Shake a tree in any UK locale and it’s a pretty safe bet that a rock music connection or two will fall out. The most notable difficulty with the inner London borough of Wandsworth will be, firstly, to find a tree. However, once you do (having taken a breather with a pint of bitter, a pork pie and a cork-tipped Pall Mall or thirteen), the rock links come thick and fast. The Battersea Power Station and its association to Pink Floyd, for example.
Or what passes these days as a vaguely quaint medical centre nearby that, in 1973, was a storage building for The Who’s equipment. An out-of-work circus troupe were hired to transform it into a recording studio (as you do), initially named The Kitchen and then Ramport Studios.
It was there that Quadrophenia was recorded, although the control booth had not yet been completed. The Who positioned Ronnie Wood’s Mobile Studio in the street outside to facilitate recording.
Ramport Studios were later utilised by Bryan Ferry, Joan Jett, Sparks, Thin Lizzy, and the Sex Pistols. Supertramp recorded Crime Of The Century there.
The studio was located at 115 Thessaly Rd, on the corner of Corunna Rd, and these days it is known as the Battersea Fields Medical Practice. For a glimpse into the studio, check out The Who’s video clip for Who Are You, shot in 1978 for the documentary, The Kids Are Alright.
Wandsworth was also a hotspot (maybe THE hotspot, considering its rather limited reach) of the all-female heavy metal band movement. 1977 was the year in question and the band is Rock Goddess. Sure, the blank expression is perfectly understandable; Rock Goddess is barely remembered these days by even the most anally-retentive heavy metal genealogists.
But, surprisingly, in a genre where quality is generally in pretty short supply, this band was something special. Rock Goddess formed in 1977 when 13-year-old Jody Turner, influenced by The Runaways, decided to start a band. With Jody on lead guitar and vocals, she enlists schoolfriend Tracey Lamb on bass. While they search for a drummer, Jody’s nine-year-old sister, Julie, filled in and never leaves.
The Turner’s father, John, was a former musician who owned a record store on the Wandsworth High Street. It was in a back store room that the fledgling band initially gather to rehearse.
Years of hard slog, shitty gigs and frustration followed. Their talent, along with a dogged perseverance, began to pay off. They headlined the Marquee club, mounted their first UK tour and, in 1982, played the Redding festival where they were scouted by A&M and signed to a record deal. The first self-titled album was released in February 1983 with ten songs all penned by Jody Turner. The second, titled Hell Hath No Fury, appeared in the UK later that year.
Inbetween, a fourth member, Kat Burbella had been added but she didn’t last long. Tensions, which had been building between Tracey and Jody, finally came to a head and Tracey left the band. The bass spot for the recording of the second album fell to Dee O’Malley.
The UK release of Hell Hath No Fury contained ten original Jody Turner tracks. By the time, it appeared in the US the following year, the track listings looked a little different. Two of the UK release tracks were dropped. Replacing them was Hell Hath No Fury (not a bad idea considering it was the album title) and a cover of Gary Glitter’s I Didn’t Know I Loved You (Until I Saw You Rock and Roll).
The most successful singles of the period, Heavy Metal Rock’n’Roll and My Angel (from the debut album) and the Gary Glitter cover didn’t so much graze the charts as gaze longingly at them from across the abyss, waving forlornly.
They did, however, get lots of attention which led to gigs and offers of tour supports. The one problem they run into in the early 80s is that Julie, as a high school student (and technically a minor) could only play limited dates. Eventually, though, they toured as support to Def Leppard and Iron Maiden.
In the meantime, Tracey started her own band, She, followed by The Perfect Mothers, which never played live. And numerous other projects which, in the way of rock history generally, ended up like numerous other projects throughout rock history.
Eventually, Tracey joined Girlschool, another all-girl heavy metal band that started in Wandsworth in 1978 (hence the 1978 Wandsworth connection) but had a tad more commercial and critical success via its association with Lemmy from Motorhead and Lemmy’s own GWR Records.
The early 80s were the glory years of Rock Goddess. Despite developing quite a huge fan following, the band sputtered along as best they could before eventually breaking up in 1987. Since then, they’ve been on-again, off-again, on-again ad infinitum (with Tracey almost but never quite coming back).
Jody has been alternately pursuing numerous other projects which, in the way of rock history etc etc. Julie married, became a fitness instructor and relocated to Spain.
Around 2015, a big thing was made of Jody and Julie Turner reuniting with Tracey Lamb under the Rock Goddess banner. By 2018, Tracey was out; she later rejoined Girlschool. A mooted and heavily-publicised Rock Goddess album never eventuated although a three-track EP of new material became available in 2017.
That’s rock’n’roll, kids. The promise that burns so bright leaves a mountain of ashes. A third album, Young & Free, recorded while still under the A&M contract but never released at the time, appeared via a French label in 1987. It featured the Turner/O’Malley line-up.
If you want to experience a time capsule of prime early 1980s all-girl heavy metal exotica, you can’t go beyond Rock Goddess. For the historic progression, the trifecta of The Runaways, Rock Goddess and Girlschool will provide everything you need.
Early January marks the birthdays of some of my favourite performers. Both Elvis and Bowie were born on 8 January, David Johansen, Jimmy Page and Scott Walker on the 9th, Rod Stewart and Donald Fagan on the 10th, along with a whole stack of others sprinkled through the month such as Sam Cooke, Dolly Parton, Janis Joplin, Mick Taylor, Clarence Carter, Greedy Smith, Michael Hutchence, Johnny O’Keefe, and Doc Neeson.
Which is my way of dragging out one of the Bowie archive photos from my collection. This one dates from the China Girl video shoot in Sydney and is date stamped (12 September 1983) on the back. Bowie, who also shot the music video for Let’s Dance in Australia during the same period, is shown with Geeling Ng; a New Zealand actress, Ng was working as a waitress at one of my favourite hang-outs of the time, Dean’s in Kellett St, Kings Cross, when Bowie first met her.
Bowie and Ng made the China Girl video, romance bloomed (as it did for many of Bowie’s co-stars), and eventually Ng returned to New Zealand where she became something of a media celebrity. Although there’s no photographer credit on this, it was most likely shot by Patrick Jones.
Bowie owned a Sydney apartment close to the Cross, in Elizabeth Bay’s historic Kincoppal building, and would spend several months at a time there. He only sold it after his marriage to Iman in the early 1990s and the realisation that a bachelor pad on the other side of the world was somewhat redundant for a married man.
Jeff Duff, the Australian entertainer, who fronted the jazz-rock band Kush before beginning a long and artistically diverse solo career, had known Bowie in the late 1970s. Duff had relocated to London where he terrified and energised the music scene. His notoriety attracted other artists who were comfortable on the very edge of society’s expectations and Bowie was certainly one of them.
Fast forward to the early 80s and Duff and Bowie became neighbours, with Jeff living next door to Kincoppal. They’d frequently run into each other in the neighbourhood and members of Tin Machine, Bowie’s band at the time (their second album was recorded at EMI’s 301 Studios in 1989), would turn up for Duff’s performances around Sydney.
Given Duff’s eclectic musical tastes, and immense talent, it’s no real surprise that he’s become well known these days for his Bowie tribute shows. He’s even played the Sydney Opera House a few times. He’s also mounted shows dedicated to Lou Reed as well as Scott Walker and the Walker Brothers.
But it’s Bowie that Jeff has become most celebrated for; he even conducted a thematically impressive experiment in mixing the styles of Bowie and Frank Sinatra. There’s some physical similarities between Jeff and Bowie, and his interpretation of the songs are well worth experiencing.
I’m lucky that, owing to Jeff being a friend of a friend, I’ve had a few opportunities to not only see Jeff in concert but spend time with him as well. An erudite gentleman (a description that, sadly, is much under-utilised these days) with an innate elegance, Jeff has a quick wit leavened with a refreshing self-deprecation, a world away from the onanism generally shown by those in showbusiness.
Bowie life and musical career has been extensively charted and dissected, Jeff Duff much less so. His memoir, This Will Explain Everything (Melbourne Book, 2016), is highly recommended and you end up with the realisation that his contribution to music, and Australian culture in general, is most under-appreciated and unrecognised.
