and loving touches. Thank you for bringing my father’s songs to life — Nora Guthrie

In the spring of 1995, Nora Guthrie, daughter of American folk pioneer Woody Guthrie, approached Billy Bragg with an idea.

After his death in 1967, Woody had left behind hundreds of songs, written at his home in Mermaid Avenue, Long Island. Written yet unrecorded, and with scant hints as to their music.

The idea was to resurrect these lost songs for a new generation.

Cover of 'Mermaid Avenue' by Billy Bragg & Wilco

Over the next few years, Billy pored over the extensive archives and, in collaboration with perennial US alt-country rockers Wilco, set a number of the songs to music, and set to recording them.

The result was 1998’s Mermaid Avenue. 15 songs ranging from the nonsense verse of Hoodoo Voodoo, written for Woody’s children, to Ingrid Bergman, a lasciviously unrequited ode to the Swedish screen sex bomb. Two further volumes have subsequently been released, and to do it justice, the Mermaid Avenue project probably deserves a longer, dedicated piece written about it.

Well, this isn’t it, not yet. Instead, as per the site rules—which I totally made up once—I have to choose a song. It could easily be any song from the album, but I’ve chosen Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.

This is the first track I ever heard from the album, no doubt via Bob Harris, and remains a favourite. It’s a nice fit here because it’s a song about the life-affirming power of song.

Woody grew up in a town called Okemah, capital of Okfuskee County, Oklahoma:

I lived in a place called Okfuskee

This is very much the territory which will be familiar to anyone who has read Woody’s memoirs, Bound for Glory. In a hollow tree in Okfuskee he meets a nice young lady:

She said it’s hard for me to see
How one little boy got so ugly
Yes, my little girly, that might be
But there ain’t nobody that can sing like me

An inauspicious start perhaps, but straight away we see the defiance, the strength that music brings. “I ain’t got much, but I can sing.”

Things seem to pick up, by and by, as Woody and the girl walk and talk by the creek, particularly enjoying watching carnivorous wildlife, while Woody turns on his own hungry charms. Perhaps things start to go too well for her mother’s liking:

Her mama cut a switch from a cherry tree
And laid it onto she and me
It stung lots worse than a hive of bees
But there ain’t nobody that can sing like me

Again, we see the power of song as a painkiller, both emotional and physical. And as the years go by, the ladies do seem to remain convinced:

Now I have walked a long long ways
And I still look back to my tanglewood days
I’ve led lots of girls since then to stray
Saying, ain’t nobody that can sing like me

The recorded song is beautifully arranged. Billy sings, accompanied by members of Wilco, and edifying harmonies courtesy of the incomparable Natalie Merchant. Reading the liner notes, I also see Eliza Carthy on violin. It’s all a bit of a treat for the music nerd, really.

Billy Bragg was clearly a inspired choice to be the interpreter of these songs: as a lifelong Woody Guthrie fan, not to mention something of a kindred spirit with Woody, both musically and politically, he just gets it. Moreover, he’s just really good at songs and music and stuff.

It’s truly wonderful to be able to enjoy such important, valuable music which might otherwise have gone unheard.

Artist: Billy Bragg & Wilco
Album: Mermaid Avenue
Writer: Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg
Producer: Wilco & Billy Bragg with Grant Showbiz
Released: Elektra, 1998

[Books] How to Write One Song – Jeff Tweedy

To me, showing up with a reliably open heart and a will to share whatever spirit you can muster is what resonates and transcends technical perfection — Jeff Tweedy

Perhaps best known as the frontman and songwriter for alt-country rockers Wilco, Jeff Tweedy has a formidable portfolio as a songwriter. Alongside having written 17 albums for Wilco, he is a former member of—and main songwriter for—Uncle Tupelo and Golden Smog among others; he has released four solo albums to date; and is a long-time collaborator with Mavis Staples, no less, producing and contributing songs to three albums for the gospel legend.

Book cover of 'How to Write One Song' by Jeff Tweedy

Make no mistake: the dude knows how to write a song, and with such a prolific track record, Jeff should be more than qualified to author a book titled How to Write One Song.

From the outset, it’s clear that this is not just another a songwriting manual. It’s all good, practical advice, for sure, but at just 158 pages, How to Write One Song is eminently readable. Jeff is an engaging and personable host, and he knows what he’s talking about. Rather than tell the reader what they should and should not do, this is more an insight into the author’s own experience, and a synthesis of various tips and tricks which work well for him.

