Motown

Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand-new beat. The time is right for dancing in the street. Motown, born on the streets of Detroit in 1962, the child of Berry Gordy. Motown was an egalitarian organisation where everybody got paid the same, allegedly. There were writers, backing musicians, singers, engineers, accountants and ancillary staff and they all got paid the same. It was Berry’s idea to create the Hit Factory and boy did he ever.
Smart as a mid-west huckster selling a bottle of Dr Hook, Berry knew his market. The music was designed to be played on the tinny transistors and car radios of working class white kids. The production was always going to be rubbish, so he concentrated on beat and vocal, sacrificing middle tones that would not be heard. It was a revolutionary all-black organisation that sold to white kids. It crossed the racial divide like nothing else.
The three-minute pop song was defined and only matched by the Beatles. The longevity of the sound is acknowledged by the plethora of covers. The writers speak for themselves. Stevie Wonder, Smokie Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Holland Lamont Dozier. The artists, all equals included the above and Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Edwin Starr. The songs punched out the love thing and stole middle America’s heart in the sixties.
Perhaps one of the most poignant moments in film is the incomparable “Platoon” by Oliver Stone, where the Tracks of my Tears, defined R&R and combat. It was the bedrock and the touchstone of the new music. The soundtrack that enabled the kids to cope with the madness of the age.
Motown was a black organisation selling to white kids. Contrasting that was Stax records, a white organisation with artists like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. They were true soul artists of a more authentic style that black Americans preferred. The Stax soul band, sometimes performing as Booker and the MG’s over the same period. Two were white, two were black. Both organisations began a crossover between the racial divide. And if music be the food of love play on.
The problem for Motown was that they did not all earn the same. Berry Gordy was the one who made the money. By the early seventies, the stars started making their own way and left for better contracts that suited their status. The Jacksons and then Lionel Ritchie kept things going in the same style, but dealing with the stars was different to dealing with the talented backing bands. Fame was the key, and perhaps Marvin Gaye’s insistence on recording “What’s going on” was a sign. A concept album that was not what Berry wanted, but Marvin got it. The musicians had gone beyond the three-minute love-song and they were setting the agenda. Berry could not react and they all left. Marvellous Marvin got it on and we all appreciate his creativity.
Motown was a statement of what of black Americans could do. If only it could have continued in a revised form, but the management structure did not survive into the seventies. Perhaps if can design better organisations, like Berry did, we can utilise writers, musicians, administrators and engineers. We could work together and allow the creative to create and help them survive the fame. Work together as a cooperative and create and soundtrack for the future. Berry made a start, c’mon America do likewise.
As the Rev James Brown said, Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud. And Berry you should be.
Conway-Laird (2017)

Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton was one of the finest guitarists of the sixties generation. He was grounded in the blues, versatile, able to push the boundaries of the art and a great instrumentalist. He was hailed as a true bluesman, by those that played the blues. Allegedly because he knew pain.
He was the first guitar hero, a label that he hated. He played with the Yardbirds and quit because of the direction of the group. He played with John Mayall, the supergroup trio Cream, Blind Faith and the on to solo and collaboration projects.
His axe of choice was the Fender Stratocaster and basically played lead as well as anyone, apart from Jimi Hendrix, but then who did. He could play most things well and led the way in improving guitar playing. But he was less of an innovator or songwriter, and maybe it was fortunate for him that he never ended up in some massive seventies stadium group like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin because I don’t think it would have suited him, and once in that bubble it would be difficult to get out.
His first band was the Yardbirds and he was followed by two great guitarists in Jeff Beck and Jimmy page. Jeff was possibly better technically, but concentrated on purer jazz and blues music. Jimmy was possibly a lesser a player, but created and wrote for one of the greatest groups of all time, Led Zeppelin.
But Eric just kept playing guitar and though his music was not as relevant to the social revolution as others, he was clearly right at the cutting edge. And he survived. There are surprisingly few songs that he wrote himself. His songs were driven by his playing. Layla and other Lovesongs, released under the group name of Derek and the Dominos was one of the greatest albums of all time. Eric’s blues roots were given full expression. Anytime someone needed a lead guitar, you asked for Eric. He was famous live, especially at the Albert Hall, that was like his front room at times.
Some of his most famous songs were inspired from the tragedies that befell his life. It is a testament to the man, who though not a singer songwriter, was prepared to share this pain with us.
In an interview a few years ago, he stated that he did not need to practice much anymore, and would get up on stage and just improvise depending on the situation. He did not come from the poverty and divided society of the deep south of the USA like the bluesmen. But he demonstrated the lie of fame and fortune by clearly being accepted as one of them.
He lived the blues, he plays the blues, he will always be the blues.
Conway-Laird (2017)

