Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Prince, Guitar Hero

Prince, rated #33 in the Rolling Stone Hot 100, was a guitar hero to Eric Clapton, rated #2, behind Hendrix. Indeed, Mr Slowhand chose Purple Rain as his Castaway's Favourite on Desert Island Discs. Apocryphally, if not really asked about how it felt to be the world's greatest living guitar star, the man known to 1970s rockers as, 'God,' replied: "I don't know. Ask Prince". Which is odd, because the flip side to the Purple Rain single is entitled, God!


"I love you, baby, but not like I love this particular guitar!"

Tom Morello, in Rolling Stone, says, "When he plays the Purple Rain solo, it's life-changing. Put that on right now and try not to cry. And at the end of the movie, he conjures this genre–destroying guitar storm – and does it in high heels on top of a piano while his guitar is squirting." If you don't have a 12" vinyl copy  to hand, perhaps you need to reassess your priorities. Still, you may revisit the first ever live performance and recording of Purple Rain on YouTube from the legendary benefit concert held for the local Dance Theatre at First Avenue in Minneapolis on August 3, 1983. I emphasise, 'may,' because it comes and goes, so any link I give you today may die tomorrow. 'C'est la vie,' as Prince may have quipped before he abruptly expired.

Consider the climactic, elongated, near 20 minute version of Purple Rain from The Revolution's performance at Syracuse, NY, on March 30, 1985. This important video document regularly gets taken down by the Paisley Police, who patrol YouTube on behalf of NPG Music. Since Prince passed, however, it can more easily be found using the additional search terms, 'extra longue' and 'insane guitar solo'. The image quality may be poor, but turn it up!

Using ears rather than eyes to assess his performance protects one from being prejudiced by Prince's attire, as the dude is sporting what I can only describe as  a sparkly snood (its hood tended to slip over Prince's eyes, somewhat comically, if you check a video collection of his funniest moments.) Prince once asked his road manager, Alan Leeds, why he was under-appreciated as a guitarist: 'I foolishly suggested that he should consider a brief tour of elite concert venues concentrating solely on his musicianship, performing without his usual bells and whistles,' Leeds recalled, "even to the point of dressing down, perhaps in blue jeans and a turtleneck. Dripping with sarcasm, his deeply patronizing response was, “What? And look like you?”

Prince conceived Purple Rain as the ultimate rock ballad, along the lines of Faithfully, by Journey. There's nary a smidgen of funk amid its bombast ("Country & Western as Hell," according to Dr. Funkenstein, "but you don't relate it to that because he put that nice, pretty Jimi Hendrix tone over it, which is really slick!") It starts quietly with Wendy playing solo, Prince not joining her until some four minutes in, playing jazzy licks on what all true fans will immediately recognise as the ole' MadCat: a Telecaster copy that was Prince's favourite guitar and the one he probably wrote this song on. After a minute, he pauses and retreats into the dry ice for a mo.

Gee, baby, that's a curvaceous model!
When Prince's guitar speaks next, half a minute later, it is in the more strident tones of his White Cloud, with its peculiar curlicue, as  seen in the movie, after Apollonia presents it to The Kid (right). Prince commissioned Dave Rusan at Knut Koupee music store in Minneapolis, to make it for him in 1983. It's modelled upon the lascivious lines of a bass guitar used for Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad, but with an extra horny design flourish to make it more Princely.

Armed with the White Cloud, Prince then proceeds -  from about halfway through the song, some ten minutes in - to execute what Rolling Stone concedes is 'arguably the greatest power-ballad guitar solo in history,' but which many of his most devoted friends and ardent admirers (Prince disdained the term, 'fan' because it's an abbreviation of 'fanatic' and that cannot be healthy) are convinced is the Greatest Guitar Solo Of All Time, Ever. Not being over-endowed with false modesty, I doubt Prince would agree. 1985 was a mighty long time before he finally popped his pick and his playing only improved with incessant practice.

According to Morello, Prince was underrated, 'because his phenomenal guitar-playing was just one arrow in a quiver full of remarkable talents.' If Prince's awesomeness on the guitar was not always apparent, it's because he was often busy doing everything else, onstage & in the studio: singing & dancing; playing every other instrument & banging every drum; writing & arranging & producing & generally running things. Plus, he said 'No' to Activision! Prince may not register on peoples' radar as a guitar hero, or a super hero, but he had absorbed all the lessons that Carlos Santana, in particular, had to teach; knew every trick that Hendrix and Clapton and Beck and Page had pulled throughout their pioneering careers. He could reproduce any of their licks, sequenced into his own flow, while keeping it on the one.

