Thursday, 30 January 2020

Marathon 5: Guns And Dinosaurs

50 mins Steady Run.

Most half-marathon vests (you get given one after the race - I don't have a fetish) include "half-marathon" or "13.1miles" in their lettering. Birmingham's didn't this year, which was prescient because the race ended up being 11 miles long, having missed out Cannon Hill Park after they found an abandoned car there. Possibly an over-reaction, but as I always say, better safe than blown up by terrorists.

Also better safe than being flattened by a livestock lorry. It is cattle market day and the Carrs, with no pavement or speed limit, is no place to run with earphones on. Thus a 50 minute run gets a 30-minute soundtrack.

Location: Whitby - The Carrs, Sleights bank, Barker's Lane, switchbacks, Castle Rd., Stakesby Rd., Ruswarp bank. 

Weather: Mild.

Outfit: 2019 Great Birmingham Run vest, worst shorts, black trainers.

Music: Ed Woods - Soundcloud demos 35 mins.

A Steady Run is supposed to be quite fast, but a slow heave up Sleights bank is as steady as you're going to get from me today. My playlist lights upon Clean And Jerk, which is what got me here. Ed Woods had advertised it on Twitter. I'd forgotten who he was and only later saw that he was the composer of Chess Club, my second favourite new song of last year.

Clean and Jerk takes on the old story of childhood friendship dissipating in adulthood. The characters are glimpsed in the blinking light of a Transit van, in a teacher's dismissive description; their story is told via a double-tracked vocal and guitar with minimal embellishment.

Then we're in the strange and beautiful Chess Club, a Christian hangout 'where darkness meets the light.' The narrator begs an apostate to return to the club with its 'pieces for Jesus,' sounding half like a forlorn lover, half like a cult honey trap with sweet harmonies and a hint of Salvation army brass.

It is a hard song to follow. Thank heavens for the jokes among the relentless military metaphors and unlikely rhymes in Code Name Isobel, which would otherwise, even with its Beach Boys chord changes, be a long seven minutes.

David Bowie is referenced in Mission To Mars, although it is hard to imagine Major Tom asking Ground Control: "What should I be taking? My friend Kevin has a tent."

In this oversharing world (wait until I start describing my blisters and groin strains) it is a rare treat to hear a songwriter sing in character. Better still is to hear songs full of humour and self-awareness that aren't 'comedy songs'.

I look forward to hearing more. He's from Stockton, so maybe I'll get to see him one day.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Marathon 4: The Miniskirt Waddle

70 mins Easy Run. It says a lot about the state of the Gazette these days (probably your local paper too) that I didn't notice a picture of myself on the back page until someone told me about it. The photo came from last Saturday's Great Run Local (a Parkrun tribute. We don't have an actual Parkrun here; the park is on a hill that would be classified as a cliff if it were nearer the water.) The disturbing grin is me laughing; the photographer was telling jokes as we ran past him.

The training plans I've had from the London Marathon and from the NSPCC warn runners off doing weekly races, owing to the injury risk of over-competitiveness. I can't see it myself, but best to follow the plan, so the picture is the last one of me doing a Parkrun until spring. I like to think that when I start doing 5ks again I'll be massively fit, having trained for and run a marathon.

Location: Whitby - Ruswarp Woods, cinder track, Hawsker Lane, Green Lanes, Church St., Larpool Lane. 

Weather: Mild, muddy underfoot.

Outfit: Whitby Running Club vest, almost-matching blue shorts, black trainers.

MusicElvis Costello and the Attractions - BBC Sessions 1977-83 (bootleg) 70 mins.

Someone should put this out. Elvis: The Pre-Eclectic Years.

Elvis Costello has spent decades trying to be a different artist on every album he makes. This became more prevalent from the late 1980s onwards, as he started using different bands, but he was fond of the volte-face even in his youth. By the time he had his first hits, he had already been in a folk duo and a country-rock band, and had played solo with electric guitar like an apolitical Billy Bragg. When he formed the Attractions, they proved willing participants in the game of musical dressing-up.

