Anglo-American fretted fun
My new CD, Curiosities (£10) is a jaunt back along the lost highways of popular music that Ive loved for a lifetime, featuring an eclectic brew of numbers, styles and instruments, detailed in the tunes and background to the CD, with further information in the appendices
Some flatpicking fun to get things going. Flatpicking a style using the plectrum where the tune is played on the bass strings and the accompaniment is brushed on the trebles transcended its rather stolid folksy roots in the playing of virtuosi like Doc Watson, John Herald and my friend and mentor, Steve Benbow. The coda here borrows from his playing.
Jack Buchanan, the British Astaire, maybe didnt quite have the hoofing and piping potential of Fred, but his nasal tones and dapper nonchalance are equally charming. He was hugely popular in the 1930s: together with his co-star, Elsie Randolph, he starred in a series of rather slight musical comedies. It didnt matter: one simply went, as my parents did, to a Jack and Elsie show. Its often assumed this song must by Noël Coward, but was actually the work of a trio of American alley pros, who were especially shipped over from New York to write for Buchanan.
Music Hall is one of the most resonant examples of 19th century popular culture and is typically characterised by its irreverent comic songs with their catchy choruses and beery bonhomie. But there is another side to Music Hall song: slower sentimental ballads, sometimes with melodies of quite startling beauty. I include three of my favourites on this album, and deliberately scatter them through the playlist to contrast with more pacy offerings. The first is by Albert Chevalier perhaps best known for My Old Dutch. The slow string-bends are suggested by the playing of Mark Knopfler when we duetted on the tune in the 1970s.
Bluegrass folk music in overdrive according to musicologist Alan Lomax, is most easily recognised by the sparkling, showy banjo style invented by Earl Scruggs. His technique used finger-picked rolls to create a carpet of syncopated sound. Jesse McReynolds adapted the style for mandolin, using cross-picking with a plectrum to produce a similar effect. My effort here takes Jesses invention away from its Bluegrass roots to a slightly jazzier place.
Most familiar through the muscular vocalising of Nelson Eddy, in the 1936 movie of similar name, the number is done here as an unaccompanied Hawaiian steel guitar solo. Both the instrument and the style were popular in the 1930s when pop song subject matter, understandably, inclined to the escapist: Eric Maschwitz [Berkeley Square / These Foolish Things] lyric yearns for the eponymous café:
Where hearts are young and balalaikas play
I have a rendezvous
A state of mind rather than a real place, of course, but one where wed all like to have a drink or two.
Before email, before telly, almost before the fountain pen, there was The Wireless. Ive a theory that us guitar-led, baby-boomers are as much children of the radio as of rock n roll. And tastes were formed early in a bizarrely eclectic record programme called Childrens Favourites, hosted by Derek McCulloch, the BBCs Uncle Mac. For ever etched are Sparkys Magic Piano and The Runaway Train. In homage to those far away Saturday mornings, Ive arranged two favourite animal songs. 12 year-old Mandy Miller did OK with this one in 1956...
One of the greatest songs ever written was John Osbornes opinion of this number introduced by Nelly Power, and later appropriated and popularised by Marie Lloyd. It was Lloyds first hit and Osborne used it his play, The Entertainer. Unusually, its a Music Hall song which is, itself, set in a music hall.
The early record industry of the 1920s introduced the world to two of the great stylists of guitar flatpicking, Maybelle Carter and Nick Lucas. The former was the matriarch lynchpin of the formative family group of that name who, with Jimmie Rodgers, effectively invented Country music. The latter was the first guitar hero with his 1922 hit, Teasing The Frets. The style is taken in a different direction here in my arrangement of this French café waltz by the great accordionist, Jo Privat.
Isadora Duncan  is seen by many as the inventor of modern dance. Her colourful life was prematurely ended when she was strangled as her scarf caught In the wheels of her new Bugatti sports car. The song here is a collaboration with Bob Calvert, sometime Hawkwind front man and literary polymath. Bobs writing exploded everywhere: novelist, poet, playwright and, here, song lyricist. Even here his imaginative range was vast: to give you some idea, other songs were about duelling in Heidelberg, trucking on the moon and trichological trials: (The Little Bit That Wont Lie Down).
A musical tribute. The composition draws on 19th century parlour music, which Julie knew well in both theory and practice. It is invidious to single out particular people who have tolerated nay aided and abetted my taste in the music you are listening to. But there never was a more well-deserved exception than here.