As a promiscuously endowed multi-instrumentalist, Prince could run through a whole concert without picking up his axe, but when he did strap on one of his statement guitars - the Cloud, or latterly, one of his truly unique Love Symbol guitars, then He, Him, His Bad Self, was unlikely to put it down before he has destroyed every thing and anyone within ear shot. Then, he developed a penchant for tossing away the spent guitar, not like a workman laying down his tool but more like a painter throwing down his brush upon the completion of a master piece.

Only four Cloud guitars were originally patented - known as 'North, South, East & West' - all of which have been resprayed over the years. They are made all of maple using Gibson’s 24.75” scale length and have 22 medium/jumbo frets with a 12” radius on the fretboard, equipped with EMG active pick-ups and Schaller hardware. There's one volume control, one tone control and a 3-way switch. The whole guitar is finished in two-pack paint (including the fretboard) and is equipped with Jim Dunlop strap locks and a brass nut & truss rod cover. All hardware is gold plated. Or so it says here. And here.

Naturally, a subculture has grown around Cloud Guitars, which only nerds need dive into, but here's some fun factoids:

Legend has it that the original White Cloud, featuring ‘spade’ symbol fret markers, was destroyed. Wendy has said that Prince 'broke all his guitar strings during Purple Rain and walked off' at the climax of the last Revolution show at the Yokohama Stadium in Japan, but he probably didn't smash it up. That was not his style.

On 09/26/09, james reported: 'Bizarre thing happened last night. I was in Jazz After Dark (well known hang out of Amy Winehouse, etc) and there was a charity auction going on. The first item was Prince's White Cloud guitar, like the one in Purple Rain! Only it had gold knobs and gold symbols on the frets. The story was that Prince gave it, at some point, to the bar owner. There were only about 30 people in the tiny back room, only 2 people bidding, and it sold for £3000! It was most probably a replica, like the Knut Koupee copies that sold for about $5000 in the early 1990s, or the cheaper copies by Schecter, mass-produced in an edition of 310 to celebrate 3121 in 2006, which were sold via NPG Music Club for $1000-$1500.

Prince's 'Yellow Cloud' electric guitar up for auction!  Born 1989 & well used in the Diamond and Pearls era until its neck broke on a French TV show in 1994, the repaired Yellow Cloud will be sold by Heritage Auctions in Beverly Hills on June 24-25 along with other rarities that include a 1970s demo tape with track listing written in Prince's own hand! The opening bid is $30,000, which seems paltry, but the sky is surely the limit for real authentic, played-by-Prince Clouds, n'est ce pas? (PS: it eventually fetched $137,500!)

There's a rival Yellow Cloud in The Smithisonian! Several Yellow Clouds were made to be sold at the Minneapolis & London NPG shops in the early 1990s; each was numbered and sold with a Certificate of Authenticity. The one in the collection of the National Museum of American History - acquired for an 1993 exhibition about the invention of the electric guitar - is the real deal, obviously. The museum’s records list David Rusan as the builder in 1989, along with Barry Haugen of Knut-Koupée Enterprises in Minneapolis. It's on display until Septemer 5, 2016, at the Behring Center so visitors can see for themselves if it really looks like its been played by Prince!

Other noted Cloud Guitars include the Peach model from Sign O’ The Times, which was given away as a prize and has not seen since. Black Cloud #1 from Parade was the only one with an unpainted fretboard, but a natural maple finish that was later customised with bat symbol fret markers during the Batman era to become Black Cloud #2.

The Lovesexy era Blue Cloud (left) is often called The Blue Angel (hear it sing here!) and should not be confused with Blue Cloud #2, as seen in the Rave Unto The Year 2000 video, which has gold plated knobs rather than the black plastic ‘mini JB’ knobs found on earlier guitars and a more rounded profile to the body.

Laughing in the purple rain.
The later Clouds were made by Andy Beech, who is now known, at least by Rolling Stone as The Luthier Who Made Prince's One-of-a-Kind Guitars having built some 31 of them over the years. "I feel unbelievably privileged," Beech said. "When  I started doing this, many years ago, Prince only took somebody's word that I was capable of doing it." Beech is best known for his Love Symbol guitars, which have been spotted  by members of in half a dozen different colours. Despite its peculiar structure, the Symbol guitar is as much a tools as a show piece. Prince most famously utilized its shape at his legendary Super Bowl half time show in 2007 (right), which left Andy Beech "breathless" and "screaming at the TV." (Maybe he missed what Prince did with it on TV a decade earlier!)