Happy Birthday!!! Sonny Corleone (no, the other one) turns 40.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking Mario Puzo’s ill-fated member of the fictional crime family but my 1978 Lincoln Continental Town Car. So the first issue to address is…..why the hell Sonny Corleone?
He’s (and here I’m referring to the car) that’s kinda guy. A loveable lug. Powerful as much as powerfully built, dependable and loyal. Protective of all who come in contact with him but sensitive enough to show a girl a good time (at a wedding, no less). Got it? Good.
On Thursday 15 June 1978, Sonny Corleone was welcomed to the world, rolling off the Ford assembly line in Wixom, MI, to the cheers of hundreds of assembled factory workers. There was portent in the air; they knew this was something special, despite this plant having largely concentrated on Lincolns since it opened in 1957 (and it was a Town Car that was the last off the assembly line when the facility closed in 2007).
In reality, the Lincoln was shipped off to Rotman Lincoln-Mercury, a dealership in Maquokta, Iowa, about 300 kilometres west of Chicago. But I like to think that Sonny had a parallel existence in some other reality, cruising the streets of New York City as a treasured member of a prestige limousine service. His dayswould be blocked out by stockbrokers and other Wall Street types, pre-generational Masters of the Universe, hoovering up lines of cocaine as they shuttled around town. The nights were blocked out with celebrities, models, disco dollies and more executive types who, depending on their proclivities, travelled from high-end restaurants to Studio 54, Plato’s Retreat or any of a number of bath houses where cleanliness was not a prerequisite.
If you were wondering just what these passengers might have been listening to within Sonny’s encompassing velvet confines, here’s just such a list. OK, maybe it’s more what I was and would have been listening to during the same period but same same.
In terms of music, 1978 is one of my favourite years, just as the 1970s is one of my favourite decades. It falls within the Golden Era of disco, rich with lush orchestrations, before the 80s ushered in synthesizers. So we’ll start the list with the most obvious:
1/ The Tramps – Disco Inferno: Although initially released in 1976 (when it reached Number One on the Billboard Dance charts), it became an even bigger hit in 1978 with a 10 minute 54 second version via the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. This time around, it made the mainstream charts, reaching Number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Coincidentally, I’ve previously noted that I want this song played at my funeral. I anticipate a cremation. Burn, baby, burn.
2/ Bee Gees – How Deep Is Your Love: Again from the biggest movie of 1977-78. It’s difficult to choose just one Bee Gees song off this amazing double album; maybe More Than A Woman, although it wasn’t released as a single, or Night Fever but I’ll stick with this sensuous ballad. Interestingly, Saturday Night Fever is one of only six albums to reach sales of more 40 million. Even more interestingly, it may be one of my favourite soundtracks but it’s not necessarily my favourite disco movie; that honour would go to Thank God It’s Friday.
3/ Donna Summer – Last Dance: Speaking of which, Donna Summer was a HUGE part of my disco years; her first Casablanca single, Love To Love You Baby was in 1975, when it really started, disco-wide, for both Donna and myself. Last Dance was off the Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack, a truly great song, and historically notable for being the only disco song to ever win an Academy Award (Yes, I hear you say, Xanadu was robbed!!!!).
4/ John Paul Young – Love Is In The Air: As much as I was huge Countdown fan (as indeed anyone of a certain age was in Australia), I never saw the 30 April 1978 live broadcast of John Paul Young singing Love Is In The Air. I worked Thursdays to Sundays at an inner city Sydney disco so I didn’t see the first televised performance (or, at least, its most celebrated) but it was impossible to miss this Vanda & Young-penned musical juggernaut, either when it was demolishing music charts around the world (Top 5 through much of Europe, Number 3 in Australia and topped Billboard US’s Adult Contemporary Charts) or since then. I love it still.
5/ Village People – Macho Man: 1978 was the year of two of the Village People’s biggest hits – Macho Man and Y.M.C.A., but it’s the later that stands out. Number One around the world, except for the US where Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy blocked it from the top spot. As the song surged up the charts, things became more heated than a bunch of Village People fans in a YMCA sauna when the organisation threatened to sue for breach of copyright. Things were “settled” out of court and the YMCA later officiallydeclared it a “positive statement” about the YMCA. In recent times, co-writer (with VP producer and Svengali, Jacques Morelli) and lead singer, Victor Willis, won his long-running legal battle to have his copyrights restored to him; a consequence is that Willis is now touring with a reconstructed VP without any of the other surviving original group members.
6/ Rod Stewart – Do Ya Think I’m Sexy: Speaking of which, this marks Rockin’ Rod crossing to the dark side, cashing in on disco, as his traditional fans accused him. To anyone who frequented discos or nightclubs (or anywhere really, in the late 70s), it struck a chord in describing the machinations behind the boy-meets-girl scenario and what goes down (no pun intended, no, really) afterwards.
7/ Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights: While I missed the clip on Countdown (like many Australian hits, it was due largely to exposure from this one program), I would have seen it on Donnie Sutherland’s Sounds show (wherever I woke up on Saturday mornings). Like everything else on my list, I love it still although I’m no great fan of Kate’s other work. Honourable mention to another version that populates my iPod playlist; from the UK’s Puppini Sisters, which presents the song as the Andrews Sisters would interpret it.
8/ Bob Welch – Ebony Eyes: Just to prove I’m not entirely disco obsessed, here’s some West Coast rock. On the back of a splendid video clip, it was a much bigger hit in Australia than the US (heeeelloooooo again, Countdown). Welch is probably best known for his time with Fleetwood Mac (part of the ninth line-up along with Mick Fleetwood and the McVies); he left the band in 1974, to be replaced by Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. The rest, as they say in showbiz, is history. He then formed the under-rated Paris, then followed with a couple of solo albums. The first, French Kiss, from which Ebony Eyes is from, shipped platinum, the others consistently fewer. I still play French Kiss, and the Paris albums, and none of Bob’s Mac work. Go figure.
9/ Dragon – Are You Old Enough: Technically, I could include April Sun In Cuba on this list, although it was released in 1977; that was off the Running Free album which was still yielding singles into the following year. But I’ll side-step the inevitable whinges and choose Are You Old Enough instead. Typical boppy, poppy sunshine rock, I’ll always associate the late 70s Dragon output with lazy summer days, which stretched into lazy spring, summer and autumn months working on my tan at Tamarama or Lady Bay beaches. Dragon was Marc Hunter as much as he was the very essence of the late 70s sunshine lifestyle and he died way too young. Despite their best efforts, I just can’t warm to Dragon without Marc (just as the Doors and INXS could never replicate the magic after losing their lead singers)..
10/ Bruce Springsteen – Because The Night: This choice will court some controversy but demonstrates how rich our legacy of old music has become over the intervening years, repackaging classic albums with bonus and archival material being the norm these days. Strictly speaking, the only version of Because The Night that Sonny would have known in 1978 would be the Patti Smith version; early drafts of this song were written by The Boss and recorded during June and July of 1977, for the Darkness At The Edge Of Town sessions. Bruce wasn’t entirely satisfied with what he had (although the melody and chorus were constants) and it was eventually dropped. Smith, who was recording at an adjoining studio, completed the song and recorded it; it became her biggest US chart hit. According to the exhaustive www.springsteenlyrics.com, the official studio version that Bruce recorded for Darkness had Smith’s lyrics, while alternate versions digressed quite sharply in attempting to imprint his blue collar ethos. He started playing it live, with his own lyrics, during the Darkness tour. It was included on Live! 1975-85 (1986) but the alternate version released in The Promise (2010), which collected Darkness session tracks, has Smith’s lyrics. So maybe we should just stick with Patti Smith.
11/ Andy Gibb – Shadow Dancing: In truth, it should be I Just Want To Be Your Everything (my favourite Andy Gibb track) but that came out in 1977. Gibb, younger brother of Barry, Robin and Maurice, renowned collectively as the Bee Gees, had a fitful early careerwhich didn’t take off until the mid-70s when Robert Stigwood, at that time his brothers’ manager, also took on Andy. The Bee Gees’ involvement in his debut album, from playing to providing songs, worked the right kind of magic. Two Number One singles, including Everything, resulted. In April 1978, the second album, Shadow Dancing, was released with the single of the same name also going to Number One. His tragic death at the age of 30 tinges these recordings with such sadness. Let’s remember him as he was.