But that wasn't the whole story. In 1977, the newly-formed band were touring behind the album Costello had made with the Californian band Clover. The earliest tracks show the Attractions wrestling the material away from their predecessors and stamping it as their own with bullying drums, busy basslines and bumper-car organ. Only Blame It On Cain sounds like it did on My Aim Is True, and gives an idea of what the Attractions might have sounded like, had Costello not found himself lumped in with, and to some extent been inspired by, contemporary punk and new wave.

From then on, Costello was writing songs with the band in mind.  (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea would just be a mean-spirited rant without Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve's mazy duet of a bassline suggesting the confident walk of This Year's Models parading down the Kings Road, set against Costello's stuttering guitar as the 'miniskirt waddle' of a young girl out of her depth in such company.  

As one gets older, ones interest in a particular artiste's personal journey, in which he "confounds expectations" by sounding different, writing a different kind of book, or painting in a different shade of green, diminishes. It is a pleasure sometimes to hear the songs in a different context - or in no context, just as songs. Sometimes rough in execution, these performances represent Costello and the Attractions as an imaginative band with a consistent sound, enthused by new material, playing songs rather than making artistic statements.

Occasionally it gets too rough. Costello's fourth album Get Happy!! was scrapped and then redone in a northern soul style after the initial recordings sounded a mess. A 1980 Peel session suggests that this was wise; good songs are buried under cymbals and slashy guitars. Much better is a Kid Jensen session of country covers - like the contemporary Almost Blue LP, but played with none of that album's Nashville cleanliness (or that might be because it was recorded off-air from Medium Wave.)

Scattered amongst the original material are a Merseybeats B-side, a Dusty Springfield hit, a trampling of Ray Charles' Danger Zone, Costello's own Shipbuilding, 'covering' Robert Wyatt's version, and the Beat's Stand Down Margaret, which reminds you how long ago all of this happened.

It ends with Pills and Soap, an abstract expression of disgust at the media, which reminds you of how little has changed since then. That one sounds modern too, deliberately cut-and-pasted in the way that none of the other material is.

Not a cheery end to 70 minutes well spent.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Marathon 3: Sweet Soul Music

40 mins Easy Run. EJGH is running too, slowly, after over a year injured.

Location: Whitby - Links View, Upgang Lane, sea wall, Promenade, extra bit from the Spiders Web to the White House and back. 5.5km

Weather: Windy but dry.

Outfit: 2019 Poultry Run shirt, best shorts again, black trainers.

Music: Hit The Road Stax - NME Cassette (1983, recorded 1967) 50 mins.

Green Onions: Booker T & The MGs
Red Beans and Rice: Booker T & The MGs
B-A-B-Y: Carla Thomas
Sweet Soul Music: Arthur Conley
Raise Your Hand: Eddie Floyd
Knock On Wood: Eddie Floyd
Last Night: The Mar-Keys
Philly Dog: The Mar-Keys
You Don't Know Like I Know: Sam & Dave
Hold On I'm Comin': Sam & Dave
Respect: Otis Redding
Try A Little Tenderness: Otis Redding

I lost my copy of this tape in a house move, so thank you to whichever illegal download site I got the mp3s from.

The album was intended, I assume, to represent a typical night on the Stax/Volt Revue tour of the UK and Europe in 1967, although with hard-panned 1960s stereo and some brutal edits, it is clear that the recordings come from different concerts. As such the music is better suited to a single speaker on full blast than to earbuds.

It kicks off, as I guess the concerts used to, with Booker T and the MGs' Green Onions. I've seen contemporary videos where the band rushed through the tune, which was an oldie even then. Perhaps the compilers had to trawl through the recordings to get a decent version for this album, but they found a cracker - faster than the record, but not hurried. Duck Dunn's bass is an excited heartbeat and Steve Cropper's guitar is an electric shock. (I could go further with this metaphor - something about paddles and "Clear!" It would get dull.)

