Mick Green 1944-2010

Johnny Kidd and the Pirates were in the vanguard of the 60s rock and roll movement in Britain, and Mick Green was head of the line of aspiring British guitar players with both the attitude AND the chops to pull it off. Kidd died in 1966, but the late 70s saw the Pirates storm back into action, cementing their reputation with a series of raucous live gigs and a major-label signing. In those days, up-and-coming punk and new wave acts were blown off stage by a bunch of angry men sporting mean expressions and pirate clothes!

In recent years the Pirates sailed on, impressing old and new listeners alike with their high-powered brand of rhythm and blues. Appearances become more scarce as the gentlemen grew older, but a fair amount of the old fire and skill was always in evidence. Unfeasibly loud and forceful, for a bunch of old fellas!

In the last ten years or so, Mick had stints as a sideman with Van Morrison, Paul McCartney and Bryan Ferry.. plus his share of health problems, which have, sadly, now taken their toll.

And it IS sad, because the Pirates meant a lot to me and always will. I first saw them in that 70s renaissance (at Hudderfield Polytechnic, supported by a Cambridge new wave band called The Push, and a Pakistani escapologist!) and many times since then. An understated kind of guitar genius: Paul Burlison and Wilko Johnson rolled into one, more dextrous than either and do you know what? I never ever worked out how Mick Green did what he did.

I’m just happy I saw him do it. RIP, Mick.

After the jump, a Pirates gig review I wrote for Blues in Britain..

Old Music Sacred Days

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – The Smiths

(#8 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

We took a deep breath and held it, in the late post-punk era. Not much joy in serried ranks of earnest young men in long grey raincoats poking desultorily at synthesisers. And that’s definitely what we were missing.. delight, glee, abandon. But we got what we wanted in the end.

Seems odd to take joy from a band oft accused of plumbing the depths of miserabilia? You had to be there. It’s hard to imagine the sheer animal hysteria in a Smiths audience, but I’ve never seen.. devotion like it, before or since.

Peals of chiming chords torn from Marr’s Rickerbacker, Rourke tunefully locked in with Joyce. The stage strewn with gladioli, callow youths a-faint with adulation hurling themselves at Morrissey.. Morrissey flailing, arms aloft, dizzy, elusive.

A few short days after the debut album release, they played Brighton Polytechnic. An impossibly long wait for the band (wasn’t there always, in the 80s?). A rapturous howling response and a lucky thirteen songs [setlist], the stage besieged. I was thunderstruck, back out into the midnight air, dazed but euphoric.

Alas, you ruined the first album for me that night, gentlemen. Though the lyrical impact remained, it was no longer the sound of the majestic Smiths I’d seen, it was just too flat.. dry, distinctly un-thrilling. But later that year, out popped Hatful Of Hollow – their true debut, for me.

Each time I listen to it, I’m half my age and back in that audience, rapt.

P.S. Part 9 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: 1985

Old Music Sacred Days

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – The Human League

(#7 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

Punk didn’t really hit the English northern industrial city of Sheffield as hard as it did elsewhere. “Rebel? What against? I’ve been doing it all my life, mate, every day. I work hard, I play hard and I’m nobody’s fool. There’s only one person in this world who looks after me.. and that’s me. Spotty London w*nkers with cheap guitars? What do I have to listen to that racket for? I want something a bit more glamorous, mate, something that takes me away from grey skies and the noise and heat of the steel furnace, takes me to a different place. Get away from it all, like. Dream a bit.”

1980 – The Human League had come to a grinding halt. A couple of albums of austere arty electronic noise, some critical acclaim but also a fair amount of ridicule from the mainstream, they stalled, unsure of a direction. At a time when virtually anybody with a synthesiser could get a hit (Numan, Foxx, OMD, Ultravox, Visage..) the League couldn’t get past first base.

The major players split. Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware (perceived as the creative core of the League) went to pursue their electronic music ideal. Singer Phil Oakey, and director of visuals Philip Adrian Wright wanted to move in a purer pop direction, but how? Less than half a band, a tour looming, promoters insistent..

Down the Crazy Daisy one night, Oakey saw what he thought might be the League’s salvation. Two teenage girls on a night out, happy, dancing, they looked good together.. Phil took a deep breath and invited them to join the band and tour. Complemented by local musician Ian Burden covering on a variety of keyboards, the second line up of the League took its first few faltering steps.

1981 – New boy Jo Callis knew the value of a good tune, veteran producer Martin Rushent knew how to arrange. The League were a band. The accent was on songs, not style, and finding their soul, they produced one of the most extraordinary albums of the 80s in Dare. Rushent pulled all the strands together: listen to the album today, pick on any stray squiggle or bleep from the electronics, and it works in isolation as a hook, as music. As pop.