12/ Bob Seger And The Silver Bullet Band – Old Time Rock And Roll: Right through the 1970s, it seemed as if most of the music America wanted to listen to was coming out of a virtually unknown part of northern Alabama called Sheffield. Four sessions musicians, known collectively as the Swampers, left employment at the renowned Fame Studios (which had been churning out R&B hits since the 1960s) nearby and set up their own facility, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. While R&B continued to be an important revenue stream, they also extended into mainstream artists such as the Rolling Stones (tracks from Exile On Main Street), Cher, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Dylan. Detroit rocker Bob Seger recorded a number of tracks there including one of his most enduring, Old Time Rock and Roll. While Bob’s Silver Bullet Band is credited on the album, the track itself was originally a demo produced and played on by the Swampers themselves for a co-write from George Jackson and Thomas E Jones III. While Bob tried recording the song with both the Bullet and the Swampers, he wasn’t happy with the result; in the end, he laid his own vocals over the top of the demo. And although Bob amended some of the original lyrics, he saw it more as filler than serious chart potential and passed on a song writing co-credit; royalties flow straight back to Muscle Shoals. Bet Bob is still kicking himself.
13/ Steely Dan – Deacon Blues: We unquestioningly accept the rock’n’roll aesthetic; slim, jaded, impossibly attractive young gods, prowling the manicured meadows from centuries-old English manor houses to their stages via green rooms where magnums of French champagne and supermodel groupies await to be plucked from their respective receptacles. Walter and Donald were not rock gods. They looked pretty much the way you’d expect anybody called Walter and Donald would look in the 1970s. Except dorkier. And, please understand, I mean that in the nicest possible way. Like they were on top of calculus and were just marking time until the Atari was invented. Which, as Atari was founded in 1972 and Steely Dan stopped touring in 1974, is maybe a little closer to the truth than anybody suspected. So, as for the perks of being rock stars, when it comes to Steely Dan, the mind enters boggling territory. What would a Steelie Dan groupie even look like? Perhaps it’s best not to know. Whatever, Steely Dan were an integral part of the sound of a generation and that generation was mine. Do It Again, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Reelin’ In The Years, Hey Nineteen. I didn’t understand the lyrics then and still don’t. But the sound is unmistakable. Thus Deacon Blues, coming close towards the end of their chart successes, gets my 1978 nod.
With these, and so many other great songs of the 70s, Sonny cotinues – 40 years later, to rumble the bitumen, turning heads and drawing crowds wherever he goes.
For such a long time, I had a glass heart. I have no idea how I acquired it or when. Most likely, I was suckered, as is my way occasionally when travelling, into donating to some worthy cause. The glass heart would have been my reward.
It was slipped absent-mindedly into an outside pocket of my camera bag, where I’d rediscover it from time to time while rummaging for keys or spare change. Small, about two centimetres across by a centimetre thick, its iridescent surface reflecting light through a thousand rainbow shades. It made me smile.
It came to mind only once, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in the tiny sun-seared town of Joshua Tree, California. In the courtyard of the relatively nondescript Joshua Tree Inn, an establishment with a name as utilitarian as its unadorned appearance, the one notable feature of which is an outsize statue of a guitar that stands in the dusty courtyard like one of Kubrick’s monoliths.
Around the concrete base is a scattering of tributes: candles, dice, cigarette lighters, violin bows, marbles, a white angel with wings spread wide, a CD, a tiny Day of the Dead figure, empty liquor bottles, coins, badges, a candlestick shaped like a palm tree, dead flowers, a plaque showing a skeleton under the word Grievous. The flotsam and jetsam of everyday life refashioned as pop cultural fetishes.
Etched into the guitar is the legend: Gram Parsons. Safe At Home. 11/5/46 – 9/19/73.
Turn around and there’s Room 8. It’s where Gram Parsons, widely credited as the father of country rock, died. Young, vital, brimming with promise, though underappreciated in his time. A few months short of his 27th birthday.
I want to see inside Room 8. The Inn is booked out; I’ve checked. But, on this weekday early afternoon, under a fading blue canopy of lung-searing heat, it’s deathly still. There’s nobody around the swimming pool or in the shade of the verandahs. The housekeepers have packed up and disappeared, the reception desk unattended.
The tortured artist, dead before his time, is an overly-familiar trope. It gets all the publicity, the gritty biopics, the ironic hipster t-shirts. If all the people who now profess their eternal admiration had been around back then to buy his albums, Gram Parsons may still be alive. Making his music, older than the heroes he worshipped when he was too young to be taken seriously by them.
Gram Parsons’ story is anchored firmly in the southern Gothic tradition that has become as much a cliché as that of the haunted artist too pure for this world. Except that his story was agonisingly real. It didn’t need the embellishment or romantic exaggeration of modern popular culture.
Gram Parsons was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida, on 5 November 1946. His mother, Avis, was the daughter of John A. Snively, a pioneer of the Florida citrus industry; his father, Cecil Connor, known in those parts as Coon Dog, cut a dashing figure as an ex-Army pilot. Coon Dog had been stationed in Hawaii when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Later, he flew combat missions in New Guinea and was hospitalised in Australia after contracting malaria.
The Snively family was Florida royalty, immensely wealthy from catering to a nation’s desire for breakfast refreshment. Winter Haven was their fiefdom. The head of the family may have been cool to his daughter’s choice in men but he brought Coon Dog into the family business, putting him in charge of a packaging operation in Waycross, Georgia, where Gram was born and raised.
Both parents liked their cocktails a little too much; Avis was what was considered “highly strung” and had a dependence on prescription medicine. Due to his war service, Coon Dog exhibited symptoms that would later be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Family life wasn’t comfortable for a boy as finely tuned as Gram and he took to music as an escape. He loved playing records and holding parties. He picked out tunes he only just heard on the family piano and was soon writing his own songs. His interest turned to something far deeper, like it did for many of his generation, when he saw Elvis perform at the Waycross City Auditorium. in February 1956,
Two years later, when Gram was 12, the careful balance of his world began to falter. Coon Dog committed suicide. Avis, Gram and his sister, known as Little Avis, returned to the safe haven of the Snively family’s Magnolia Mansion on the shores of Lake Eloise.
Gram felt the loss of his father keenly. To dull the pain, he retreated further into music and his mother’s limitless supply of prescription drugs.
Avis eventually married a charismatic salesman, Robert Ellis Parsons, who adopted Gram and supported his musical endeavours, to the extent of opening a local music venue. Derry Down, as it was called, became part of a network of Florida youth club venues that nurtured such emerging musical talent as the Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Joni Mitchell.
And a young musician with a burgeoning reputation by the name of Gram Parsons. The bands he became involved with reflected the musical styles of the time, first rock’n’roll, then folk. His musicianship and stage presence developed well with time although it was his plaintive presence, the inner sadness that dwelt behind his steady, intelligent gaze, that resonated most deeply in audiences, especially amongst young women.
The death of his mother in 1964, after a long agonising decline hastened by alcohol, shattered Gram anew. But if it did one thing, it propelled him out of Florida towards his musical future. In 1965, he enrolled at Harvard but lasted less than a semester. Studying wasn’t really high on the Gram Parsons curriculum. Girls and drugs, not necessarily in that order, consumed his time.
He put together the first incarnation of the International Submarine Band. After Harvard, they moved to New York City but west was where everybody with any musical ambition was heading, to the sunshine and agreeably hedonistic lifestyle of Los Angeles.
The International Submarine Band set up in Laurel Canyon and, by 1967, had a deal with LHI Records, fronted by singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood. One of the stranger characters of the 1960s West Coast music scene (admittedly, a pretty crowded field), Hazlewood is generally best known as partner, musical and otherwise, to Nancy Sinatra. The International Submarine Band joined LHI in a roster that, in many ways, defied description, artistic endeavour and sound business sense.
Meanwhile, Gram and Los Angeles in the late 1960s became a potent combination. Lanky and boyish, he was quietly spoken with an endearing Southern drawl and impeccable manners, an agreeable combination of attributes that turned heads. Pamela des Barres, whose experience of such things was as vast and all-encompassing as the desert sky, famously described Gram as “totally countrified in a slinky bedroom-eyed way”.