Van Morrison

George Ivan Morrison was a son of a Belfast couple, born after the second world war. His father was a musician and had a vast collection of Irish, traditional, jazz, country, rhythm and blues, blues and lots besides. They were from the leafy protestant streets of South Belfast. His mother was enlightened and took him to various Protestant churches during his childhood. His father educated him in many different musical styles and his mother encouraged an eclectic spirituality.
He played saxophone initially. He also played guitar and keyboard, but his best instrument was his voice. Impassioned, powerful, educated, soulful, original and with a great range.
His first band was the Them. He sang and performed the classic R&B number Gloria. Like so many of his creations it was based on his youth growing up in Belfast. By 1967 he was branching out on his own. Like so many others he wanted to be free to express himself creatively. He recorded the ultimate three-minute pop song “Brown Eyed Girl”. Then the next year he completely changed direction in Boston. While living in poverty, he recorded “Astral Weeks” with some top jazz musicians. The difference with what came before was staggering. Astral weeks was a eulogy to lost youth, a mystical and spiritual reflection on his past. A stream of consciousness driven not by the popular recreational drugs of the day, but by rose tinted reflection of reality. In some circles, it is hailed as the greatest album of all time. It is difficult to compare because there is simply nothing like it, but I would not deny it. He carried on with the brilliant and brassy Moondance and his popularity began to increase. Superb live performances, where the music spoke for itself. An album a year until 1974, this was the great period. A hiatus was followed from 1977 with albums exploring personal spirituality and this would continue into the 1990’s. There were collaborations and tributes and almost yearly albums.
I could wax lyrical about him or his music and I will do so briefly. But Van is all about the music and you should just listen. If you want to know about him, he has shown himself to you on vinyl.
The music came first, period. He would work on a project to make an artistic statement. He accessed all the various genres learnt from his father, and creates his own. Apparently, he once said that he has tunes going through his head all the time and he does not know whether it is a blessing or a curse. He is a very private person who hates the fame and is allegedly not that sociable. So, what, listen to the music, the man has a tender and beautiful heart and he shares it with you on record.
So, if you see in the street, don’t go up and fawn all over him or ask for his autograph. You should know better, leave him alone. Buy his music and pass it on. His legacy is not drugs, politics or superstardom, he is like Joni Mitchell who explores emotional and spiritual issues. After all these are the things that make you happy, and that exploration is a gift that he shares with you in his priceless music.
Conway-Laird (2017)

Jefferson Airplane

The Airplane were born out of San Francisco in the mid-sixties. It was the epicentre of the social revolution and was to host the summer of love in1967. Along with the Grateful Dead they were the musical leaders of the movement. Kids started congregating in the Haight Asbury area of SF and were experimenting with drugs, sex, politics and a whole new lifestyle. It was a youth rebellion against conservative middle America. It became the starting point of opposition to the war in Vietnam.

These were the issues that Jefferson Airplane were singing about. In 1967 they released “Somebody to Love”, a great rock anthem about looking for sexual partners. Followed up by “White Rabbit”, a take on Alice in Wonderland that was referring to the drug culture of the day. It related to the notion that these drugs could expand your consciousness and move you onto a higher spiritual, moral, sexual and political plane. The use of these drugs would obviously fuel this delusion, but t6he call to “Feed your head”, in the songs climax  is a statement that goes beyond drugs.

Touring, festivals and albums would continue, but by 1969 they had released Volunteers. The issues were more to do with politics and going back to the farm. The final title track of the album “Volunteers” was a corrusticating call to arms for the youth of America. This was the social revolution at its height and the lead singer Grace Slick was the high Prophetess. This is the sort of message that would have got the FBI twitching.

A headline in the early morning of Woodstock, was no less than they deserved. What they represented has vanished from the consciousness now, and the message has lost its meaning over fifty years, but back then they were the cutting edge.

During the seventies, the band changed its name and members. The inevitable drug and alcohol problems forced them off track. Slick was sacked for her drinking after abusing a German crowd on tour. By the eighties they had had welcomed her back and had changed into Starship. There were some overproduced soft rock anthems that still packed a punch, condemning corporate America and bigging up the Bay area Revolution.

Although their music has in part lost its relevance, it is a window into a vital and energised time in world history that had never happened before or since. They thought they were changing the world. Their aims were massive and the establishment did not let it happen. But the world did change and the Airplane were on point.