The book is comprised of four main parts:

  1. Finding the habit or mindset conducive to everyday creativity, and to losing oneself in it. Being able to “get gone long enough for one song to appear”
  2. Practical exercises to get those songwriting juices flowing, such as “Word Ladder”, “Playing With Rhymes”, and “Don’t Be Yourself”—a surprisingly liberating exercise in writing from the perspective of others
  3. Recommendations for developing as a songwriter, for example learning other people’s songs, and freeing oneself of the constrictive pressure of expectation that everything you write should be good
  4. Bringing it all together by using the outcomes of the exercises, combined with stockpiled words and music, to create and demo a finished song

And there you have it. In Jeff’s words: “To me, that’s ONE song. The one you’ve been working on, the one that’s the goal of writing and reading this book.”

The approach of attempting to write one song, rather than many, is refreshing. Certainly, it makes for a far less daunting proposition to the newcomer than the ambition of becoming an accomplished, prolific songwriter, but moreover:

No one writes songs—plural. They write one song, then another. [What you really want] is to disappear—to watch your concept of time evaporate, to live at least once inside a moment when you aren’t “trying” to do anything or be anything any more…That’s something that doesn’t happen through songs—plural. It happens only when you’ve lost yourself in the process of making one song

Where traditional songwriting manuals tend to focus on the craft of writing, How to Write One Song tacitly acknowledges a duality and perhaps tension in songwriting—-or any creative pursuit—of art versus craft, inspiration vs perspiration. It’s easy to get hung up, assuming that one cannot write a song until inspiration strikes.

That can be kind of a bummer, since inspiration doesn’t always come easy, and rarely can it be forced. Instead the approach here is primarily to remove the obstacles to inspiration. If that means practical steps, such as making sure to pick up a pen or a guitar or a tape recorder every day, or psychological processes such loosening one’s own expectations, to “have a party and not invite any part of your psyche that feels a need to judge what you make as a reflection of yourself”, so be it:

I believe that you have to invite inspiration in. I’ve found that most people who have a fulfilling life in art are, like me, the people who work at it every day…who not only invite inspiration in but also do it on a regular basis. Instead of waiting to be “struck” by inspiration, they put themselves directly in its path.

This is a valuable work and a rarity among “How to” songwriting books, in that the author genuinely gets it, and is more than willing to share it with the reader.


All of which leads inevitably to the question: did I get a song out of it?

Well, no, not yet. It will take time to work through the exercises, for example, not to mention the stockpiling of words and fragments of music, all of which the book recommends. Moreover, it may take a while to come to terms with exploring outside one’s creative comfort zone. Perhaps there’s a follow-up post to be written here at some point [1].

My own procrastination notwithstanding, this is a hugely inspiring and compelling book, and one which does help the reader to feel that they can write a song. Or, if they’ve already written at least one, that they can do it again, and better. Or at least more deliberately.

I use the term “deliberately” because, for my part, How to Write One Song has triggered an interest in addressing the process or, dare I say it, craft of songwriting. Perhaps in previous writing endeavours—about 30 years now—I’ve allowed myself to get hung up on the art. A song had to be totally honest and from the heart: to cure not only my pain, but all the pain in the world. The One True Song, as it were.

A laudable ambition for sure, but where has that got me? Songs that I’ve actually finished in the last decade probably still number in the single figures. I’m reasonably proud of them, but is that what Jeff describes as “a fulfilling life in art”? You decide.

Either way, How to Write One Song will be a valuable companion along the way. It’s one to read again, and probably one to keep on hand at all times, as there are countless valuable ideas in there. A hearty Three Hundred Songs thumbs up from here.

Notes

[1] Or, a much better idea, take a look at How to write one song (according to Jeff Tweedy) over on the very useful The Songwriter’s Workshop channel.

Title: How to Write One Song
Author: Jeff Tweedy
Published: Faber & Faber, London, 2020
This Edition: Faber & Faber, London, 2022; paperback

38. Sexuality – Billy Bragg

I’ve come to believe that empathy is the currency of popular music. It’s what we offer the listener in return for their time — Billy Bragg

Here at Three Hundred Songs, we’re a big fan of Billy Bragg. Sexuality is one of Billy’s biggest—by which I mean his very few—hits, having reached the lower half of the Top 40 back in 1991.

It’s a joyous, upbeat song with some great lyrics, but it always struck me as somewhat dissociative in its identity. Bear with me. This is a song about sexuality, right?

I’ve had relations with girls from many nations
I’ve made passes at women of all classes
And just because you’re gay, I won’t turn you away

That checks out. Let’s see what the chorus has to say:

Sexuality
Strong and warm and wild and free
Sexuality
Your laws do not apply to me

Definitely about sexuality, then. Something of a legal curveball at the end there, but let’s crack on:

A nuclear submarine sinks off the coast of Sweden

Wait, what?

I had an uncle who once played
For Red Star Belgrade

Events take a turn for the abstract, Billy treating us to all best the rhyming couplets he can find in his songwriting stockpile of words:

I look like Robert De Niro
I drive a Mitsubishi Zero

I had to look it up, but that’s not even a car. You’re just having a laugh now, aren’t you Bill?