That he had an affinity for girls, drugs, booze and music just made him one of many in the landscape. That he enjoyed a certain level of wealth (by the late 60s, the proceeds from a trust fund established by his grandfather was paying off to the tune of about $US100,000 a year), set him a little further apart and ensured he could indulge his interests in high style; it was a fact of life in southern California, however, that wealthy young gods were still ruling the landscape then as now.
His distinctions were in an increasing dedication to the more traditional elements of country music (unusual amongst his contemporaries who were all seeking, in their own ways, the alchemic formula to successfully fuse folk, pop and rock into chart gold) and his song writing.
The latter was on display during his ISB days; the first International Submarine Band single cut for LHI was pure Gram – “Luxury Liner” and “Blue Eyes”, with the resulting album including two more Gram compositions, “Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome” and “Strong Boy”.
By the time ISB’s album was released, in March 1968 after a considerable delay, the band had split and Gram had moved on to another project.
The Byrds had gained attention with a line-up of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman, cruisng through a folk repertoire with dreamily tight harmonies that, as the 1960s progressed, merged into psychedelic rock.
Members came and went; by late 1967, Crosby and Clark had gone and The Byrds were looking for new blood. Early the following year, by the time their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was released, Gram had been accepted into the fold. With the support of Hillman (and opposition from McGuinn), Gram steered The Byrds towards a more country sound.
They immediately launched into a new album, recording in Nashville and Los Angeles a mix of country standards, Bob Dylan compositions and three of Gram’s own songs, including the now-classic “Hickory Wind”.
It was in Nashville in March 1968 that The Byrds played the Grand Ole Opry, the spiritual stronghold of the highly-conservative country music establishment. Gram’s youthful exuberance for country music (and his fellow band members’ self-regard as contemporary music royalty) left them in little doubt of a warm, even rapturous, welcome.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The audience seemed stunned by the long-haired hippies in their midst (though long-hair was always going to be a relative term when set against conservative Nashville; photographs of the group on stage at the Opry reveal what we would now call “preppy” attire and their hair, barely over the ears, looks no more menacing than the Beatles’ mop tops).
The Opry’s executive elite couldn’t have been less hospitable if The Byrds had harmonised the Communist Manifesto. It wasn’t helped by Gram’s last-minute decision to substitute Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” (some reports state it was to be Haggard’s “Life In Prison”) as the announced final song in their set for his own “Hickory Wind”, even if he did dedicate it to his elderly grandmother.
Gram suffered a double disappointment on the release of The Byrds’ latest album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, in August 1968. Lee Hazlewood and LHI considered they still had Gram under contract and most of his vocals were redubbed, much to McGuinn’s delight. And, despite his unswerving dedication to country music, Sweetheart was the worst performing Byrds album to date, nudging only as high as #77 on the Billboard charts (in comparison, the previous album reached #47, still a disaster for a band of their stature but at least, though barely, in the top half of the charts).
All the public needed, as Gram so consistently expounded, was country music played by a new generation of long-haired rock musicians. Regrettably, the public never received that memo. Fusing folk, pop and rock and any number of barely-like-minded influences was becoming quite the musical fashion but too many young people saw straight-out country music as something their parents, small-town cousins and six-fingered distant relations looked to for life lessons. It just wasn’t cool.
Gram pressed on regardless, devising new ways to describe his music, desperately trying to intellectualise it and sneak it in through the back door of hipsterdom. Cosmic American Music was his favoured term; he even started calling it roots music, decades before the term gained widespread acceptance.
He was bummed by Sweetheart’s frosty reception but he’d moved on from The Byrds by then anyway; leaving by summer 1968, ostensibly because he objected to a proposed tour of apartheid-era South Africa, although it was more likely that continued friction with McGuinn played a more central role.
In record time (excuse the pun), he founded another band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, to do his philosophical bidding. Joining him was Chris Hillman, who’d also fled The Byrds around this time. They signed to A&M Records and launched into their first album.
Musically as well as philosophically, The Burritos were closer to Gram’s concept of long-hairs playing country music; Gram also took control of their stage image by steering them to a Ukranian-born tailor working out of North Hollywood. Nuta Kotlyarenko, better known as Nudie Cohan, created fantasias of elaborate Western styling that became popular amongst such country performers as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hank Williams, and then spread to others in the music industry including Elvis and John Lennon.
The Burritos pretty much blew their A&M advance on the outfits but they sure looked sharp in the publicity photos. Nudie was renowned for personally styling the suits to its clients’ tastes and Gram’s own choices were those that defined his life: marijuana leaves, poppies, pills, naked women and a cross.
The Burritos and their Nudie suits were emblazoned across their first album. The Gilded Palace Of Sin, released in February 1969; musically, it typified Gram’s dedication towards fusing traditional country with folk, rock, pop, even soul (in the latter instance, “Dark End Of The Street”, best known as a 1966 hit for James Carr). As satisfying as the album was, and it did garner considerable critical attention, the public remained underwhelmed and ignored it.
Sin stalled at #164 on the Billboard Top 200. The band’s follow-up, Burrito Deluxe, released in May 1970, didn’t even make the Top 200. Shortly after that, Gram was fired from his own band, the victim of his own overindulgence in drugs and alcohol although the rest of the band were no less guilty of such transgressions.
While renowned for their studio work, in concert they were hit-and-miss, preferring to get shit-faced and play poker instead of taking the stage. The situation wasn’t helped by such unfortunate decisions as turning down Woodstock but playing Altamont.
Gram’s drug and alcohol dependence showed no signs of mellowing; it seemed the more the record-buying public rejected his heart-felt musical intentions, the more he sought escape by chemical means. The situation wasn’t helped by an important friendship forged in the late 1960s, one of two that would define as much as emphasis his musical journey.
On 7 July 1968, The Byrds played the Royal Albert Hall in London; amongst the glitterati trawling backstage was Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. The two immediately hit it off; while autobiographies and memoirs are the most infuriatingly inexact of sources, Richards’ own Life (2010) pays considerable tribute to Gram Parsons’ influence, musical as well as personal, both on Richards and the Rolling Stones.
“When I fell in with Gram Parsons in the summer of 1968, I struck a seam of music that I’m still developing, which widened the range of everything I was playing and writing. It also began an instant friendship that already seemed ancient the first time we sat down and talked. It was like a reunion with a long-lost brother for me,” writes Richards. “Gram was very, very special and I still miss him.”
The first question Gram asked Richards was whether he had any drugs. It was shared interests – drugs as much as music – that underpinned their friendship. Following the English concerts, The Byrds were scheduled to play South Africa but Richards and the other Stones enlightened Gram on the issue of apartheid; the result was that Gram left the tour, and the Byrds, there and then. The next few months, he spent in England with Richards.
Just as the Stones, like many English musicians in the early 1960s, had adopted the blues, so Keith Richards, by the decade’s end, immersed himself in country music, tutored all the while by an enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable Gram. They spent long periods jamming, writing songs, experimenting with styles, building influences one atop the other like building blocks, continuing to refine the things that worked, tossing aside those that didn’t.
The late 1960s, into the early to mid-70s, was a period of musical transition for the Stones. Mick Taylor was brought in to replace Brian Jones and the band’s direction changed remarkably. Jagger was in favour of emphasising a harder sound, one that would eventually emerge as stadium rock; Richards, fired up by Gram’s intensive tutoring, was determined towards Americana, roots music and country.
Gram was never too far away from Richards for the next few Rolling Stones albums, from Let It Bleed (1969) through to Exile On Main Street (1972), and his influence as much as his direct involvement is the subject of considerable speculation by music historians. Listen to “Country Honk”, the hillbilly-ish version of “Honky Tonk Women” that appears on Let It Bleed and try if you can to ignore the spirit of Gram Parsons that haunts it; doubly haunted, perhaps, as it’s this track that was the last Stones session Brian Jones played on before his death.
On Sticky Fingers (1971), Gram’s influence is apparent on “Dead Flowers” although it’s “Wild Horses” that gets all the attention. Despite the Jagger/Richards song writing credit, there’s long been a conspiracy theory that Gram co-wrote it (most likely untrue; the song is far too straight-forward, lacking his Southern Gothic complexities). That’s not to say, however, that Gram didn’t contribute much to how the song sounded.