Even with the obvious edits, it's not hard to imagine yourself in the audience of this show (I use the term advisedly. This is a show, not a gig.) Vocalists file onstage, introduced by Emperor Rosko, and some of the performances are literally marvellous - full of marvel at the joy of life, love and sex, full of pain at the very same things. Even so, the MGs are the focus, the singers almost incidental.

On side 2 of the tape - after the interval at the show - the Mar-keys take over as the band, and the sound gets a little thinner as a result. Sam and Dave and Otis Redding are anything but incidental. It might just have been a weedier recording.

Hit The Road Stax has far more hits on it than Stax's own record of the tour, The Stax/Volt Revue. I can't find it on the web at the moment, but I'm sure someone will upload it again soon. In the meantime, numerous recordings of live 1960s Stax shows are circulating on the semi-legal/is this out of copyright? market. As a guess, I'd say hear them all. I may run to one of them, later in my schedule, just for the academic interest

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Marathon 2: Desert Blues

Still week 2.

30 mins Easy Run (the talking one, no one to talk to.)

Location: Whitby - Links View, Upgang Lane, sea wall, Promenade. 4.5km

Weather: Fine with high cloud, cold wind.

Outfit: 2019 Scarborough 10k shirt, best shorts, black trainers, Colorado souvenir socks.

MusicEtran De L'Aïr: Music From Saharan Whatsapp. 17 mins.

The wind makes white horses on an otherwise calm North Sea. Stumps of an old pier are visible in the sand beneath the pavilion. Everyone is walking a dog - not the same dog. I have to stop twice to avoid treading on pugs.

I'm doing the beach run, a route that EJGH worked out before I joined in running, and which we've both been doing for ten years. My best for this is 25 minutes and a bit. I'm a long way off that pace these days, plus I'm taking it easy as I'm supposed to, so call it half an hour.

Lesson of the day: Don't try to stream music whilst doing the beach run. There's no phone signal at the beach; I already knew this, so I don't know what I was playing at. The plan was to listen to Etran De L'Aïr on the way down, get into a running groove, then follow it with Head Of Light Entertainment's latest EP on the way up, being buoyed along by melodic sunshine pop. A quarter of an hour each way, job done.

As it was, Etran De L'Aïr fell silent just after I reached the sea wall, and didn't re-emerge until I was past the Crescent on the way up - which was a shame because the skittering rhythms were, if not putting me in a trance, then certainly getting me in a good frame of mind to run. Desert blues is mesmeric or it is nothing. Melodies don't go anywhere, a whole song can go on one chord; Etran De L'Aïr favour two chords and a drone with a djembe rattling along in the background. Riffs are endlessly repetitive, yet never played the same way twice. Tiny variations sound momentous. The vocals on this EP are quiet, possibly not miked up. According to liner notes, it was recorded directly onto a phone, then Whatsapped to the record company, hence the title.

I know what this sounds like: first-world business people and white cultural tourists demanding some sort of gritty authenticity from black African performers. Hard to argue with that, except that the music is genuinely meditative, and the performance is really charming.

That's all I have to say. If you're running, this is 17 minutes of good running music.

Click here for Etran De L'Aïr: Music From Saharan Whatsapp.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Marathon 1: Breathe

Part of me has wanted to run the London Marathon ever since I watched it on TV (filling the gap between the Grand National, the Boat Race and the Cup Final) with my dad in 1981. All that business about the Cutty Sark, the desolate Isle of Dogs (younger readers might like to watch The Long Good Friday), the run up the Mall; crowds, people dressed as chickens, a dusty spring Sunday, Dad getting choked up seeing disabled runners hobbling over the line, the first two lads finishing hand-in-hand. Now a list of clichés, it was new then. The part that wanted to do it was a small part of me, a fraction of my cerebral cortex, or possibly my lizard brain; the rest of me thought it a stupid idea. But now I’m living in North Yorkshire where running is a thing that normal people do, I spend a couple of days a fortnight in London, so there’s a connection; I have several Great North Runs behind me, I’m 54 and if I don’t do it this year I never will.