Affectionate ribbing—and non-sequiturs about football teams and aeroplanes apart—the song really is about sexuality after all. In the final couple of verses, we return to subject matter such as sexual dysfunction, safe sex, and sexual equality:

I feel a total jerk
Before your naked body of work

Safe sex doesn’t mean no sex
It just means use your imagination

Sexuality
We can be what we want to be

The line “We can be what we want to be” sums the song up well: fundamentally inclusive and egalitarian. Indeed, many years later, Billy would reword the first verse to be trans-inclusive:

Just because you’re they
I won’t turn you away
If you stick around
I’m sure that we can find the right pronoun

With crushing inevitability, the perpetually outraged trans-exclusionary “feminists” didn’t like that much. But they make a point of not really liking anything, so who cares.

It’s also a shame that small, reactionary pockets of the homosexual community similarly took offence, accusing Billy of “erasing” gay people by, I guess, not mentioning each and every one of them by name.

Predictably, the general-purpose right-wing gammon contingent also had a meltdown and an expletive-laden cry-wank in the corner of Swindon Wetherspoon’s, gibbering meaningless syllables like “woke”, “mob” and “small boats”, probably.

It’s a sad indictment of humanity in the twenty-first century that a song purely about humanity, inclusivity and fun can bring out the worst, most bigoted side in certain people. The Milkman of Human Kindness is going to need a bigger float.

Artist: Billy Bragg
Album: Don’t Try This at Home
Writer: Billy Bragg, Johnny Marr
Producer: Grant Showbiz, Johnny Marr
Released: Go! Discs, 1991

Last Friday of the Month, January 2024

Welcome to the second instalment of the monthly Three Hundred Songs update, published with metronomic inevitablity on the last Friday of the month.

Site Roundup

This project is primarily about songs, which is convenient, because there are many. And many of them have a personal resonance. Writing about John Otway’s Geneve was quite intimate, as was Terence Trent D’Arby’s Holding On To You from my student days.

Alongside new stuff, I’m slowly revisiting the older posts. It’s all just part of trying to improve as a writer, and this month we have rewrites of Sweet Little Mystery by John Martyn, and Still Shaking by The Ashtray Hearts.

There are new ideas too. For example, I’m having a try at book reviews. Because I think an important skill for a writer is to be able to read—by which I mean, to read critically and objectively—I’m going to do it in public and talk about books sometimes. I’ve started with Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste by Lester Bangs:

If there is a consistent theme to the oeuvre of Lester Bangs as a whole, it is that of Lester Bangs himself. Make no mistake: Lester Bangs writes in the first person.

There will be more, like it or not.

Indeed, please do stay tuned, because I have a few other ideas in the works. Some are quite ambitious, including some much longer-form pieces. Can’t promise it’ll all be worth the wait, but be nice, I’m trying here.

Out and About

January can be a bit quiet for gigs, but I still got to see the mighty British Lion roar. Obviously, Steve Harris is as close to bona fide rock royalty as you can get. Despite his questionable choice in football club, the chance to see him rock, up close in a smaller venue, was pretty special.

Another highlight was ONIPA. They are described as Afro-futurists, and whilst I don’t really know what that means, they very nearly took the roof off the building. Along with throbbing support from local legends Hobo Chang, that was a vintage evening for our little town.

Speaking of Hobo Chang, check out Fiona’s new shop, Red Rocket Music.

Around the Web

There are still plenty of decent blogs (remember blogs?) and this month I’ve been enjoying both Here Comes The Song and No Badger Required. You’ll hear more about both in these pages in the fullness of internet time.

The Bob Harris Archive is a great resource. Bob has introduced the UK to some of the best music of all time and the Archive is a great insight into the radio part of his career. Just hit the search button and you’re guaranteed to find something worth discovering.

Artist of the Month

Artist of the Month is Sarah Jarosz. To be fair, artist of pretty much any month is Sarah Jarosz, and not just because I have a giant crush on her and would happily welcome her to become the next Mrs. Threehundredsongs.

Here in the UK, we first learned of Sarah when she was about four years old and still at music school. That—as with so much of our musical education—was thanks to Transatlantic Sessions. Run Away, with Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas, is beautiful, and not just for someone “at such a young age”, as Sarah so diffidently puts it:

Shrewsbury Folk Festival are very, very good at Internet, so here is a lovely full set from Sarah, from there in 2017 or so:

And of course, she then formed superdupergroup I’m With Her with the amazing Aiofe O’Donovan and Sara Watkins. Here they are from NPR‘s legendary Tiny Desk series:

It’s hard to imagine three more talented musicians being so damn compatible.