“Wild Horses” was recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, over a two-day period in early December 1969. It was one of three tracks (also including “Brown Sugar”) recorded at the session and the first tracks that would form Sticky Fingers. Gram was not in the studio for it.
The Stones were at the end of a US tour that had started on 7 November; they’d been developing new material and were eager to record it while it was still fresh. After a concert in West Palm Beach, Florida, they had a few days before the final date. As a strange quirk of their visas, they could play concerts but couldn’t record so a quiet, out-of-the-way location in northern Alabama was hastily arranged. That Muscle Shoals was already legendary for recording such R&B giants as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett worked on one level; on another, a bunch of white English boys went noted but barely recognised.
A few days later, the Stones travelled to California for the final date on the tour, meeting up with Gram and the Burritos who were also appearing at the free concert, along with Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The date was 6 December 1969. The location was the Altamont Speedway. And the rest, as they say in the music industry, generally in a most ominous tone, is history.
Something that did come out of this is that Keith Richards gave Gram a demo tape of “Wild Horses” along with permission to release his own version before the Stones. It appeared on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Burrito Deluxe, released in April 1970, a full year before the Stones version appeared on Sticky Fingers.
Mick Jagger has been quite open about the influence Gram had on the country feel of such Sticky Fingers tracks as “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”, as well as a few from Exile On Main Street. The version of “Wild Horses” released on Sticky Fingers (there were two takes recorded at Muscle Shoals; the second could well be the acoustic version available on the 2015 Deluxe edition re-release of Sticky Fingers) is quite a restrained country ballad, displaying little in the way of Cosmic American Music, but somewhere, forgotten, in an archives may be a version of even more interest to Gram Parson aficionados.
There is mention, amongst the multitude of GP biographies and associated material, that Gram was asked to suggest a pedal steel player to add to “Wild Horses”. His choice was Peter Kleinow, otherwise known as Sneaky Pete, who he held in high regard and worked closely with in both the Byrds and the Burritos.
As an aside, Sneaky Pete has another of the quirkier stories in American music. An accomplished pedal steel player and champion of the Fender 400, Pete had a secondary career as a Hollywood visual effects and stop motion animator, working on such film and television shows as Gumby, Land Of The Lost, The Empire Strikes Back, and Terminators I and II.
Meanwhile, Gram’s departure from the Burritos in mid-1970 left him rudderless and his periodic episodes of depression deepened, a situation not helped by drugs and alcohol. His relationship with Keith Richards tided him over and he was on hand during the latter stages of recording Sticky Fingers, much of which was put down at Jagger’s UK estate, Stargrove, in rural Hampshire.
It was, however, during the recording of the next Stones album, Exile On Main Street, that things came to a head. Gram and Keith Richards were drinkin’ and druggin’ and jammin’ for what seemed like weeks on end, often to the exclusion of everything else. That the druggin’ included heroin and often left Richards disinclined, if not even physically unable, to contribute to the new album strained relations with Jagger and other members of the band and surrounding entourage.
While some of the leftover tracks from Sticky Fingers made their way onto the next album, new tracks were recorded at Nellcôte, an estate Richards rented in Villefranche-sur-Mer near Nice on the French Riviera (the Stones had fled the UK as tax exiles). Gram arrived at Nellcôte in June 1971, one of a flood of visitors that included such figures as William S. Burroughs. Both Gram and Richards were into heroin heavily during this time. The album languished. Eventually, the chaos had to be managed and Gram was kicked out in July 1971.
It was inevitable that Gram’s next move, if his attention could be wrested from other matters, would be a solo album. And, despite the lack of financial success accorded his work with both The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, record companies continued to display interest.
The first was A&M, where he was teamed with yet another of the more interesting characters populating the LA music scene. The son of actress Doris Day, Terry Melcher had already produced such acts as The Byrds and The Beach Boys but is most infamously remembered for an act he didn’t produce – Charles Manson.
Beach Boy Dennis Wilson had befriended Manson who, amongst other interests, was an aspiring songwriter and introduced him to Melcher to further his musical career. Although Manson was under the impression that Melcher would be producing an album for him, the project never eventuated.
At this time, Melcher and his then-girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen, were living in the hills above Los Angeles, at 10050 Cielo Drive in the midst of Benedict Canyon. Manson had visited Melcher at this address several times but the producer moved out early in 1969. In August, Manson sent his followers to the house, which had since been rented to film director Roman Polanski, telegraphing a not-so-subtle message. While Polanski wasn’t at home, his wife, actress Sharon Tate, and several friends were. The rest, as the ominous saying once again goes, is history.
The A&M solo album didn’t get off the ground with Melcher having a hard time swaying Gram’s interest. But another attempt was already in the pipeline, and it would lead to the second friendship and musical partnership that defined Gram’s career.
In 1971, Chris Hillman of the Burritos suggested he catch the performance of a young folk singer at a Washington club. Emmylou Harris had already recorded her first album, Gliding Bird, but the record company disintegrated soon after and it had attracted little attention.
It would seem that Gram and Emmylou, at least musically, had little in common but each could see opportunities in the other. Emmylou was anchored firmly in folk but her career to date had been going nowhere fast and she needed the work that Gram offered; Gram saw the need for a female singer and trusted Chris Hillman’s initial judgement. When he heard Emmylou and conjured the possibilities of what could be, he realised that this was something, at least musically, he never knew he needed.
Together, their voices melded into the most divine harmonies. But it didn’t happen instantly. It was the result of dedication and hard work. The mechanics of generating those harmonies is visible in a studio out-take on the 1995 release, Cosmic American Music, rehearsing “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning” (a track on Gram’s first solo album, GP), repeatedly exploring the same line, addressing it in different ways before reaching an arrangement they were both comfortable with.
Gram and Emmylou gradually built up their harmonies, honed in their live performances, and if his initial intention was for just a female voice, he soon found he’d ended up with something more vitally important.
Thus, when Gram relaunched his attempt on a solo album, this time under the aegis of Reprise Records, this emotionally powerful duet partnership was put down for posterity.
Recording for what would become the first of only two Gram Parsons solo albums, simply titled GP, began in September 1972. His backing musicians, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, previously recorded with Elvis Presley in the TCB Band. One of Gram’s heroes, Merle Haggard, was to have produced the album but dropped out at the last moment.
Gram did not weather the recording sessions well. He was close to breaking point, binging on alcohol and drugs, including cocaine. His fast lifestyle was evident to his increasingly concerned friends; photographs of the period show him bloated and unwell. Yet the resulting album was nothing short of magical. This was especially so on the tracks he shared with Emmylou; she added something emotionally invaluable to the mix, shades he’d never been able to achieve in his previous recordings.
Yet, once again, despite raves from such publications as Rolling Stone, GP (released January 1973) didn’t get close to entering the Billboard Top 200.
Gram and Emmylou toured through the spring of 1973 but he was spending increasing time out of LA, in the high country of the Mojave Desert. He first come to this area in the late 1960s, returning more frequently to the small town of Joshua Tree. His preferred accommodation was the Joshua Tree Inn, where he could walk, stumble or sometimes even crawl to such bars as the Hi Lo Lounge.
If he wasn’t bar-hopping, he’d retire to his favourite Room 8 with a range of friends including Keith Richards, girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, and Gram’s road manager/protector/confidante, Phil Kaufman.
The desert was Gram’s own haven. It didn’t temper his dependence on drugs or alcohol but it was a spiritual safe zone from the disappointments of work and personal concerns. Occasionally, he attained moments of clarity when he’d recognised the self-destructive nature of his existence and his own mortality.
During one such moment, Gram instructed Phil Kaufman that, upon his death, he wanted to be cremated in the Joshua Tree National Park and his ashes scattered on a local landmark, Cap Rock. It would prove to be a prophetic request.
However disheartened he was by his continued failures to break his music to the wider world, Gram pushed ahead with a second solo album. He gathered the band, including James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, along with Emmylou Harris, and entered the studios in summer 1973 with a batch of songs. Included were several of his own, including “Brass Buttons”, a scarring song about his mother that he’d written while at Harvard, and “Hickory Wind”, already recorded during his time with The Byrds. Other songs, such as “Love Hurts”, showcased Gram and Emmylou’s extraordinary gift of harmony.