Although Prince was somewhat involved with the process of crafting his guitars, albeit remotely, Andy Beech never actually met his client in person and he passed up the chance several times. "That opportunity, sadly, will never be available to me again," he commented, rather fatuously.  Nor shall Simon Farmer, AKA Gus of Gus Guitars,  who made Prince’s last guitar get to meet the man he made it for. Gus hand-made the custom Purple Special  on spec. nine years ago, but only got it to Prince a few weeks before He died and, in a photo taken only days before his death, Prince is showing Gus’s guitar off to a select audience at Paisley Park.

Late period Prince in Guitar Hero pose: check the FX!

Prince was never loyal to any one luthier, but promiscuous in his love of guitars right to the end, with 3rdEyeGirl, when he insisted that Donna & Ida as well as his bad self all play VOX 77’s through Mesa Boogie amps. Prince had a black one - as used at The Billboard Awards in 2013 -  and another with a custom paint job (above) to co-ordinate with one of his unique outfits (not worn here)!

In 2010, Prince commissioned a unique gilded Stratocaster from his good friends at Fender, which he played on his Welcome To America tour before it was sold for $100,000 in a charity auction to Lewis Hamilton, the F1 champ. Prince told George Lopez that it was going to be hard to part with his gold guitar , but he had only played it on tour for five months, so it wasn't THAT special. Not like his beloved MadCat Guitar!

Lopez asks if he still has his first guitar and Prince says, with a rueful pout, "a lot of my stuff gets stolen." Of course, despite his self-mythologising and playful denials, Prince could not tell a lie. Giving up his gold guitar would've been a wrench, even though it was always his intention, and the MadCat telecaster copy with which Prince destroyed 2011’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony was almost definitely not the  one he wrote Purple Rain on. But the MadCat (top pic.) was Prince's first, last and all-time favourite guitar, of that there is no question.

Who knows what drew Prince to this cheaper Japanese Telecaster knock off? Although its headstock was clearly copied from Fender, the MadCat, designed in 1973 by Hidesato Shiino (the H.S. in, 'H.S. Anderson' -  aka, the 'Japanese Leo Fender') was unusual in terms of its construction - based around a walnut centre strip, with sen (a cheaper, Japanese ash) sides and tiger maple top and bottom - and equipped with unusual hardware that evidently suited Prince's sound. Not to mention the distinctive leopard-style pick guard which may, after all, be what caught the teenage wannabe's fancy, as suggested by Prince’s Most Notorious Musical Instruments.

Certainly, the MadCat looked classier than its price tag might suggest and Prince acquired two of the 500 odd MadCats that were made during the ‘70s - including a small batch made for Hohner USA, the German harmonica maker's venture into electric guitars -  before production ceased in the mid 80s. Subsequently, Prince tasked other luthiers to make copies, but in 2012 the original MadCat was revived and re-released.

Deep down, beneath his periodic bouts of uncertainty, Prince always knew he had it in him to be the most lethal guitarist. He made sure of it by playing every day and most of the night. Really, Prince was probably unparalleled as a rhythm guitarist, but he could could peel off jaw-dropping solos at the drop of a hat. Likesay, upon occasion, Prince - whose musical genius gave him a form of synæsthesia in which he saw sound as colour - would signal the conclusion of his musical statement by tossing away his guitar, as a great painter who has just executed a masterpiece may throw down his brush.

See this lovely old guitar? Now, watch...

He did such a thing on TV, 01.03.13, on the Jimmy Fallon Show, as a preview to his Live Out Loud tour with 3rd Eye Girl. Unfortunately - possibly because Fallon has switched channels - the footage cannot be found online, but they played a couple songs. Screwdriver was the single and the new girl on guitar, Donna Grantis, from Toronto, got on it about two minutes in, with a blazing solo. But, as Spin magazine reported, 'no one can touch Prince when he rekindles a classic track'. And Bambi, a prototypical Prince guitar squealer from his second, self-titled album in 1979 (revived in 1995 on the obscure live-in-the-studio set, The Undertaker) , was one of the most lethal weapons in the diminutive demon's sonic arsenal. So, he stepped forward sporting a mildly controversial afro hairdo and wielding an unfamiliar white guitar. Which he then proceeded to shred. Job done, Prince tossed the used guitar away and exited stage left as if to escape the host, Fallon, who was moving in from the right with his hand outstretched...