I should pretend this is week 1 of training, but it’s week 2. Week 1 barely counts as anything - 30 mins Easy Run, 20 mins Jog, 60 mins Easy. “Easy” means you can talk while running. I’m running on my own so that would be evidence of a personal problem. Easy running is not really possible in Whitby for more than a few minutes at a time, owing to the hills. Anyway I did it, and it was 20 minutes of jogging more than I do most weeks. My once-beloved grey Nike Airs have deflated, so I’ve got a sore left heel. Arthritic right knee is a given, but it’s OK - wakes me up maybe once a night, but not for long and fine while running. Otherwise injury and disease-free.

Today is 40 mins Steady Run, during which I should be “slightly out of breath; able to talk, but only in shorter sentences,” which reminds me of a lot of people I know.

Location: North London - Regents Park, Camden (picture taken from Primrose Hill).

Weather: Pissing down.

Outfit: Clapton CFC away shirt, second time round shorts, new trainers, Swedish Chef socks, cap (see weather), plasters on nipples (ditto).

Music: Sturgill Simpson: Sound And Fury. 41 mins.

I wanted to like this album. It’s new. It's the right length for the run. It has drums on it, mostly machine-generated, but they play a beat, not the elongated, compressed-to-lifelessness thhhhhhoccck noise that so many artistes employ to indicate that even the act of keeping time is part of a Significant Emotional And Cultural Statement; which means that these drumbeats help me paddle along London’s burst-drain thoroughfares in a running sort of way. I like Sturgill Simpson too. He’s country and he’s smart; note the title of his first album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music - I mean, come on, the references! This time he is referencing William Faulkner, as all educated southern Americans have to do sooner or later. (Don’t get me started on The Sound And The Fury though. I can’t get started on it - it’s as impenetrable as it is miserable).

The sound is not that of the two-lane blacktop and the Marshall stack; it is that of analogue synths, washy or siren-y, in the vintage style of Düsseldorf, Sheffield and Basildon, overlaid with practice-amp lead guitar, vocals hiding behind the guitar, and nowhere near enough bass. However, try as he might to hide it, the style is mainstream modern country rock. The thing about Sturgill Simpson is that he thinks he’s an alternative to that, but he isn’t. He is just better at it than all the people who give it a bad name. He plays good muscly lead guitar and has the requisite gravel voice of a blue collar American artist; his set-up / knock-down verses are actually funny or moving, rather than sounding as if they’ve been knocked together in a writers’ meeting.

‘Having one-way conversations with the darkness in my mind
He does all the talking 'cause I'm the quiet kind.’ (Remember To Breathe)

There’s a lot of this, stuff that wouldn’t be out of place on, but is a cut above, any workaday country album.

‘Well, you know daddy likes his alone time
That's why he doesn't have any friends
Yeah, but watch and see, you'll be lookin' at me
The last man standing in the end.’ (Last Man Standing)

It would have been nice to have heard words like these when I was running, rather than reading them on the train home (where I’m writing this) having suspected that there was something worth hearing under the distorted squall.

The best-sounding song (Mercury In Retrograde) has the worst lyrics. I won’t quote them, but Taylor Swift got away with stuff like this for years because she was young and female; it doesn’t do for a grown man to be moaning about ‘haters’ wanting his autograph. However there is melody here, and dynamics in the synthesiser lines which are lacking elsewhere.

Got to hand it to him for making the effort though. Sometimes he sounds like Suicide with real songs; most of the time the sound-concept gets in the way of the material.

A shame to start on a downer. Might have been the rain. It’s 30 mins Easy Run tomorrow, so I’ll need to find something short. Might go for an oldie. Wary of getting into the idea that new music = bad, old stuff = good. Sound And Fury isn’t bad; it’s an experiment in breaking out of Nashville musical habits without giving up on Nashville songwriting. I don’t think the experiment worked, but the next one might, and good luck to him.

The new trainers are holding up. They don’t keep out water at all, but my feet were OK at the end, so presumably they “breathe” or do whatever trainers are supposed to do when you splash through mucky rain in them.

More tomorrow.

Sound And Fury