We are the Ovaltineys (Helmsley) The Ovaltineys;
An Ordinary Copper (Darnell) Dixon of Dock Green;
Calling All Workers (Coates) Workers Playtime;
The Gaumont British News Theme (Levy) Gaumont British Newsreel sound clip
Memory Lane: the flicks, Radio Luxembourg and avuncular bobbies like Sgt. George Dixon Of Dock Green (Jack Warner had had a career as a crooner before becoming Dixon. His Underneath The Shanty Town Moon is quite something. And owes nothing to the constabulary).
The Ovaltineys urged us in elocuted tones to drink Ovaltine and join their fun:
No merrier children could be seen
Because we all drink Ovaltine
Were happy girls and boys
Except it wasnt happy, it was heppy à la Celia Johnson. Different times indeed.
In the beginning was Donegan. And three chords. The flight from Skiffle is the story of a generation of guitarists: the sophistication of that fourth chord now we were really motoring. But all too often this led to a quest for fanciness and the attendant dodgy equation:
Lots of clever chords > sophisticated = the bees knees
And so it is, in my dotage, I return to where it all started, with Lonnie and Woody and three chords.
An essentially ephemeral form, popular song time-locks the preoccupations, sensibilities and chord sequences of an era. Songs illuminate social change: the 1920s New Woman was feisty and forward in a way unthinkable decade earlier. And men like Poor Papa hadnt twigged, like his confrère in Momas Getting Younger, Poppas Getting Older Each Day:
Poppa has a straggly beard that looks like Shredded Wheat
My version of this Ellington standard strays a little from the big band spirit in which it was conceived. and the letter of the authors intentions... (please dont check the sheet music too closely). More solecisms: the recording is a mistake due to a faulty amplifier connection the semi-acoustic guitar used here was rendered totally-acoustic But this possibly worked in my favour: a lush amplified sound could have killed the brisk responsiveness demanded by my take on it. Hurrah for Happenstance!
October 1979 was quite a time: my daughter was born on the 17th and the following week I was dispatched to do an in-depth interview with guitar legend, Chet Atkins. Chet, famously, had a crowd-pleaser when Yankee Doodle Dandy and Dixie would be played first separately, and then at the same time. We couldnt use his arrangement in the article, so I gave Humoresque and Swanee River a similar treatment: No safety net! No stunt-doubles!! And absolutely no over-dubs!!!
Song writer Ted Daffan wrote several Country standards his Im a Fool to Cry received the Les Paul/Mary Ford treatment in the 1950s. This song was the big Country hit of 1939. And, yes I know Im not the most obvious casting for a truck driver. Why, I dont even have a driving licence. But its one of the pleasures of performing popular song that you often inhabit personae some way from who you are.
At first glance, Jerry Reed, Georgia redneck, and Cole Porter, preppy blue blood, seem unlikely bedfellows. Yet, in very different fields, they both achieved remarkable excellence Country star Reed brought a complexity, wit and groove to solo guitar composition without equal. And the Porter songbook sets a gold standard, and he arguably wrote The Best Musical Ever, Kiss Me, Kate a show with not one duff number. Here the chaps meet in a medley in E minor.
A cowboy pastoral from 1930. Its composer, Nat Vincent, was inspired by the Texas scenery hed seen while touring in Vaudeville. Its an early example of commercial cowboy culture, expressed in records, radio, and movies an entirely ersatz yet charming confection that owed little to the often grubby reality of the real West. Here we give it a Western Swing treatment. Western Swing, a jazz-inflected mélange, grew up in the dance-halls of the south and south-west USA and used an eclectic mixture of repertoire and instrumentation in the pursuit of a good time.
Another animal song popular on Childrens Favourites, and again its a particular performance that has come to define a number this time Danny Kayes in the film Hans Christian Andersen. Although he did work with collaborators, Frank Loesser, like Berlin and Porter, wrote both the lyrics and tunes for much of his classy, diverse, catalogue.
The trail to hot mandolin was blazed by two luminaries, Dave Apollon and Jethro Burns. Apollon, originally from Russia, had imbibed European gypsy styles with their showy cadenzas and embroidered arpeggios. Burns was a fine jazz musician who just happened to play mandolin. My approach owes a little to both, with some ragtime throw in as here where the sympathetic guitar accompaniment is provided by Doug Kyle, my picking partner of over half a century. He also recorded the track and built the instruments you hear.
My taste in tunes mayve started early when my Dad serenaded me with a delightfully eclectic bunch of ditties. There were curiosities from The Scottish Students Songbook, like Riding Down From Bangor and Wrap Me Up In My Tarpaulin Jacket, that hed learnt as a student at St Andrews in the 1920s. And contemporary novelties like Put Another Nickel in (in The Nickelodeon) and In A Pawnshop On A Corner (in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). But the most memorable was Oh! Oh! Antonio, Florrie Fords hymn to a wayward ice-cream vendor.