Conway-Laird (2017)

Jimi Hendrix

Ask any guitarist of ability and he will tell you that Jimi Hendrix was the greatest ever. His brief tenure at the top of the world, electrified his audiences and revolutionised the rock world. Three albums, tours and massive festivals were all that we had. His demise left us wondering about what could have been.

Jimi started playing professionally with Little Richard, and although he was a bad timekeeper he was kept on due to his ability. Chas Chandler, ex-bassist of the Animals discovered him and took him to London. In late 1966 London was the centre of the Rock world. In a private club, the cream of the rock world gathered and he was unveiled. Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, George Harrison and Brian Jones were amazed at what they saw. Jimi had taken the instrument to a completely new level and they saw how the game had changed.

He played a right handed Fender Stratocaster left hand. He had massive hands and before the advent of effects pedals, he could adjust the volume on the strat with the hand he was strumming with. He was deeply based in the blues, but would just jam and could do things that nobody else had even dreamed of. He would practice all the time at home, walking around the house with an axe even playing in the bathroom as he liked the echo from the tiles.

When the leaders of the industry heard him, they immediately assembled a band. Noel Redding a guitarist played bass and Mitch Mitchell drums. He quickly recorded his first singles and albums and exploded on to the British scene. The soulful Hey Joe and the Wind that cries for Mary were contrasted with the raunchy Foxy Lady and the psychedelic Purple Haze. The album “Are you experienced” was a smash hit and was followed by the rushed “Axis bold as love”. Jimi had discovered pedals and was jamming away, but unfortunately did not really construct much in actual songs. Sometimes he would just play and the engineer would just record and then they would decide where the song stopped.

He was not a great singer, but was inspired to lead by the influence of Bob Dylan. He announced himself to the world at the Monterey Pop festival. The Who made their entrance when they smashed up their instruments, as usual. Jimi followed by setting light to his guitar with lighter fluid. He wrote, played and performed.

In 1968 he recorded “Electric Ladyland” a tour de Force. Crosstown traffic an electric song about commuting, the apocalyptic version of Dylan’s All along the Watchtower and the unending stream of consciousness that was Voodoo Chile.

His music was dynamic, explosive and could reach into the darkness that was to come. He used cannabis and LSD to expand the mind to help his creativity and rejected other drugs. He was very much a ladies man and never missed an opportunity with the army of fans that followed him.

Perhaps his greatest moments were at festivals. At Woodstock his performance was immortalised in the film. Ironically he was being watched by only 1000 people as he was last on and everybody was going home on Monday morning. He played his version of the Star Spangled Banner and twisted the song and made it soar in a parody of the perversion of the American Dream. Like with the festival there was always the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the social unrest at home.

In 1968, he was playing in Newark the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. As the city was being torn apart outside, he came on stage on his own and said this is for a friend. He played dark, painful, soulful blues never heard before or since. He played for nearly an hour and left to silence. Unfortunately the sound man had forgotten to turn on the tape recorder and it was lost. But somethings are just for the moment and that was a dark but special day for America.

The relevance to the social revolution around him and the rest of the rock and pop movement was intense. The kids were reacting to the establishment politically, sexually, morally, spiritually and emotionally. His contribution was immense and profound. His influence was universal. There are some that learnt to play like Jimi, but Jimi was just instinctive and spoke through the guitar. Even his ability to control feedback and make it work for him was incredible. Every part of that guitar was made to work for him to express himself.

He tragically died of an overdose of sleeping tablets. He probably took his girlfriends in the middle of the night not realising that UK version was of a much higher strength. He stopped breathing and we would never know what could have been.

But that is greedy, he burnt bright, but too briefly. His influence on rock and guitar playing was seminal. Nobody existed before like him and nobody after. Jimi you were the one.

Conway-Laird (2017)

The Doors

The Doors were a band that had its origins in Los Angeles in 1965. Lead singer Jim Morrison, charismatic, unpredictable and poetic was backed up some excellent musicians. RY Manzarek was the keyboard player, who ultimately became the keyboard bass player as well. John Densmore on drums and Robby Krieger on Guitar. The band’s name came from an Aldous Huxley quote of William Blake “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite”.

It was Morrison’s lyrics that drove the band. He emphasised the darker side of the sixties. He seemed unaffected by the “Summer of Love”, but had many references to the Vietnam War and the downside of the LA experience. Manzarek’s keyboard melody drove the songs with a meandering style that echoed the deep portentous lyrical style of Morrison. Ably backed up Densmore and Krieger it was an original sound that almost prophesied the descent into madness from the heady days of 1967 and the damage caused by the drug culture.