Sarah just gets better and better, and it’s gratifying to watch her own songwriting and musical style develop into…I don’t want to say “maturity”, because thats overrated. I just hope she doesn’t let herself get sucked too far into the commercial/mainstream, as the production values on one or two of her recent videos might suggest. What she has is unique and special.

Mixtape

Each month I’m putting together a little playlist of music that’s been on my mind, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Previous Months

  • January 2024 – Sarah Jarosz, ONIPA, Hobo Chang, Lester Bangs
  • December 2023 – Zoë Wren, Sam Kelly, Matt Williamson, Ricky Ross

37. Geneve – John Otway

For several decades, John Otway has ploughed something of a lone, idiosyncratic furrow. Casual observers will tend to know him as the crazed lunatic, the wild man of post-punk pop with the batshit stage antics. Yet there is a great deal more to him than falling off amplifier cabinets and landing on his nads, or belting vocals out from atop a stack of beer crates, white shirt torn wide open.

Tucked away at the end of 1976’s eponymous debut LP John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett, Geneve makes for quite a contrast with the more familiar rockers such as Cheryl’s Going Home, or Otway’s actual bona fide hit, Really Free.

This one is about a lost love. Which would be standard songwriter fare, except in this case, Lisa isn’t lost to a rival suitor: she is lost to a city. A city with which John pleads, asking Geneva to kindly take care of her:

Geneve, take her to yourself
And watch her while she rests
‘Cause she talks of you as home

Not to break the habit of a lifetime, our man takes solace in music, and his dreams—although in John’s case it was always really more of a vocation—of pop stardom:

For she is so young, and my dreams
Will see me playing for the screaming ladies of Los Angeles

For I am still young, and it’s true
That I don’t forget her, and I don’t regret and I’m not going to
And as I wipe away all the traces of Lisa blues
It is my shoes that walk across the stage for the applause

This is all especially poignant since it’s a true story. There really was a Lisa, and she really did move to Geneva. And of course John really did make it on to Top of the Pops and—perhaps more famously—Old Grey Whistle Test.

The original version of Geneve, found on the debut album, really is a surprise, with its lush, orchestral arrangement. It’s purely a personal opinion, or course, but for me, the stripped down, John + guitar interpretation is more powerful, so that’s the clip I’ve posted up top there.

That clip is from rather nice ATV documentary from some considerable time ago, which someone has helpfully converted from VHS and posted to the web. The whole thing is worth a watch, as it gives a very perceptive insight into the man himself, and what makes him tick.

What’s particularly wonderful is that, at the age of 71 years young, John Otway is still going strong, gigging regularly and delighting audiences in venues in every town, from tiny bars to, well, medium-sized bars. Indeed, Threehundredsongs was lucky enough to see him live twice in 2023, first with legendary sideman—and producer of this song—Wild Willy Barrett, and later as a surprise guest of The Blockheads.

He has very much still got it. Can’t complain.

Artist: John Otway
Album: John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett
Writer: John Otway
Producer: Wild Willy Barrett
Released: Extracked Records, 1976

36. Holding On To You – Terence Trent D’Arby

For all the music that we hear, it’s very rare for a song to actually stop you in your tracks. Yet that’s what happened to me when I first heard Terence Trent D’Arby’s Holding On To You in early 1995.

Album cover of Terence Trent D'Arby's Vibrator

I would have been living up in Edinburgh in those days, and vividly remember this coming on the radio as I was setting off one morning, presumably to lectures or perhaps a spot of busking in Rose Street. I just stood there motionless until the song had played through, before wandering out into the Scottish cold in a mild daze.

I left the east side for a west coast beauty
A girl who burned my thoughts like kisses
She was down by street decree
She swore she’d pull my best years out of me

I may not have even realised this was Terence Trent D’Arby, an artist some might have all but dismissed in those days. His huge chart success in the 80s, and seemingly unavoidable presence in every bloomin’ issue of Smash Hits magazine, would see him lumped together with the intolerable mainstream pop dross of that era. Not for me, that stuff: I was into far cooler things. Like Bon Jovi and Europe.

In retrospect, TTD was a cut above the ubiquitous Stock Aitken Waterman-produced bubblegum of that era. I mean, the boy sure could sing, for a start.

Almost a decade later, on Holding On To You, that voice is in scintillating form too, as Tel channels his inner Otis Redding or Sam Cooke to tell us all about his “tangerine girl” with “tambourine eyes” and a “chamomile smile”. I have no idea what any of those things are, but she does sound nice.