Three UK top 20 singles released before the album. The totally bonkers weeping and wailing of ‘Sound Of The Crowd’, the insistent miaow of the opening bars of ‘Love Action’. A semi-autobiographical song about relationships with an irresistible pulse beat? Made for the charts, just made for them. And the teaser for ‘Dare’ in the dreamboat chorus of ‘Open Your Heart’ – a ‘Blue’ song, for Abba fans (according to Phil – ‘Red’ songs were for Spandau Ballet fans).

Then the album, plus a massive hit and Christmas #1, no less, in the days when that actually meant something. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ racked up sales of more than a million, with its classic noir promo. Everyday girls, Joanne and Suzanne, not superstars. Top Shop and Woolworths. Roxy Music and Donna Summer. Dance round your handbag, get off your face on Southern Comfort and lemonade, and have a major hit record.

You can’t ignore the power of popular music. Not when it’s as completely lovable as this.

P.S. Part 8 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: 1984

Old Music Sacred Days

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – Muddy Waters

(#6 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

1979 – I was still loving the blues, more often than not blasted out by a rash of speedy punky British R&B merchants like Nine Below Zero and The Inmates, so what’s a music fan to do but go back to the source, to find out where all that stuff came from?

I was lucky, as it happened, to find Muddy Waters at a time in his life where he was given license to do what he did best.. play the blues, of course.. unencumbered by studio chicanery, no pigeonholes, no commercial considerations (other than to put him back in touch with his fans), under the watchful eye of an empathetic producer and guitarist in Johnny Winter, and backed by like-minded souls sensitive to every on-stage and in-studio move of the Godfather of the Blues, the Man himself.

Muddy electrified and defined the blues for the post-war generation, and over the course of four late-period albums, put himself back in the spotlight for an amazing swan song. The live album was the one I bought first, quickly followed by Hard Again and I’m Ready, Grammy winners all.

Undisputably the real deal: I’d heard nothing like it before: the swarm of angry bees that was Johnny Winter‘s slide guitar, the unmistakeable tone of the slide of the King Bee himself.. Muddy, the black Buddha, pouring out the deep, slow blues (because that’s “where the soul is”, right?). The tasteful restraint of Bob Margolin and Luther Johnson, the contrasting bass styles of Charlie Calmese and Calvin Jones, the rumbling piano of Pinetop Perkins, the literal pattering economy of Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith on drums.. and James Cotton and Jerry Portnoy, who showed me that you could really play harmonica (rather than just breathe in and out of one and make a good noise). That’s quite some roll call.

And perhaps for the first time, the music I was listening to had space: it was concise and crisp. Not so much about what was played, but what wasn’t – creative tension, undertow, timing.. what ever you like to call it. Soul, most certainly. The unvarnished truth.

Muddy Waters was my conduit to a world of blues and soul music, past and present.. a path I’m still walking. Muddy passed away in 1983, but those six years with Blue Sky Records displayed him at full power – an essential final portrait of a legend.

P.S. Part 7 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: 1981

Old Music Sacred Days

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – Thin Lizzy

(#5 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste – a little sidestep here, maybe not so.. predictable)

1978 – Two years before, some of us were staying up all night at parties, deafened by The Song Remains The Same, mixing cider with Newcastle Brown and ‘waiting for the sun-rise, man’. In ’78, I’m still feeling the punk shockwave in the North of England, but I wasn’t going to entirely throw all that good old music away, even if it was the done thing. Punk (and post-punk and new wave) was vital, but some rock bands still fit like an pair of comforting old furry slippers or.. er.. (struggles for hipper analogy).. broken-in cowboy boots? Yep, cowboy boots. Definitely.

Gig-going at the time produced some.. eclectic line-ups. Bill Nelson (surely Wakefield’s finest rocker?) and Be Bop Deluxe at the Vic in Halifax, supported by punk poet John Cooper-Clarke. Rejuvenated 60s rock and rollers The Pirates, alongside obscure Cambridge band The Push and a Pakistani escapologist, at Huddersfield Poly. The best of both worlds, you could say. Country and western.

But here’s the seismic event, the blinding revelation of that fateful year: I didn’t have to listen to hard rock any more. I didn’t realise this at the time, of course, but I may as well have just given up right there and then. Hard rock didn’t die. Oh no. It just never got any better** than Thin Lizzy‘s Live And Dangerous.

Spiky little south Glasgow teenager Brian Robertson and Californian Scott Gorham complementing each other perfectly on guitar. The quiet genius of drummer Brian Downey – economical, fluid, sensitive  playing. And Phil.. a poet, a dreamer and impossibly cool. Such confidence.. foot on the monitor, punching the sky in such glee, a wink of the eye, a flash of his mirrored bass guitar. Lyrical songs: myth and legend – a man who loved to tell a tale and celebrate life.