The album would be called Grievous Angel. During recording, Linda Ronstadt would visit the studio and add harmonies to the track “In My Hour Of Darkness”. While Gram and Ronstadt (who had also become close to Emmylou) were friends, her involvement, however limited, carried a certain bitter synchronicity.
After three albums in the late 1960s as part of the Stone Poneys, Linda Ronstadt embarked on a series of solo albums. The musicians involved in her third, self-titled, album, released in 1972, included Bernie Leedon, who had been a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers during the Burritos Deluxe days, and Randy Meisner, both of whom toured with Ronstadt to support her previous Silk Purse (1970) album.
Also joining Leedon and Meisner were Don Henley and Glenn Frey; in the small-town world of the Los Angeles music scene of the period, Gram knew everybody and everybody knew Gram but he knew Frey particularly well as the musician was often to be seen at Burritos’ gigs, avidly studying Gram’s stagecraft.
The four approached Ronstadt after the album’s completion. They recognised a chemistry they wanted to explore and, as a courtesy, declared their intention of forming a band. Not yet settled on a name, they signed to Asylum Records in September 1971 and started playing live gigs.
Eventually, and different people have varying perceptions of the reasons, they settled on the name Eagles. Marked by tight harmonies and a soft country-rock styling that would typify that originating on the West Coast, their self-titled debut album was released in June 1972.
It yielded three singles; “Witchy Woman”, reached #9 on the Billboard charts, the lowest, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”, scrapped into #22. The album itself just missed out on the Top 20. This was far from a failure; the market was proving receptive to the Eagles’ brand of countrified rock. By their fourth album, One Of These Nights (1975), they reached the top of the Billboard album charts, and the next, 1976’s Hotel California, went to #1 around the world.
Gram’s vision of country music being played by a new breed of young musicians was gaining popularity. It just wasn’t popular if he recorded it. Technically, the West Coast aesthetic was hardly country rock, barely country and much more pop than rock. Easy listening as we’d know it now. However, it was a close second to Gram’s ideals and the distinction was not lost on him
Meanwhile, Gram completed his second solo album and, in mid-September 1973, set out for the sanctuary of the high desert country and the Joshua Tree Inn. So much has been written about the circumstances of Gram’s death by overdose (including the ignominious role that the third-party posterior positioning of ice cubes played in temporarily reviving him) and the subsequent hijacking of his body by Phil Kaufman and friends to carry out his last wishes at Cap Rock, that to go over them here would be redundant.
Sufficient to say, Gram Parsons died in Room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn on 19 September 1973. Drug toxicity, as the coroner later declared. He was two months shy of his 27th birthday.
Even in death, however, Gram couldn’t get the recognition he deserved. The following day, singer-songwriter Jim Croce (whose biggest hit – indeed only hit outside the US – was a novelty song, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”) was killed in a plane crash. Any publicity attending Gram’s demise was quickly swamped.
Even worse, there was barely enough curiosity generated by Gram’s death to suck Grievous Angel to #195 on the Billboard Top 100 album chart when it was released in January 1974.
Life, and the music industry, went on without him, much as it had done when he was alive. Emmylou Harris, who had become extremely close to Gram during their professional partnership, was – due largely to Linda Ronstadt’s influence – signed to Reprise. The Pieces Of The Sky album was released in 1975 and eventually reached #7 on the Billboard album chart.
Although she would record a number of Gram’s songs, and become a continuing, enthusiastic champion of his music, in the early years, and well into the 1980s, Emmylou avoided talking about him. It was just too painful a loss.
Gradually, though, the accolades rightfully due Gram Parsons and his pioneering work began to attract increasing attention. In time, rightly or wrongly, he’s been elevated to a “founding father” position, publicly revered by successive generations of musicians, with all the attendant grovelling. His Nudie suit can be found in Nashville’s Country Music Hall Of Fame (established by the same CMA establishment that gave him and the other Burritos such a hard time at the Grand Ole Opry). There’s any number of Gram-inspired festivals and tribute albums and, not surprisingly, hipster t-shirts. And Cap Rock in the Joshua Tree National Park, where Phil Kaufman farewelled Gram in a suitably incendiary manner, continues to draw devotees from around the world.
The graffiti they leave behind draws largely upon his music. One particularly popular couplet paraphrases “Brass Buttons”, Gram’s song about his mother and which applies equally well to his own life and death.
“The sun comes up without you, it doesn’t know you’re gone”, it says.
Gram’s legacy is embodied in the unswerving, inextinguishable courage of his convictions. Not so much that he could revive country music, because it was doing very well without him, but that he could make it relevant for his own and future generations. And although he didn’t do that in his own short lifetime (and just eight albums), he did ultimately achieve that aim.
If Gram had lived, if he’d been able to subdue his demons, lock them away where they could do the least amount of harm, he’d most likely have side-stepped country rock, for his chosen interpretation was too pure. In truth, he was an early adopter, a strong influence on many who followed, but he didn’t invent country rock any more than he did orange juice or tortured southern Gothic sensibilities.
Gram, if he had lived, would have taken his rightful place as the grand old man of alt country or Americana.
Those who flock to the courtyard of the Joshua Tree Inn know his music, and some may even appreciate the legend behind the man. The trinkets they leave behind hold a totemic significance for each of them.
I thought about that as I stood in the blast furnace afternoon. I’d played Gram on the car stereo in the days before and on the drive up from Palm Springs. Everything I had, which was pretty much everything, and I was on the second run through Grievous Angel as I pulled into the motel’s parking lot.
It was eerie out there, with not a living being in sight, no noise, no breeze, nothing but the insistent heat. I spent a while photographing the shrine then slung my camera across my shoulder and headed back to the car. As I packed my camera bag away, I stopped.
There was something I had to do. I unzippered the tiny front pocket and dug out the glass heart.
It had travelled the world a few times over, most of the continents, and rarely gained a second thought. But it felt right, this glass heart of a thousand rainbow hues, to leave it here. Under the bright desert sun that had doubtless hammered so many of Gram’s hangovers. Another tribute, from a disciple to the master, a spiritual offering, a thanks-for-the-music from one side of the Vale to the other.
And as I pulled away towards Yucca Valley and the turn-off that would take me to Barstow and, eventually, Las Vegas, I turned “Brass Buttons” up high.
In the 1960s, Mantovani, the 101 Strings and their ilk were stomping all over pop music with their Easy Listening jackboots, providing a hip yet culturally neutral backdrop to key parties around the globe. Andrew Oldham, then manager to the Rolling Stones, had a radical thought. In 1966, he gathered a host of studio musicians including, some say, the Stones themselves, anointed them as the Andrew Oldham Orchestra and produced The Rolling Stones Songbook. Popular Stones tracks, such as (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and Time Is On Our Side became sweeping orchestral instrumentals. The cardigan-clad swingers briefly broke from their flokati-bound labours and cried “it’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas”.
Almost fifty years down the track and key parties are quaint anachronisms, replaced by Tinder and evangelical Christianity but.the Rolling Stones Songbook sounds not unlike a parallel universe, one where Sergio Leone directed Performance for which Morricone reworked the Rolling Stones anthems of angst and rebellion into a compelling soundtrack. I’m playing the Australian pressing of Songbook, released by the World Record Club in 1968 with an original psychedelic cover (the original UK release had a cover photo of the Stones in what looked suspiciously like a cage). Equal parts bizarre and creepy, baby.
Note: It’s these little stories that divert me from the main path; it started out as a piece on Gram Parsons (nearing completion, believe it or not) but I was soon hung up on the relationship between Gram and Keith Richards. Picking over several biographies and autobiographies for clues until I’m as satisfied as I’ll ever be that I have a firm grasp on the subject. All looks well and good. Then I unpack the latest box of vinyl and rarities destined for auction and find the Songbook. While researching that, I discover the existence of Fred Goodman’s 2015 book, Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out The Beatles, Made The Stones, And Transformed Rock & Roll. Klein figured large in the Stones history (he was their business manager and ended up owning their pre-1972 publishing rights), just the sort of story I love. Nothing to do with Gram Parsons but I can’t resist a good yarn.