Bravo, Prince! As Black Thought, MC of house band, The Roots, commented via Twitter, '#RockGodStatus'! However, his band mate in The Roots, Kirk Douglas, was less than amused, seeing as the guitar in question was a beautiful 1961 Epiphone Crestwood Custom with mini humbuckers that belonged to him! Prince had apparently seen it at rehearsal and asked to borrow it for the show. And then he went and smashed it! 'Captain' Kirk tweeted a photo of its splintered neck with the caption, '#purplepain'. Later, Prince publicly denied it had happened, but privately he apologised and made it right and Kirk forgave him because he knows the P when he sees it.

The Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame Inductions in 2004 gave Prince a chance to prove himself the King by making his Guitar Weep Last, Longest & Loudest.

The video was well loved with nigh on 20 million views on YouTube before his demise, but upon news that sweet Prince was dead and with other clips in short supply, its score swiftly rose past 28 million. A supergroup featuring fellow Travellin' Willburys, Tom Petty & Jeff Lynne, plus lil' Stevie Winwood, gathered to perform a polite tribute to their recently-deceased colleague and old friend, George Harrison, by playing his classic song, While My Guitar Gently Weeps. As the song gets going, one notices a fellow lurking stage right, wearing a crimson shirt under a dark suit and matching Fedora: gangster glam. He is clutching a guitar that seasoned Prince observers will immediately recognise as the afore-mentioned MadCat.

For the first three minutes or so, Prince takes a back seat and strums along while the former Wilburys harmonise on the choruses, but then, at 3:27, he steps forward to take his solo. And he does not stop. Prince just keeps on soloing - making his favourite guitar not only weep but squeal and sob non too gently - for the next three minutes, full on until the end of the song. As Tom Petty said, Recalling Prince’s Hall of Fame Guitar Solo: "You Could Feel the Electricity."  At 4:45, to the evident delight of an incredulous Dhanni Harrison, Prince turns to face the ensemble musicians and, still soloing, falls backwards off the stage!

Only, he does not fall because Prince employs a burly body guard to catch his regal self. After he has owned that stage and made his unequivocal statement about whose guitar is most likely to make you weep, Prince finally unstraps the MadCat and throws it straight up, where it disappears. It does not land with a sickening crash, because Prince employs someone - presumably lurking on the lighting gantry - to catch his goddam guitars. Especially the MadCat! We might assume that it was more than Prince's guitar tech's job was worth NOT to catch the precious MadCat. But, in the moment, Prince affected to care less about the instrument he has just used to stake his claim as Top Gun as he strutted off stage, not pausing for applause.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Prince @ M.S.G. 02.08.86

I've been rumnating about Prince since his abrupt and premature departure from our consensus reality on 21.04.16 and, by the way, I retrieved and edited this review I wrote of the first (and greatest) Prince concert I attended, thirty years gone this Summer.

Prince was playing two nights at Madison Square Garden for some reason. He had announced his retirement from the live stage only last year, hadn't he? Perhaps he was going out in support of his dreadful movie, Under The Cherry Moon, which has been gleefully panned by the critics and is going into a bomb at the box office.*

Perhaps he was already nostalgic for the thrill of a real crowd, since he is doing a full World Tour that arrives at Wembley this week.** I had been disappointed to miss Run DMC two weeks previously at the same venue and was determined to catch His Royal Badness, but I was supposed to leave America on July 31. Happily, my prayer was answered and my departure was eventually delayed, leaving four days later to fit in all I had to do and not returning to the City.***

While up at Jordan's, one of his associates, Paul (aka DJ Jungleboy) called to say he had a ticket for him. J. was psyched, but I freaked out: "I want it! Ask him if he's got one more! Or, give yours to me!" On Saturday, I was with my girlfriend, at her place, when she mentioned that her pal whose dad worked for Warners might have an extra ticket for her. That reminded me and I called Jordan, who immediately announced, "I have a ticket for you to see Prince tonight!"

We met up - Jordan, Jungleboy and my bad self - at Zen Café on 8th St. around six before heading over to the Garden, picking up Paul's date along the way. She turned out to be tiny, with big tits and a retroussé nez. Over on the West Side, there was a line around the building, but it was moving and we were soon enough inside the awesome auditorium. It is more of a sports arena than a concert hall, with the stage taking up half the length of a basketball court. Our seats were off gangway 21, behind the stage, giving us a good view of the black and white paisley patterned speaker cabinets and drum kit, flanked by banked keyboards. As the seats slowly filled an atmosphere was tangibly building. We smoked some excellent 'Bolt (prototypical skunk weed, developed in Humbolt County and traded at connoisseur's prices among the pot head cognoscenti) and the screams started reverberating in waves, like the sound of surf on the beach or the noise you hear when you hold a conch shell to your ear magnified a thousand times.