Why me of all the tough-talking boys?
I guess she heard my heartbeat through the noise

Her face was my favourite magazine
Her body was my favourite book to read

The lyrics are sheer poetry. Which raises issues for Terence since:

All poets must have an unrequited love
As all lovers must have thought-provoking fears

But the redemption is there, if only Terence will allow it:

Holding on to you means letting go of pain
Means letting go of tears
Means letting go of rain
Holding on to you
Means letting sorrows heal
Means letting go of what’s not real

He’s pretty much nailed what it’s like though, hasn’t he.

The entire piece is written, arranged and produced by TTD himself, but unlike many tracks on Vibrator, he does let other musicians have a go at performing it, at least. Which is perhaps for the best, because the arrangements are worth it. The horns are straight out of 1960s Memphis, and layered with fuzz-wah soaked guitar melodies. The voice is front and centre, of course, and it all combines into something unique and quite special.

By 1995 the name “Terence Trent D’Arby” was not long for this world, the artist formerly known thereas soon renaming himself Sananda Maitreya due to, I don’t know, a three-headed octopus Buddha ordering him to do so in a dream, probably. It’s hard to be certain whether anyone noticed, either way. But he’s still out there, plying his own completely bonkers furrow.

The jury is perhaps still out on much of the more recent stuff, but there’s plenty of it to explore. I’ll stick some of examples on the playlist, along with some of the earlier stuff, and one or two things from Stax—that label clearly being a big influence in the making of this song.

Artist: Terence Trent D’Arby
Album: Vibrator
Writer: Terence Trent D’Arby
Producer: Terence Trent D’Arby
Released: Columbia, 1995

[Books] Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste – Lester Bangs

Once described as “America’s greatest rock critic”, Lester Bangs was one of the USA’s most noted music writers of the 1970s and beyond, exciting and infuriating readers in equal measure until his untimely death in 1982.

The cover of Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste

Writing regularly in Rolling Stone magazine, alongside underground publications such as Creem and The San Diego Door, Bangs could be as controversial as he was influential: he could just as easily be found trashing everyone from Billy Joel to the MC5, and declaring the Beatles to be “nothing”, as eulogising Lou Reed’s wilfully unlistenable Metal Machine Music.

Compiled by music journalist John Morthland and published in 2003, Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste is a posthumous collection of Bangs’ work. Comprising several dozen largely unconnected writings, including a number of previously unpublished pieces, the book is presented as a companion volume to the earlier, Greil Marcus-edited Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.

Morthland was a colleague of Bangs, the two writers sharing an office at Rolling Stone, and claims him as a “great friend”. Moreover, it soon becomes clear that Morthland is also a fan, describing Bangs’ work as by turns “electric” and “explosive”, whilst acknowledging its inherent controversy and contradiction.

Indeed, it isn’t necessary to read far into Mainlines… before it becomes uncomfortably clear that a sizeable tranche of Bangs’ writings would not, or perhaps could not, be published these days. On learning of Anne Murray’s “large lesbian following”, Bangs writes:

Don’t let that worry you…this little katy’s as straight as a yardarm except for her perfect pearly tits and roundy mound o’ bush and arco droolo calves.

Creem, September 1973

And of Helen Reddy, in what purports to be an album review:

What everybody doesn’t know is the hot pulsating goodies Helen Reddy’s got to offer up. Cum here woman, do your duty; drop them drawers and gimme some pooty! But no, this is one Boopsy won’t do the do—she’s a holdout, she’s not even a tease. [At least] Anne Murray was demure but carnal.

Creem, August 1974

I guess the woke leftie mob have won if we can’t write about our female artists like that nowadays, am I right lads?

This is before the reader is expected to struggle through the unnecessary, anatomically-detailed exposition of what Bangs would like to do to Runaways vocalist Cherie Currie’s genitals, and have her do to his, should the chance arise. There are about a dozen unwelcome pages of that without mention of the fact that she’s a musician. You can hardly blame her for picking up that chainsaw.

The fact is, if you want Lester Bangs to be likeable from the get-go just like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous made him seem, you’re going to be sadly, sadly disappointed. It’s all a bit troublesome at times, and it isn’t difficult see how the #MeToo movement gained such traction in subsequent decades.

Thankfully, Bangs does appear to mature as time wears on, or at least tailor his style to context and start to talk about the music a little. To be fair, Bangs did actually know his music, and could at times be motivated to write about it with passion and no little sensitivity.

A case in point is the vignette in which Bangs pays a visit to the Mojave Desert trailer home of one Don Van Vliet—the inimitable Captain Beefheart. In uncharacteristically deferential mood, Bangs displays an insight into Van Vliet’s often intractable art that very few commentators have mustered. For example, noting the recurrent theme of animatism in Beefheart songs such as Run Paint Run Run and Electricity:

I think that partially Don anthropomorphizes animals and objects as a defense against humans, who empirical observation has told him are by and large incomprehensible to themselves as well as him, that’s when they’re not out to getcha. He’s like an Androcles that would chat a spell with Leo but see fangs and claws on a delivery boy.