Some aural self-flagellation from 1934, yet for all that, it evokes a cheerier era of popular song with its raggy chord sequence and breezy mien before tunes became too sophisticated and the lyrics too artsy. Why... even its pessimism is perky. Prime practitioners of this sunnier style of song were Milton Ager and Jack Yellen, celebrated for such songs as Aint She Sweet, Happy Days Are Here Again and Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now).
Its agreed that there are three outstanding exemplars of classic ragtime. Two, Scott Joplin and James Scott, were blacks form the Mississippi Basin. The third, Joe Lamb, was a white accountant from Brooklyn. His work is graceful and imaginative, slightly extending Joplins palette. All agreed ragtime was a serious form demanding serious attention though my take is here is perhaps a little too jaunty for purists: more Winnie Atwell than Josh Rifkin. Toe-tapping was the order of the day.
Background to the CD
My preference in popular music has always been away from the contemporary and fashionable back to earlier repertoires and ways of playing. Curiosities represents a distillation of this, but this is no earnest revivalism: its born out of traditions where to be entertaining wasnt a problem. In the Left Bank boîtes or London music halls or Texas honky-tonks, your material and performance had to work: if it didnt you didnt. But to be entertaining doesnt mean being facile or vulgar: the tracks on the CD have been deliberately chosen from a range of styles and sensibilities. I hope that this eclecticism the very thing that makes it hard to pin down when someone asks what sort of stuff do you play? at a party serves to give it breadth and depth. Light music thats worth revisiting and which also might prove interesting: the chord sequences and concerns of other times are a window to a Different Way of Doing Things. And thats whats here eccentric maybe, but never inaccessible.
This album is also a lot about picking: a theme of Curiosities has been arranging tunes for solo guitar that are normally associated with piano or dance band and these are presented on a range of instruments to offer a wide sound palette: jangly 12-string guitar, smooth gut-strung guitar and a variety of steel-strung instruments from parlour guitars to jazz arch-top, and from resophonic instruments, with their pre-electric amplification system, to plywood cheapos. There are also specially commissioned instruments.
Familiar playing styles are brought to bear on less familiar tunes. So heres flat-picking most often used these days for playing fiddle tunes on guitar used to play European styles such as café waltz and circus march, and Nashville finger-picking used to play English radio and TV signature tunes. Mandolin most familiar in a folk or classical context is heard in syncopated swing mode as well as in a more extended composition inspired by Edwardian parlour music, and steel guitar is featured in a solo arrangement of a Nelson Eddy show song as well as in its familiar blues-ey, improvisatory mode. So, nothing forbiddingly obscure just something familiar nudged in a new direction.
The tunes have a transatlantic twinge a French waltz and British novelty song alongside more familiar American themes of herding cattle and driving trucks. Two of the songs are rescue missions of long-forgotten titles; another, my setting of an original melodrama. Theres something from the Great American songbook, courtesy of Cole Porter and from the great American songster, Woody Guthrie. It was a delight to arrange a trio of British music hall ballads. Yet here, too, are more familiar forms: a rag, a blues.
Ive been very lucky to have gifted collaborators on Curiosities, Doug Kyle and Stuart Hall. When theyre around, things have an additional oomph. The guiding philosophy has been one of fun: if theres anything that links these tracks, its the pursuit of musical good times. So file under Cheery and I hope youll find something on the CD to divert and amuse.
Id love to hear what you think...
Appendices (or more detail than you might want to know)
Getting It Down: A life at the audio interface.
My first forays into recording were in the early 60s via a quirky device named Gramdeck: you plonked a trapezoid-ish, Heath-Robinson device on your record turntable and, voilà, you had a tape recorder (Why on earth did no one ever think of this before! The Tape Recorder). Design, technology and styling were delightfully of their time: a tin pre-amp, weedy wires with co-axial connections and a round plastic microphone that looked like it could have come from the flight deck of Dan Dares spaceship.
Celebrity endorsement for the Gramdeck was not from a post-Skiffle beatster or folkie, but from Max Jaffa, a much-loved violinist rarely off the air waves, often broadcasting from the Spa Grand Hotel, Scarborough. Despite Jaffas Palm Court leanings, the apotheosis of my Gramdeck years was a version in late 62 of Jimmie Rodgers Mississippi Delta Blues, with an intro shuffle riff of A/A6; A/A6 etc (which, if I might be forgiven a show-biz moment, I later taught to Mike Oldfield in his kitchen in Reading). But you had to be careful with the Gramdeck a slight shift in tape speed (the capstan was driven by your record-player turntable) could all too easily make your recording sound like it had been done under water.