The badge of the gig!The King’s Hall, Belle Vue, Manchester, the tour of the live album – 30 years on, I still remember the lights going down, sirens and red police car lights atop Downey’s drum riser, the stage fills with smoke.. Lynott steps through it on the opening chord of Jailbreak, raises his arm, and instantly my friends and I are just lost in the wonder of our first big gig. Christine and I still have our memories: I don’t know where Jon is these days but I’m sure he won’t have forgotten that night either.

Live And Dangerous (gently massaged, shall we say, by Tony Visconti in the studio) is electrifying from start to finish, genuinely the best representation of that line-up and the heights they scaled. Sure, Side 4 stumbles a little in the middle. Sha La La has a drum solo of more than a few bars and loses me somewhat (I’m sorry, Brian), and Baby Drives Me Crazy is just a rabble-rouser, but those two are bracketed with the thundering swagger of Suicide and a blistering The Rocker. No complaints about any of the rest.. Robertson’s properly tasteful solo on Still In Love With You, a lush Southbound, the shuddering funk of Johnny The Fox Meets.. and a damn near flawless paint-stripper of a Side 3: Don’t Believe A Word, Warrior and Are You Ready, plus THE all-time perfect hard rock moment when Cowboy Song segues into The Boys Are Back In Town, the pause in Phil’s “A cowboy’s life…. is the life for me” and BLAM. Fireworks, chills up the spine, out of your seat and dancing with delight. I’ve heard it a thousand times and it never fails to slay me.

We were lucky to see Thin Lizzy at the top, the zenith. Within a few weeks Brian Robertson had gone, Gary Moore stepped in, Brian Downey took a break (and did return) but despite a few bright flashes of inspiration in later years, Live And Dangerous was the pinnacle, for me.

Hard rock’s high water mark too.

** I grant you Motorhead’s debut (on white vinyl) and AC/DC’s Powerage come close, but when were they released? 1978. I rest my case.

P.S. Part 6 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: we put our leather strides away and move on to 1979

Old Music Sacred Days

The Sacred Days You Gave Me – Elvis Costello

(#4 in a series of 10 albums that shaped my musical taste)

1977 – It was the look that got me. A kind of mutant Buddy Holly: knock-kneed, big horn rims, thrift store suit, turn-ups, Fender Jazzmaster. If a guy like this can be a star..

Declan Patrick MacManus pitched up at Stiff Records with a plastic carrier bag full of songs, a bristling punk attitude and the desire to tell the world all about it, joining a grab bag of artists punching well above their weight – Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, Motorhead, Richard Hell, The Damned et al. – and ultimately making the biggest impression on me. I’ve probably got more Elvis Costello records than any other artist, but none better than his first.

Recorded in 24 hours at a cost of £2000 whilst Elvis extricated himself from his day job, My Aim Is True is thirty five minutes of frustrated ragged glory. Songs of love, loss and barely repressed anger, barbed insults and spiky puns. A hefty whack at the Fascist movement in Less Than Zero (subtly reworked for the US market by reference to Lee Harvey Oswald). The anti-love song Alison (does he want her back? does he want to kill her?). The smack in the mouth of Welcome To The Working Week – “Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired..”. 82 seconds long and the best Album 1 Side 1 Track 1 of all time? Could be. Red Shoes and the snappiest line on the record – “I said I’m so happy I could die, she said ‘drop dead’ and left with another guy”. Bespectacled geeks rejoice, here is your champion! And there’s more..

It all burst out of Costello in a rush and a push: by the time of its release he’d moved things up a gear, his astringent lyrics married with increasing sophistication in arrangement and melody to produce the equally brilliant This Year’s Model only eight months later. He’d also acquired the Attractions – teenage keyboard prodigy Steve Nieve, inventive bassman (and future nemesis) Bruce Thomas and pub rock scene drummer Pete Thomas – and an aggressive demeanour, which led to some memorable moments on stage and off in subsequent years.

If you don’t have My Aim Is True, don’t delay, buy today. Costello’s later recordings might have finer melodies and more sharply defined lyrics, but for intensity and passion, you can’t beat it.  The US version also has the awesome Watching The Detectives – bonus.

Here’s a brooding Phil-Spector-a-like number from the album that you might not be too familiar with (live at Eric’s, Liverpool – 2nd August 1977):

Recommendation: track down the live bootleg called Angry Young Sod to get the best impression of Elvis in concert back then, playing My Aim Is True, looking forward to This Year’s Model.

P.S. Part 5 of The Sacred Days You Gave Me: we move on to 1978