I got up to get beer and immediately the house lights went down, triggering pandemonium. Coming back from the bar, as I re-entered the hall, a voice boomed, "Ladies & gentlemen: Prince!" and the decibel level was cranked way past ten as a capacity crowd screamed at the top of its lungs. Prince sang a song in darkness that I now know to have been Around The World In A Day but it was not possible to be sure from behind the stage and above the screaming. When white lights finally swept the stage they revealed Prince, topless, chest naked to the waist in those toreador pants he wore in the Kiss video. Silhouetted, from behind, he appeared to grasp all the energy in that arena and pull it into himself so that he grew visibly bigger, like some alien entity that feeds on hysteria, as he pranced and posed through several unintelligible songs.

Photo: Richard Corkery for New York Daily News.

It was like a video we were watching from behind the screen, in that opening segment of the show. Every action must have been minutely choreographed with the gestures of Parade: pulling something in from the sky with fluttering hands; the snake-hipped sidle. Prince leapt off the drum riser to do the splits at the microphone, pushing its stand away and rising to catch it on the return. I didn't recognise the tunes, even though I consider myself an expert on Prince, the man & his music! I guessed they were songs from Parade, the current record, but I realised it didn't matter. That opening segment wasn't truly about the music, but more to break the ice, diffuse the tension and get the party started. The band was The Revolution in its pure form: drummer, Bobby Z; Dr Fink attending the keys, with Lisa and Wendy on piano and guitar, respectively (I don't recall a bass player). All of a sudden and all too soon, it was over.

Lisa sang I Wonder U against a barrage of impatient, hysterical screaming and then the lights went red and more band members came out and Prince reappeared in a yellow suit to do Raspberry Beret. Now his persona had changed from bigger Little Richard, superstar, to badder ass than James Brown show man and his band had expanded into the nastiest funk troupe about. They moved into Mutiny from The Family album (which was the only record I bought in 1985) and stayed in that groove for ten minutes or more, sequing into a version of Ice Cream Castles (by The Time), featuring Jerome Beonton playing The Fool.  While Prince introduced Jerome and the gang who would be singing backing vocals and doing synchronised dance routines for most of the rest of the evening, Jordan and I moved our asses forward, or rather around the arena to be in front of the stage where the sound was a lot more distinct and we were able to appreciate the full force of Prince's showmanship.

As this review of the inevitable bootleg notes, 'this show was much more of a soul and funk review, with Prince rarely on guitar thanks to the addition of Miko Weaver to the band'. Its second section  became a serious, extended funk jam with Prince taking time out from his singing to dance with Jerome; climb onto posing platforms atop the speaker stacks on each side of the stage to greet his people; leading the classic chant: "The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. We don't need no water, let the motherfunker burn. We don't need no party, let the motherfunker burn. Burn, motherfunker, burn!"

He's so obviously having fun. At one point, Prince was lying on the stage with his band wailing behind him, gurgling deleriously into his mic: 'The Purple People know! The Purple People know!'

At another point, he strapped on a purple axe, but sensed that the crowd just wanted to jam, put down the guitar and instead relieved the drummer to hit out a blinding drum solo! He played just about every instrument on that stage and took time out to tell us a story:
            "When I was 17, I ran away to New York City. Got a job with my sister's boss and took his sister out on a date. We were riding past Madison Square Garden and I was bragging, you know, to impress her. I said, 'Yeah, maybe I'll play there one day.' Well, here I am! It's taken a long time, but here I am."

Photo: George Kalinsky for Madison Square Garden

He did a trio of tunes from 1999: Lady Cab Driver, Automatic and D.M.S.R. and was gone again, momentarily, before coming back in a different aspect of his inimitable persona. Having given his Little Richard and done it to death like James Brown, he then got his Hendrix on. I was struck by his choice of material. Prince can now pick and choose from six albums under his own name and more that he has had a finger in or been at the pulse of. He didn't do straight covers of the recorded version of his songs except, perhaps, the big hits: an immaculate When Doves Cry, later; a perfect Kiss to close.

The third section of the show featured Prince in a white turtle neck blouse with black waistcoat, slowly stripping to the waist to the screams of the crowd which, at one point, almost pulled him off the stage and into its midst, causing him to rock back on his Cuban heels,exclaiming, 'You're so nice!'