The Village Voice, 1980

And of long-time sparring partner Lou Reed:

For all his monotonal mutterings, there’s so much pain suffused just under the monotone, so much despair and desire and human regret, that even at his most cynical you can feel him struggling with himself, fighting his demons.

“Blondie”, Lester Bangs, 1980

It steadily becomes clear that behind the loutish, macho bluster, Bangs did actually care about the music, and to no small extent, the musicians themselves.

Beyond the book’s division into themed parts—titles such as Drug Punk, Pantheon and Travelogues speak for themselves—there may be no obvious overarching narrative to Mainlines…, but if there is a consistent theme to the oeuvre of Lester Bangs as a whole, it is that of Lester Bangs himself. Make no mistake: Lester Bangs writes in the first person.

Reviewing Miles Davis’ latest release in 1976:

As for all this new Miles music, I sit here at the end of Agharta with a rubbery weight at the bottom of my heart. I’m no masochist…but I’m not sorry. I have finally learned to [continues]

Phonograph Record, 1976

And published posthumously, from the intended liner notes for a Comedian Harmonists album that remained unreleased in Bangs’ lifetime:

I have no idea what kind of writer I am, except that I do know that I’m good and lots of people read whatever it is that I do, and I like it that way.

The New York Times, 1999

Note the liberal use of the word “I” throughout.

It is unclear whether this subjective, self-referential approach is due to a deep-seated narcissism, a deliberate attempt to foster a cult of personality, or simply the affectation of a literary style. It’s certainly hard to miss the influence of Hunter S. Thompson and his school of gonzo journalism, and as a writer for Rolling Stone in the 1970s, it would have been all but impossible for Bangs to miss it either.

Yet where Thompson regularly assumed the role of protagonist, actively precipitating a story where none was previously forthcoming, Bangs often seems content in the more observational role of journalist-as-participant, whilst never straying from the personal.

For example, a week in Jamaica at the expense of Island Records sees Bangs interviewing future man-god Bob Marley, being privy to watching John Martyn overdub guitar parts for Burning Spear’s forthcoming Man in the Hills LP, and later spending an evening at Rastafarian spiritual service in honour of Grounation. These are rare insights, and the reader can at times feel privileged to have been invited along for the ride.

It’s a shame that the book kind of peters out towards the end, with the final part, Raving, Raging, and Rebops, sufficing as a kind of dumping ground for miscellaneous leftovers—unpublished liner notes, non sequiturs concerning REO Speedwagon and, yes, the aforementioned piece about Cherie Currie.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, it’s appropriate, since Lester Bangs’ own life fizzled out fairly unspectacularly, ending in 1982 as a result of an accidental overdose of cold medications. He was 33.

I’ll probably never produce a masterpiece, but so what? I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own, and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus while this stupefying world careens crazily past his waxy windows towards its last raving sooty feedback pirouette.

— Previously unpublished, 1968

Decades later, the jury may well still be out on the matter of whether it’s better to burn out than to fade away—or indeed whether such an anticlimactic end counts as either—but here we are, still talking about the man and his work. It’s what he would have wanted.

Title: Mainlines, Blood Feasts & Bad Taste
Author: Lester Bangs; compiled and edited by John Morthland
Published: Anchor Books, New York, 2003
This Edition: Serpent’s Tail, London, 2003; paperback

Last Friday of the Month, December 2023

Welcome to the inaugural Last Friday of the Month post. Think of it as like a monthly email newsletter, except without the email.

The aim is to post on, you guessed it, the last Friday of each month, and ramble on a bit about the month in music, at least from my perspective. I’ll be finding my feet with the format for a little while, so be kind.

As if on purpose, this first one coincides with the end of the year. And it has been an interesting year. Well, I started the Three Hundred Songs project, at least. I bought a mandolin too—a man can do some crazy things when he’s sober.

On which note, yes, I quit drinking. That means that the Three Hundred Beers project has slowed to a halt. I need more writing practice if I’m to pull off any of the more ambitious projects I have in the works (of which more another time), so here we are.

Anyway, as for December, let’s see how that panned out:

Out and About

In December I was lucky enough to see live, and in some cases meet:

Not a bad haul. Sam & Jamie—both of The Lost Boys—were a real highlight. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a banjo be made to sound as close to being a real musical instrument as in Jamie’s hands. So buy his book!

Those all rather nicely rounded out a year in which I saw, among many others: Jesca Hoop, Miranda Sex Garden, Martin and Eliza Carthy together, Stereo MCs, Otway & Barrett, plus Gong and Ozric Tentacles on the same bill…I could go on.

Of course, the vast majority of my live music exposure is thanks to Colchester Arts Centre, where I get to hang out a few times a week with some great people.

