Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bert Jansch

In the early 70's I spent part of the summer doing some construction work with a motley group in a rehab centre in south Dublin. As the weather was good we lunched outdoors in the middle of the day. A record player was found and an album that I had never heard before was played which I found captivating.

One song in particular "Needle of Death" really impacted with me in a way that only a handful of tracks have ever done. Music has the wonderful capacity to resonate - at least occasionally - in a profoundly meaningful manner. And this certainly was one such occasion!

I remember looking at the album sleeve and mistakenly leaving with the impression that it was by Bert Yance. And on several occasions over the years, I tried without success to learn more about this artist.

Then some 25 years or so later, I spotted a notice outside the College where I work in Dublin promoting an upcoming performance by Bert Jansch nearby in Whelans. In that moment I realised the true identity of the singer that I had heard all those years ago. Because I remembered the precise track no. for "Needle of Death" I am now quite sure that I was listening to the compilation album "The Bert Jansch Sampler" (The preceding instrumental track "Angie" also remained in my memory!)

"Needle of Death" appeared on Bert Jansch's first album in 1965 which was recorded on the cheap using a tape recorder and then sold for £100. Jansch was - and still is - a Scottish folk singer with a truly distinctive guitar style. Indeed some of his best tracks such as "Angie" are in fact pure instrumentals.

It is the sheer unadorned simplicity of the recording of "Needle of Death" that greatly adds to its stature. It was written following the death of a musical friend from drugs and contains some of the most heartfelt riveting lyrics that I have ever heard. The unusual guitar style of Jansch contributes much to the overall effect. In several places it seems almost as if his guitar is stuttering and coming to a halt only to resume again. Then at the end of the song it stutters once again before finally fading out altogether (like the life of the victim in the song).

For some reason I believe the song had an even greater effect on me hearing it outdoors as the unique guitar notes wafted in the gentle breeze before finally disappearing without trace.

I did nor hear that song again for 30 years. However I have recently reclaimed it and number it among my all time favourites.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Brenda Lee

Recently an old Brenda Lee song "I'm Sorry" has been featured on a TV ad here in Ireland.

Though not heard that much nowadays, I remember the time when Brenda Lee was the dominant female performer of the early 60's.
Though I never particularly liked her voice - which I found a little too hard and raucous - she certainly had something special. From an early stage - following her early recording of "Dynamite" in 1958 (at the age of 13) - she became known as "Little Miss Dynamite" which was a perfectly apt description that lasted throughout her career.
Her voice had a special punch in it (perhaps unequalled by any other performer) whereby she could turn immediately from soft to belting mode. Thus she was at her best on certain rock ballads such as "I'm Sorry" which especially profiled this ability.

She also fell into that category of a truly precocious performer that had already attained a remarkable maturity of performance at an early age. Her first recording of the old Hank Williams number "Jambalaya" was made in 1956 when she was 11 and she had her first two minor hits "One Step At A Time" and "Dynamite" in 1958 (when 13).

Remarkably the perennial seasonal favourite "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" was also recorded in that year. In this regard she bears close comparison with Leann Rimes who was to burst onto the scene with her recording of "Blue" in the early 90's (also at the age of 13). What is remarkable about "Blue" is that - though an original number - it always sounded to me like it had been recorded by someone else at an earlier stage. And then it suddenly dawned on me that the person I was imagining in my mind was Brenda Lee (who could have given at 13 a very similar performance of the same song).

Another notable in this context was Helen Shapiro a UK contemporary of Brenda Lee. She had her first hits at the age of 14 performing with a remarkably mature deep voice, and enjoyed instant success only to see her hit making career over by 16.

However it was the groovy rocker "Sweet Nothin's" that really brought Brenda Lee her first big hit (in both the US and UK) and she was to follow this with a hugely impressive sequence of successive hits for the next 5 years or so. Included among these were "I'm Sorry" "I Want to be Wanted", "Fool No. 1, "Speak to me Pretty", "All Alone Am I", "As Usual" and "Too Many Rivers". Then when the pop hits dried up she moved into country music where she enjoyed further success for many years. In truth however she was always a country singer with some of her memorable pop hits such as "Fool No. 1", "As Usual" and "Too Many Rivers" falling unashamedly into this idiom.

Best Recording

I would have to nominate "I'm Sorry" - her biggest hit and a truly marvellous song that displays Lee's unique talent especially well. However I also consider "All Alone Am I" a superb ballad. In some ways it represents a throwback to the romantic ballad style of the early 50's. One could well imagine - say - David Whitfield or Eddie Fisher - giving it the appropriate big voice treatment. It amazes me that no major singer has subsequently tried to cover this song.

Favourite Recording

This has to be "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" which really is a standard which quite deservedly has become one of the most enduring of the seasonal favourites. What I love about this - apart from the performance - is the great sax solo in the middle and - unlike so many modern pop songs - it's complete lack of unnecessary redundancy.

When I hear my local supermarket playing this each year I know that Christmas has once again arrived!