Friday, October 17, 2014

Same Artist, Different Version: Voice of Harold

R.E.M.: Voice of Harold

The first time I heard “Voice of Harold,” which is a version of “7 Chinese Bros.” from R.E.M.’s second album, Reckoning with completely different lyrics, I assumed that it was simply a joke by the band. But it turns out that the story is a bit more interesting.

I’ve always had a sense that, like many great artists, Michael Stipe was a bit high maintenance. (It turns out that Mike Mills, is, too—he took exception on Twitter to something that I wrote on another blog about The Baseball Project). Apparently, when the band was working on Reckoning, which was recorded after a long, exhausting tour, Stipe was having a bad day, and his attempts at laying down vocal tracks for “7 Chinese Bros.” were inaudible. Don Dixon, one of the producers (and a fine songwriter in his own right), was killing time, poking around the studio, and was on a ladder when he found a pile of albums that had been tossed away. He pulled one off the top and threw it down to Stipe, hoping that it would inspire him.

That album, The Joy of Knowing Jesus, by the gospel group The Revelaires, would have been totally forgotten, had Stipe not started singing the liner notes on the back of the cover over the music for "7 Chinese Bros.” Done in one take, Stipe essentially sings, word for word, the laudatory notes written by the wonderfully named J. Elmo Fagg, described as the “Founder and Leader of the Blue Ridge Quartet for 23 years.” A few times, Stipe starts singing on one line, then jumps to the next line, and back again, because he was cold reading the small print and probably lost his place. He even sings the production and art direction credits and the catalog number (“LST 390”).

For some reason, it is charming. Like many of the band’s lyrics at the time, the fact that they sometimes made no sense is immaterial to the reality of the mood they created.

I’ve been a fan of this band for many years, almost as long as it was possible to hear their music in New York, and although I knew that they were from Georgia, I initially never really thought of them as a “Southern” band, in the way that bands like the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd flaunted their Southern roots and used stereotypical Southern symbols and imagery. But as time went on, it became more obvious that R.E.M. came from a different Southern tradition, one of mystery and kudzu and fog, of outsider art and eccentricity. Much of which can be seen in their early album covers.

And maybe that is why “Voice of Harold” resonates. It connected the band to the gospel tradition, and the liner notes that Stipe somehow shoehorned into the music are oddly religious, evocative and proud—for example—

Chill bumps appear and I am frozen in the web 
They weave as they reveal their innermost selves 
With the outpouring of their hearts 

According to Dixon, after doing this take, Stipe was able to successfully record the vocals for “7 Chinese Bros.” I don’t know if The Joy of Knowing Jesus is, as the esteemed Mr. Fagg asserts (and Mr. Stipe repeats), “a must.” But to fans of R.E.M., “Voice of Harold” sure is.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Same Artist, Different Version: I'm Looking Through You

   Written after an argument with then girlfriend Jane Asher, Paul McCartney's bitter "piss off" tirade was recorded multiple times by The Beatles. First, in October of 1965, they spent nine hours knocking out a slower, groovier version that makes me think of The Who's "Magic Bus".  There was no "Why Tell Me Why..." middle-eight. Instead you get a blistering, very 60's raga style guitar solo from George Harrison.  This version is on the Anthology Volume II release.

   Three weeks later The Beatles revisited "I'm Looking Through You". Americans get two false guitar starts before the band launches into the Rubber Soul version everyone knows. McCartney double tracks his vocals while Ringo can be heard tapping his fingers on a matchbox and slapping his lap for percussion. If you're going to slap your lap, may I recommend you lock the door so Mom doesn't walk in on you?


Ooo, this is a good one! Getting straight to the point, here's the opportunity to rave about one of my true faves, ladies and gentlemen, Mr Clive Gregson, or, within this context his once and occasional band, Any Trouble. It's fair to say he has had a variable career, poised frequently on the precipice of greatness, before either stepping back, or being elbowed out the way by some other gone in 30 seconds whippersnapper. For that we should maybe be grateful, not least as, at various times in his career he has returned and revisited earlier songs, radically redefining them. Between Any Trouble mark 1, Any Trouble mark 2, exemplary duo with Christine Collister (and simultaneously Richard Thompson sideman), solo years, a spell in Plainsong with Iain Matthews, solo years, Any Trouble mark 3 and further solo years, there has been ample opportunity to remake and remodel his songs, juggling with both electricity and acousticity. And somehow remain a thoroughly decent cove.

Spoilt not for choice but more for demonstrable evidence, this isn't even one of his own songs, but it is so good it could be. (I exhort you to search out more for proof of his songwriting. And not half bad guitar.) Anyhow, roll back to the late 70s and a folkie 3 piece are playing the pubs and clubs of Manchester, adding drums and dynamism to address the outbursting of punk. 1980 saw them signed to maverick indie label, Stiff, and attempts to market Gregson as the next Costello. This song was on their first recording, and, in some reflection of then (relative) youth, is a straightforward thrash of a version, displaying the eagerness of a young man out on the friday lash.

Flash forward a few years, Stiff have dropped them, and the band are lost in America, briefly signed to EMI America until, again, finding themselves without a contract, halfway through an abortive tour. Somehow these experiences must have offered a more sanguine view on life, and the version the band produced at that time is a way more reflective piece, a yearning plea for acceptance. I prefer it.

Sadly that was that for the erstwhile band for many a long year, and I hope later to be given a theme that allows me to access Gregsons latter years, but until then, here's a taste of how the song might have originally sounded, as dreamt up by it's author, fellow struggling mancunian musician of the 70s, Nick Simpson. This is the 2013 reunion of Any Trouble, with the author guesting. It seems to be the faster version.......

Where and what to buy? I'd go for the top 2 as most representative. (It says there is only 1 of each left, so I will know if anyone reads this drivel!!)