Around the Web/Media

Over on YouTube, I’ve been enjoying Matt Williamson’s Pop Goes the Sixties channel. Sure, it’s probably one for the middle-aged music nerds among you, but I really like Matt’s style: understated yet hugely knowledgeable and well-researched. Mind you, as a Brit, I’m flattered yet bewildered by Matt’s inexplicable obsession with The Beatles. Perhaps start with his epic The Beach Boys History, or perhaps his withering takedown of the all-but irrelevant Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I say “withering”, but Matt raises some subtle points in their defence too.

Alongside presenting the country show on Radio Scotland [listen on BBC Sounds], Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross has a great blog. Yep, that’s an actual, old-fashioned blog, made of real sentences. Which is quite rare these days. Ricky brings insight and common sense to music commentary, and is always worth reading.

During December, friend of Threehundredsongs (well, we once met her) Zoë Wren and her Trio premiered Live at Westlake Studio and it was rather lovely:

From a songwriting point of view, Tom McRae’s The Seven Truths of Songwriting over on TED is very interesting (and contains three songs). See what you think, or whether you agree:

Mixtape

Taking inspiration from Chris Cleverley‘s very good value mailing list, each month I’ll put together a brief playlist of music I’ve been enjoying thoughout the month. Here’s the first one. As ever, enjoy!

35. Light Enough to Travel – The Be Good Tanyas

Album cover of Blue Horse by The Be Good Tanyas

It’s the year 2000, and we find ourselves unexpectedly spending a night on the tiles, and on the booze:

Wound up drunk again on Robson Street
Strange ‘cos we always agreed
At the start of every evening
That’s the last place I wanna be

That’s Robson Street in Vancouver, Canada, home town of the very wonderful Be Good Tanyas.

Singer Frazey Ford’s incomparable voice is at its addictive best here: simultaneously vulnerable yet determined, she’s audibly het up at finding herself in this situation. She hopes the evening won’t take a further turn for the worse:

Promise me we won’t go into the nightclub
I feel so fucked up when I’m in there

Frazey really does not want to go into that nightclub:

Promise me we won’t go into the nightclub
I really think that it’s obscene
What kind of people go to meet people
Someplace they can’t be heard or seen?

It’s a question that has puzzled Threehundredsongs for many years, to be fair.

Light Enough to Travel hails from the Tanyas’ debut LP Blue Horse. The album was initially self-released in Canada alone in 2000, before a remastered version was given a formal release in the US and beyond by Nettwerk Records in 2001.

Reputedly recorded on a minimal budget in a shed somewhere in or around Vancouver, the album has a pleasingly handmade feel throughout: there’s a bluegrassy, old-timey vibe with fittingly stripped-down instrumentation featuring acoustic guitars, mandolin and the inevitable banjo. There are a handful of traditional songs on there (Lakes of Ponchartrain, The Coo Coo Bird et al.) along with the quasi-traditional Oh! Susanna [1].

Within the context of Blue Horse, and with its driving rhythms and eminently singable chorus, Light Enough to Travel has “single” written all over it, but no. Bewilderingly, the song was was never released as such, the only track on the album to garner that honour being the reasonably charming The Littlest Birds. Regardless, Light Enough… is a thumping musical romp, and it’s also a masterclass in writing a proper, grown-up song using only two chords.

As for the refrain:

Keep it light enough to travel
Don’t let it all unravel
Keep it light enough to travel

I’ve been listening to the song for a couple of decades, yet must admit I don’t really know what keeping it light enough to travel means. I guess it’s open to interpretation: I take it to mean not getting overly emotionally committed to a situation, thereby facilitating an easier escape. Which, conversely, might be literally what it means, since:

I had to throw down my accordion
To get away from the police

What this all has to do with nightclubs remains unclear to me.


The Tanyas subsequently released two further albums: Chinatown in 2003, and Hello Love in 2006. As with Blue Horse, each album yielded just the one single, and I’m not sure the charts were unduly troubled by any of those releases, single or album. Solo careers notwithstanding, that seems to be about the last we heard of The Be Good Tanyas as a unit for many years, although intriguingly their website has been teasing “good things” to be on their way since an update in October 2023. So who knows…

As for Robson Street? Well, Threehundredsongs was far too young to be sampling its nightlife when we visited Vancouver in ’86, but I suspect it’s a great deal less fun these days compared to when Frazey was letting it all hang out there. Gone are the historic market and immigrant-run stores which imbued it with so much character, and there seems to be little sign of any seedy bars or nightclubs remaining. Still, if it’s Starbucks, sushi or super-expensive trinkets and ostentatious outfits you’re after, you’re welcome to it.