Amongst my many interests, I’m a collector of what I’ve come to call weird Christmas music. Each December, I put together a CD compilation for my friends of the treasures I’ve found, the strangest of the strange plus some favourites that the season wouldn’t quite be the same without. I started in 2002 and I still keep coming across notable tracks although I have to dredge through a lot of crap to uncover the truly sparkling gems.
Back in 2004, the Sydney Morning Herald ran my article about weird Christmas music. It was cut quite dramatically and PC’ed. Here is the full version, edited and updated. Enjoy.
Santa’s Dirty Secret: The Strange Tale of Weird Xmas Music
It’s fair to say that there’s never been much for Australians in Christmas music. Most of us wouldn’t know what a chestnut looked like, let alone seen one roasting on an open fire. And when was the last time we went dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh?
Which is why our rebel hearts cry out for a suitable soundtrack for the times. Christmas music that tells it like it is. More National Lampoon Christmas Vacation than It’s A Wonderful Life. There’s ain’t no angels at Christmas, George Bailey, and if you jump off that bridge, there’ll be no second helpings of pudding, either.
Flip through the racks of Christmas CDs, or endure shopping centre musak and it’s all Michael Bolton, Mariah Carey and Kenny G. Yet there’s a whole nether world of Christmas music out there, charting a darker place, sardonic and questioning, playful yet with the traitorous kiss of a razor blade. A true post-9/11 take on the world and the way we look at it.
Ditch Sarah Brightman and Barbara Streisand and listen instead to Tom Waits, Spinal Tap, AC/DC, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Booker T and The MGs, Spike Jones and His City Slickers, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Tiny Tim, The Partridge Family and The Ronettes. There’s something for everybody. Biting satire and loving homage. Jazz, swing, country, R&B, punk, comedy, novelty, pop and blues. There’s gay Christmas songs, Jewish Christmas songs (OK, Hannukah, then) even songs for people who really want this Christmas to be their last.
Uncovering a great weird Christmas song is like finding a redback nestling in Nanna’s fruit cake. It’s truly the gift that keeps on giving.
When Tommy Dorsey recorded “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” in 1934, the snowy sluice-gates of popular, commercially-driven Xmas music opened wide. In 1947 the Singing Cowboy and star of radio and silver screen, Gene Autry, wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus”, inspired by the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade. It was a hit but not as big as the one he had just two years later.
“Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” has been spinning around record players so long he’s generally assumed to be a traditional member of the North Pole community. Yet Rudolph was invented by a Chicago copywriter, Robert May, for the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores.
It started as a Christmas story given out to the store’s customers in 1939 until May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks (who would later pen “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, an enormous hit for Brenda Lee, and “A Holly Jolly Christmas”), immortalised the rosy appendage in song.
Gene Autry’s 1949 version sold 2.5 million copies before the year was out and total sales now hover around the 30 million-mark.
In 1948, Spike Jones and His City Slickers weighed in with “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”. Jones’ trademark was to cleverly deconstruct the wildly popular Big Band craze, hacking away its sophisticated allure and subverting it with complete chaos. There weren’t many sound effects, including gunshots and blood-curdling screams, that couldn’t be incorporated into a Spike Jones song. Think the Goons crossed with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre meet Glenn Miller.
By the 1940s, the greatest of all Christmas songs (and even weird Christmas music fans will admit to it) was well and truly established. In May 1942, cardiganed crooner Bing Crosby recorded a number of new songs written by Irving Berlin for the movie Holiday Inn. One of these was “White Christmas”. It became an instant classic. So much so, that the record’s original master was worn out by 1947 and had to be re-recorded. It is this, the second version, that people know today.
The curious Xmas completist should check out the two-CD Bing Crosby: The Voice of Christmas – The Complete Decca Christmas Songbook (MCA 1998), which has four versions of “White Christmas” – the 1942 “A” take discarded due to a slight fluff Crosby made near the end of the recording, the released second 1942 “B” take, the 1947 re-recording, and a 1954 version with Peggy Lee and Danny Kaye.
Bing Crosby, strange as it may seem, is the patron saint of weird Christmas music. This has as much to do with “White Christmas” as it does with his duet on “Little Drummer Boy” with David Bowie in 1977. So if “White Christmas” in all its schmaltzy glory is hip, what’s the cut-off point?
A sense of fun is the deciding factor. And irony. It’s safe to assume that Dean Martin is cool but Neil Diamond is not. Dean’s irony may be martini-enhanced but it’s fair to say that Neil Diamond considers irony to be something that happens to his satin shirts. The Carpenters and Nat King Cole, although skating dangerously close to an ice-thin saccharine crust, are nonetheless cool and thus reside on that outer edge of the weird music spectrum.
It’s when Christmas music enters the Twilight Zone that things really get interesting. It becomes the perfect antidote for those who consider Christmas music to be aural wallpaper, agreeable background static to the frantic Yuletide season.
Many of the best are novelty songs such as the 1953 hit for 10-year-old Gayla Peevey, “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas”. A child star in her native Oklahoma City, Peevey’s song inadvertently became a case of life imitating art. After blitzing the nation, a publicity coup saw Peevey presented with her very own baby hippopotamus, which she promptly donated to the Oklahoma City Zoo. Named Matilda, the mammoth mammal led her own famed existence until 1998 when she was due to be transferred to Disney World in Florida. In a sad twist to the Xmas tale, the Matilda died en route.
By the 1950s, Christmas turntables were swinging with such classics as Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby”, Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock”, and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” from pint-sized package Brenda Lee.
Over the years, there’s been some great novelty Christmas songs. Comedian Martin Mull lent the Big Red Guy some street cred with “Santafly”, a take on 70s blaxploitation movies, while Weird Al Yankovich tells what happens when the pressure gets too much in “The Night Santa Went Crazy”.
In 1999, The Little Stinkers, fronted by seven-year-old Mary Beltrami, fanned the winds of Xmas with “I Farted On Santa’s Lap”. Fashion tips also get a look-in with Canadian satirist Nancy White telling us “It’s So Chic To Be Pregnant At Christmas”.
The king of novelty Christmas songs must be Bob Rivers, a Seattle radio DJ with a series of parody CDs. In deconstructing popular songs, he comes up with such Pythoneseque tracks as “Chipmunks Roasting On An Open Fire”, “Wreck The Malls”, “I Came Upon A Roadkill Deer”, and “It’s The Most Fattening Time Of The Year”. Rivers also contributed a parody AC/DC Christmas song, “Hell’s Bells”.
But who needs a parody when you have the real thing? AC/DC released their own, “Mistress For Christmas”, in 1990. The roll call of rock’s tinsel-tonsiled hard men include The Damned, The Ramones (with the festive “Merry Christmas – I Don’t Want To Fight”), Blink 182, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Slade, and even Spinal Tap. Most are individual tracks available only on compilations although an exception is the entertaining A Twisted Christmas from heavy metal cross-dressers, Twisted Sister.
Lou Reed’s “Xmas In February” gets a mention not only for almost being a Christmas song but as one of the very few that deal with Vietnam (along with Johnny & Jon’s 1966 curiosity “Christmas In Viet Nam”, and “There Won’t Be Any Snow (Christmas In The Jungle)” by Derrick Roberts).
Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” is a Xmas song in title only but is worthy of inclusion nonetheless. Waits, however, waited for a truly Gothic moment to enter the Xmas annuls with the darkly roiling, thumping excesses of “Christmas Sucks”.
And for those who think “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” can’t be weird, try Henry Rollins and his muscular steamroller of a version.
Television shows and celebrities are well represented with Xmas selections from The Waltons, Ren & Stimpy, South Park, Jerry Springer and a truly great album from The Partridge Family.
Mae West’s Mae in December (1980) is so obscure it appears in very few of the film star’s discographies but it’s a great album with such choice cuts as “Put The Loot In The Boot, Santa”.
Another swag of weird but worthy Christmas outings include “Homo Christmas” by 1990s gay San Francisco punk band, Pansy Division, drag queen RuPaul’s Ho Ho Ho album and Merry MeX-Mas from El Vez, the renowned Mexican Elvis Presley impersonator.