A little later, I was lucky through help and encouragement from my Dad an engineer to trade up to a Vortexion, a serious British tape recorder similar to the better-known Ferrograph. The date of delivery, 6-6-66, lives in memory. And the machine was excellent, serving not just for live recording, but dubbing original 78s onto tape and as a de facto amp for excursions into Eddie Cochran country.
All this was done in a leisurely, gentlemanly way a key text for me was Ian Arnisons Tape Recording as a Hobby. Hobby, youll note, not a Pro Tools, Triple Mastered audio file aimed at getting a deal with Sony.
So to today...
Whilst contemporary digital recording offers a flexibility and ease of use far beyond working with analogue tape, the process remains the same: plug the mic into a pre-amplifier attached to the recorder; trial n error to get a microphone position that sounds nice; check the recording level isnt distorting. Press the start button and play.
The bulk of Curiosities was recorded in my living room. The mics went through a Broadhurst Gardens pre-amp using old Decca technology into Yamaha DAWs (first a 1600, then a 2400). The mic for the instruments was mostly a small-bodied condenser Josephson C42; the Dobro tracks used a Langevin. The vocals were mostly on the industry-standard Neumann U87: my voice needs all the help it can get. The mando duets were via a couple of Rode NT1s into GarageBand on the family computer at Dougs farm.
Mr Lucky/Too Darn Hot was done at The Palace of Aesthetic Excellence in Goodmayes, using a Manley mic mixed with a line from the guitar pick-up. Stuarts band recordings were done via Logic Pro into his Mac. His colleague, Andy Britton, mixed Bugatti.
Instruments: what, when, why
The mandolin heard is an oval-hole florentine style with
curved top and back. A commission from Doug Kyle, it follows
the pattern of an instrument built by a cello-maker in NYC;
his sight was failing and therefore the slightly
skew-whiff fingerboard was replaced with a stock Harmony one
by Noah Wolfe, from whom I bought the instrument in 1964. I
later substituted the existing bridge and machine heads
with Gibson spares got from them when I visited the factory.
But for all its eccentricities, the sound was remarkable.
And versatile, having neither the sometime thinness of a
classical bowl-back nor the somewhat harsh push of the
iconic Lloyd Loar f-hole Gibsons, so ubiquitous on
(Spot-The-Exception: the mando fills on Everything Stops For Tea are on a metal-bodied National copy. But youd clocked that, of course...).
The steel guitar numbers (tracks 5, 12 &16) are in dropped D tuning D G D G B D to widen the frequency range to facilitate solo arrangements. Steel guitar sometimes styled slide guitar refers to pieces played with the instrument on the lap, the left hand stopping the strings with a steel bar, the right hand picking them. The tunes might be Hawaiian, blues or country. Or even, like At The Balalaika, a 30s show tune. This is performed on a Mexican-made Weissenborn copy. Weissenborn, originally a violin and piano-making firm, branched into Hawaiian guitar manufacture in the 1920s, utilising a hollow neck and dispensing with an orthodox guitar shape to increase acoustic efficiency. Up to that time Hawaiian music had been played on conventional guitars adapted for slide playing by raising the string at their take off points at the nut and bridge. The other slide pieces are performed on a British Dobro copy. Dobro was a resonator guitar invented and built in by the U.S. by Dopyera brothers in the late 20s. It utilised an inverted metal cone set in a wood body over which the strings were strung allowing acoustic amplification on a principal not dissimilar to that of a wind-up gramophone. (Etymology: Dopyera Brothers and also the word for goodwill or goodness in their native Slavic).
The 12-string guitar that opens the album is a Takamine electro-acoustic, although in this case the electro wasnt used. The three Music Hall ballads were on a Martin 0021, strung down a tone with round-wound strings to aid breadth and sustain. Two Tunes was played plectrum-with-fingers on a 12-fret cedar-top built by Vince Hockey using La Bella silk & steel strings. (Another of his instruments, a ¾ size 12-fretter, is what Im holding in the website home page pic). Poor Papa is accompanied on a Martin J18. Elsewhere, guitar work is mostly on nylon-strung Yamaha electro-acoustics, mixing outboard mic and onboard pick-up. Except for Sig Tune Heaven, where you hear a Gibson Johnny Smith, mixing a mic with the fingerboard pick-up through an AER Acoustic 60 Amp.