I’ve been ascribing a lot of the responsibility for the Robson Street-based nocturnal shenanigans to Frazey Ford, but the song is actually a cover, written by not-particularly-well-known-in-the-UK fellow Vancouver songwriter and musician—and presumably owner of the aforementioned accordion—Geoff Berner. I’ve added Geoff’s original of the song to the playlist, along with a version recorded in collaboration with Norwegian folk-rockers Real Ones.

From a songwriting perspective, it’s fascinating to hear how the mood of a song can be so dramatically changed by arrangement and instrumentation alone, despite a barely noticeable shift in tempo. In retrospect, the foot-to-the-floor urgency of the Tanyas’ interpretation might seem at odds with Geoff’s contemplative musings. But it isn’t.

Either way, three versions of the same song is probably quite enough for anyone, so I’ve added a little of what I can find on Spotify from the subsequent careers of the respective Tanyas, solo or otherwise. Frazey gives us three whole albums to discover, while Samantha Parton has just one solo song on Spotify, alongside an album in collaboration with former Be Good Tanya, Jolie Holland. Trish Klein features on Frazey’s solo debut album Obadiah, and of course her work with the wonderful Po’Girl is unmissable.

Notes

[1] I assumed Oh! Susanna to be traditional. I mean, we all sung it as tiny kids at primary school, didn’t we. Yet its provenance is known and the writing credit goes to one Stephen Foster (1826–1864). It turns out that the song has an interesting—and not entirely untroublesome—history, and probably deserves an article of its own.

Artist: The Be Good Tanyas
Album: Blue Horse
Writer: Geoff Berner
Producer: Garth Futcher with The Be Good Tanyas
Released: Self-released, 2000; Remastered and reissued by Nettwerk Records, 2001

34. Heimat – India Electric Co.

Threehundredsongs was lucky enough to catch India Electric Co. live at Colchester Arts Centre earlier this year. I think I was officially supposed to be working, but it may well have been one of those nights where tools are downed early, and the show just simply enjoyed.

Heimat hails from India Electric Co.’s 2015 album The Girl I Left Behind Me, and is heavily based on the 1939 W. H. Auden poem Refugee Blues, the lyrics having been sensitively adapted and set to music by the multi-talented multi-instrumentalists Cole Stacey and Joseph O’Keefe.

The word “Heimat” is part of a sizeable vocabulary borrowed into English from German; borrowed because we don’t have a satisfyingly direct English translation which fits the bill. Perhaps the nearest we have is “homeland”, although “Heimat” isn’t merely geographical: it communicates not just a country, but a sense of place and belonging. A safe haven.

Well, with the benefit of hindsight, we all know what was happening in Europe in 1939. Of course, back then, even W. H. Auden couldn’t possibly have known the full scale of the horrors that were to unfold. The poem gives voice to Jewish emigrés fleeing Nazi Germany…

Once we had a country and we thought it fair

…yet being turned away from other countries where they sought refuge:

“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”

That kind of paranoid sentiment will be familiar to anyone British right now: the racist xenophobia and alarmism of the “small boats” headlines being fomented relentlessly by politicians of all colours.

Back in 1939, Heimat, that sense of place and belonging, that homeland, was denied to countless individuals and families. Cole and Joseph deftly co-opt as the refrain the line:

Where shall we go today, my dear, where shall we go?

It sums the situation up rather well, I feel.

Writing about this subject takes on an added poignancy in present times, our thoughts illuminated against a backdrop of countless more innocent humans being displaced in the Middle East and across the globe.

In a bitterly ironic twist, the oppressed has now become the oppressor. What does it say about human beings that the response to finding oneself on the receiving end of a holocaust is apparently to precipitate a further holocaust of one’s own a few decades later? That to create a “safe haven”, a Heimat dare I say it, for one group of people somehow justifies the wholesale massacre and ethnic cleansing of another?

It’s difficult to stay optimistic sometimes: man’s inhumanity to man should make us all mourn.

It isn’t terribly easy to find a great deal of information about India Electric Co. What we do know is that they hail from South West England, specifically Devon. Much like your author, in fact.

There’s a fascinating interview with the band on Electricity Club about their time as Midge Ure’s backing band. The bit where India Electric Co. evolve from traditional instrumentation to full-on synth bashing came as a surprise to me.

As for the playlist, I’ve added a few India Electric Co. songs, as well as a couple from other artists, such as The Brothers Gillespie, Lady Maisery and Kris Drever, all of whom I was also lucky enough to see live in my early days working volunteer shifts at the Colchester Folk Club. In some cases, I’ve tended towards tracks that have some sort of thematic overlap with Heimat, at least in my mind.

Artist: India Electric Co.
Album: The Girl I Left Behind Me
Writer: Cole Stacey and Joseph O’Keefe; W. H. Auden
Producer: Joseph O’Keefe
Released: 2015; label unknown