Tiny Tim’s Christmas Album, an important inclusion in any collection, was recorded in Sydney in 1993 under the guidance of Martin Sharp. Australian band Girl Monster (fronted by Campbelltown-born and now US-based alt country songstress, Anne McCue) recorded “Dead By Christmas”, one of the very few seasonal songs that stress the ultimate in self-determination.
Dread Zeppelin, a reggae band fronted by a 130-kilogram Elvis impersonator and best known for its individualistic interpretation of Led Zeppelin songs, released The First No-Elvis in 1994.
Big-band, swing and lounge music provide some brassy Xmas distractions with special mention going to the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue, 60s space-age bachelor pad purveyor Esquivel, and Canadian crooner Jaymz Bee & The Royal Jelly Orchestra.
There’s so much great R&B and soul that it’s almost impossible to catalogue. My faves include the evocatively-titled “Back Door Santa” from Clarence Carter, and The Harmony Grits, comprising members of the original Drifters, who in 1959 recorded a bouncy interpretation of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. And 14-year-old Frankie Lymon, reaching way beyond the top shelf where the presents are hidden for the high notes on “It’s Christmas Time Again”, which dates from around 1957.
The grand-daddy of all R&B festivities is Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (1963) with The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love battling to be heard above Spector’s trademark Wall of Sound. The album has been reissued so many times and in so many forms, it’s one of the easiest to find (the 1988 CD release inexplicably includes a couple of turgid Elvis Presley tracks).
The Big Red Guy’s transportation dilemmas was an underlying theme of many country songs including Alan Jackson’s duet with Alvin and The Chipmunks on “Santa’s Gonna Come In A Pickup Truck”, The Tractors’ “Santa Claus Is Comin’ (In A Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train)”, Toby Keith’s “Hot Rod Sleigh” and Buck Owens’ “Santa’s Gonna Come In A Stagecoach”. Joe Diffie, however, preferred a country-fried reinvention of another legend with “Leroy, The Redneck Reindeer”.
The Twilight Zone Award for weird Xmas music goes to songwriter Red Sovine. His 1978 mistletoe missive, “Faith In Santa”, otherwise known as “Billy’s Christmas Wish”, tells of a street Santa who meets a sad and sickly little boy with a story that distends even country music’s already flexible definition of tragedy. Just as listeners think the song can’t get any more heart-rending, the final twist is beyond description and extremely creepy. Keep the Kleenex handy and a bucket even closer.
Like much of the Xmas season, disappointments abound. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ Christmas album from 1962 has only two cuts that even come close to the group’s successful formula of soaring falsettos high enough to make dogs’ ears bleed. The Three Stooges recorded a number of seasonal songs very late in their careers and it tells, the boys sounding so tired they seem to nap between choruses
Albums by Fats Domino, Liberace, Elvis Presley, The Monkees, Cyndi Lauper, Melanie, and Jackie Wilson sadly gather in the why-bother category. More often than not, Christmas albums by some of the 60s biggest rhythm and blues acts, including Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, fall into this trap and the label most guilty of such infringements is Motown, whose releases are generally so earnestly devout, so busy over-stuffing the Christ into Christmas they bleed the joy from joyous. One happy exception is The Jackson 5 Christmas Album from 1970, an infectiously boppy celebration of the season.
My own Christmas wish? Certainly not a new release from the Jingle Cats, whose 1994 album Here Comes Santa Claws was enough to threaten goodwill to all our four-legged friends. No, each year I beg Santa for a Leonard Cohen Christmas album.
Like so many people on Christmas morning, I know I’ll end up disappointed. But conjure the possibilities, if you will. Pass the razor, please. I’ll have an egg nog and a hot bath.
Recently, at a friend’s birthday celebrations, I met Alan Lancaster, one of the founding members of Status Quo. The party attracted a fair representation of the arts, with a leaning towards musicians, songwriters and music industry personalities. Some performed, others shared their recollections during speeches, a few simply mingled and chatted, relaxed in their relative anonymity.
Alan spent much of the evening talking with long-time Quo fans. He is small, almost boyish, with the lean insouciance of a rock star and a shock of gray hair. His features recall the 13-year-old who, with fellow schoolmate Francis Rossi, honed their musical skills in the school orchestra at Sedgehill Comprehensive in Catford, a south London suburb that produced talents as diverse as guitarist Robin Trower, comedian Ben Elton and author Andy McNab.
At that tender age, Alan and Rossi formed a band that would evolve to become Status Quo in 1967. They were together through the hard-rocking period of chart dominance in the early to mid-1970s and when they racked up a fair proportion of Quo’s 64 UK Top 40 hits.
As is so often the case in the world of rock, Alan fell out with his partner and played his last gig with Quo at Live Aid in 1985. He’s been living in Australia since then.
At 64, he’s a little frail, a little unsteady on his feet, a result of his ongoing battle with MS, which was first diagnosed in 2002. Doubtless he’s been asked everything over the years so he’s heard it all. His recollections are mercifully free of the venom that would normally be excused from someone who has survived fame, fortune and the music industry.
Even a sideways swipe at the question du jour of pretty much every fan he talks to these days – the ignominious serving up for Coles supermarkets of Quo’s biggest hit like a slab of cold delicatessen lunchmeat, complete with current band members performing in giant red hands – diffuses the revulsion he must undoubtedly feel with a deliciously ironic sense of humour.
As he was leaving, I shook his hand and asked if I could say something. He was probably expecting yet another request for a photo opportunity or some probing analysis of bass riffs on Piledriver.
Instead, I simply thanked him for the music, for being so much a part of my teenage years. If he thought it a strange comment, if he was taken aback, he hid it well, maybe a moment’s hesitation before he answered and maybe his eyes were a little brighter and a little shinier and maybe his handshake was a little firmer than it would ordinarily be.
It could be that a lot of people say what I did and it’s just another ordinary day for a former rock god. I don’t mind that much. I meant it. Music is so immensely important to me. It carries the full weight of my life, of the memories of all the years that have passed. There’s rarely a day that I don’t share with the music that means so much. My iPod turned high in the room where I’m writing, in the kitchen when I’m cooking, in the car while I’m driving. Each song is a hermetically sealed vessel containing emotions of a time and place and mood and sometimes even a person; vividly bright pieces of the jigsaw that is me.
Music unites our past and present, and most likely our future as well. I can listen now to a song that I first heard when I was young and callow and know that it may still be bouncing around my brain when I take my last breath. It will endure. It’s the same for those of us for whom music is more than just background noise.
My tastes meandered widely in those days, from Karen Carpenter and Van Morrison to Chicago, the Bowie of Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, Alice Cooper and Lou Reed. And while, as the 70s progressed, my nights were increasingly given over to disco, the long summer days were bracketed by Status Quo at their most potent, pounding out across a thousand hotel beer gardens and backyard parties.
I most likely had cassettes of Hello! or On The Level to play in my car. Quo were unavoidable and their songs seeped into my conscious like osmosis. Roll Over Lay Down, a song co-written by Alan, remains as vitally anthemic as it was then.
As is to be expected, the boffins have weighed in with a scientific rationale for why music means so much to us. In early 2011, researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute found that people listening to their favourite songs experienced a rush of dopamine near the frontal striatum, the brain region associated with anticipating rewards, in tandem with a similar dose in the rear striatum, the brain’s pleasure centre. In essence, music activates the same pleasure responses as food and sex.
While music gives me such enjoyment, it can also take me to darker places. The weight of the past can become too heavy and there are those favourites I carried in my heart for decades, such as Bryan Ferry, that eventually came to represent my failures, far too painful to bear.
So while I was thanking Alan for his music, I was also thanking him for all the music. In essence, Alan was standing in for Karen and Van the Man and Peter Cetera and David Jones and Vincent and Lou and thousands more, everybody I’ve ever played more than a few times or nodded along to on the radio. I’ll never get the chance to personally thank all those great boys and girls so Alan had unwittingly become my conduit to the past and the person who grew up, for better or worse, with a love of the music of the times. For a moment, he was every singer of every song I hold dear.
He took it well, I thought. We shook hands, the barely heard echo of the passing decades gently faded and he wandered off into the night. I wish him well because a little bit of what make us all what we are travels with him.