They started playing in Los Angeles at local clubs where they honed their skills in live performance. A regular gig at “Whisky A go go” would seem them come to public attention. Here they attracted the industry and they got their first contract.

Their first song was Break on through. It announced the new style and signalled the break through, but it was not successful. Light my fire was, but it was seven minutes long and had to be cut down. It reached number one and they had arrived. Some wild live performances, characterised by Morrison’s anti-authoritarian stance, gave the band notoriety. The continued to tour and produce albums. But by 1968, Morrison was becoming dependent on alcohol and prescription drugs.

Jim was arrested on a number of occasions, drunk and abusive on stage, his last performance in 1970 in New Orleans ended with refusing to carry on performing. Their last album, 1971 produced a couple of atmospheric tracks redolent of LA. The title track, LA Woman, brings to mind driving around the endless freeways in that city, day or night. Riders on the storm written and recorded during a rare thunderstorm in LA, was an evocation of a unique experience of nature in a totally man made environment.

In July 1971, Morrison died in the bath in a Paris hotel room. No reason for death has been given, but his life had long since spiralled out of control with his addictions. Still poetic, still beautiful he remains an icon for rebellion and he had the arrogance to put his words to music for the whole world to hear. The band carried on for two years without him, but it was not the same.

Perhaps his or their legacy was that there are still new listeners to their today. There are few groups that could repeat the poetry linked to the dark music. Maybe the high point was The End. Its filmic quality was displayed in the epic “Apocalypse Now”, so appropriate, enigmatic and mysterious it began and ended the film.

Maybe the constant backdrop of the Vietnam War served the purpose of the band. Playing across almost all of that nightmare, that conflict was always in the back of the minds of the young people of the USA. Morrison’s rebellious stance echoed with the kids expecting to fight the War they hated. The War that for the first time could be witnessed on the nightly news, seeped into every part of the American psyche. To expose the public to that horror, through TV, was to turn the American dream into a nightmare. The Doors music, fuelled by drugs, reflected the madness of a war that permeated into every life and every part of America.

That divisive universal trauma could not be healed in any witness’s lifetime. But The Doors music not only explained the emotion, but even prophesied the End.

Conway-Laird (2017)

The Who

The Who were a unique sounding band hailing from West London in the mid-sixties. They were originally identified with the MOD sound. Then the summer of love, a rock opera and finally the best band on the festival circuit at the height of rock music. Self-proclaimed loudest band in rock, they contained some of the best rock musicians and exposed the darker, seedier, real life experience of the rock disciples.

Pete Townsend was the writer who struggled to express himself. He was frustrated with his guitar and could smash it on stage. Roger Daltrey would be the dynamic, charismatic and magnetic singer who could make Townsend’s lyrics sound believable. Keith Moon was the arguably the best ever drummer, due to his untrained, original, brilliant and random drumming. John Entwhistle, the quiet one who in keeping up with Moon was possibly the best bass player perfecting the rhythm section.

They started with some Mod anthems like My Generation and the Kids are alright. Risqué expose of youthful sexuality in Pictures of Lily and I’m a Boy appealed to the real secret lives of their audience. The albums did not come thick and fast, but the creativity of Pete produced some original work. Tommy the most ambitious in 1968 was a rock opera, again about the alienation of youth. This album plus electric performances at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969 propelled them to the forefront when others were failing. They were the leading live act when massive festivals and social revolution was the order of the day.

Pete had other ambitious projects, but by 1971 Who’s Next was released and was clearly their best work. An honest declaration of the failure of the politics of the social revolution in “Won’t get fooled again”. The whole album had a consistency that made it one of the best albums of all time in a year of many.

The albums were sporadic, another rock opera Quadropenia came in 1973 and gave us another insight into the lives of their fans. Two more albums and much touring ended in 1978 when Moon died self destructively and it would never be the same.

In 1980 Face Dances was a good album, but more of a standard rock album. The amazing longevity of the band though was the performance at Live Aid when they rocked everybody off the stage despite being the oldest. Even more so 20 years later at Live Eight when they did it again.

Individual, fearless and uncompromising, they were a West London street gang and continued to relate to the kids. They rocked and could not be defined by genre. Perhaps the lack of albums showed that when they had something to say, they said it. And when they did you listened.

Conway-Laird (2017)