He went off again but returned through the red dry ice like Rambo with his killer guitar strapped on like an assault weapon. He is bathed in white light for AnotherLoverholeInYo'Head; does I Wanna Be Your Lover and an extended Head, then climaxes with two hit singles, Pop Life from Around The World In A Day and Girls & Boys from Parade.

He encored in a lilac duster coat with a beautiful, delicate Sometimes It Snows In April and the giddy, triumphant Purple Rain with its majestic guitar solo executed upon his trademark white scrolled instrument, morphing into a version of Whole Lotta Shakin'.

When Prince left the stage, the building reverberated with clapping, shook with stomping. There's cheering, chanting and roaring for more. Lighters and flaring matchbooks were held aloft, illuminating the arena like stars twinkling in the firmament. We figured there would be no more after that and were out in the foyer buying souvenir t.shirts when Prince reappeared on stage for hot, delirious versions of Mountains and Kiss. And then it really was finally all over and we were outside on Seventh Avenue, getting wet in the real purple acid rain; dazed with our ears ringing, washing off our gig sweat in the dirty New York City Summer drizzle.

Say what you like about Prince: short house; fey fool; poseur. Non of that matters when he is onstage, where he truly belongs, because he is such an incredible performer, the consummate performer.  That night, he delivered the best concert performance I have ever witnessed.


*     Under The Cherry Moon doesn't look so bad thirty years later. It features Kristin Scott Thomas in her debut role as the love interest of two brothers-in-hustle: Christopher, played by Prince; with Jerome Benton as his sidekick, Tricky. Steven Berkoff honed his sinister act as Her Dad. As a film, it is poor, despite the critical reappraisal of Carol Cooper who sees it as, 'black surrealism!' As a series of thematically linked pop videos, however, it works better. And, of course, Sometimes It Snows In April was the tune everyone turned to when Prince tragically deceased, in April.

**    In fact, the MSG dates were officially the last in a short, 'Hit And Run Tour' of the USA while the Wembley gigs marked the start of the European leg of the 'Parade Tour.' I  was writing this a week after the event in Portugal, where I had gone on a package holiday with my mother at the age of going on 25. Hey, she had to pay for a twin bedded room and I had to leave the City without pity to renew my American visa so it would have been churlish to decline.

***    This is in code. Immigration are not above reading one's journal, believe me, and my best friend in New York was involved in an illegal business. 'Jordan' is not his real name, but the alias Rob Sedgwick gave him in his post-therapy memoir, Bob Goes To Jail. Not that Bob really did go to jail: 'Jordan' was the only one who ultimately served time. But that's another story, which isn't mine.

August 2, 1986: Prince Setlist at Madison Square Garden, New York, NY, USA

01    Around the World in a Day
02    Christopher Tracy's Parade
03    New Position
04    I Wonder U (Wendy Melvoin lead vox)
05    Raspberry Beret
06    Delirious
07    Controversy
08    Mutiny (The Family cover) (incl. Ice Cream Castles & The Roof Is on Fire chants)
09    Do Me, Baby
10    (How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window? (Patti Page cover)
11    Lady Cab Driver
12    Automatic
13    D.M.S.R.
14    When Doves Cry
15    Under the Cherry Moon
16    Anotherloverholenyohead
17    Soft and Wet
18    I Wanna Be Your Lover  
19    Head (incl. Electric Man interpolation) 
20    Pop Life
21    Girls & Boys
22    Life Can Be So Nice
23    America (incl. Cold Sweat horn stabs &… more )
24    Sometimes It Snows in April
25    Purple Rain
26    Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On (Big Maybelle cover)
    Second encore:
27    Mountains
28    Kiss

Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Times I Saw The Clash #2: 30.04.78

Rock Against Racism Carnival in Victoria Park, London.

For several late teenage years a corner of my bedroom wall was adorned with the fold out programme-slash-poster from this amazing event, a free Carnival Against the Nazis featuring the cream of punk luminaries. And Patrick Fitzgerald.

Pic of programme by Robbie Wilson @ Clash City Collectors

The same groovy teacher who had facilitated our exeat to see The Clash in Cambridge was prevailed upon to hire a mini bus and drive us down to London to march against fascism from Trafalgar Square all the way out through the East End, along Brick Lane - I couldn't belive the poverty! - to Victoria Park, where Rock Against Racism in association with the Anti-Nazi League, staged the Carnival.

Birmingham's militant Rasta revolutionaries, Steel Pulse, were the headliners. Their first single was Ku Klux Klan, about the resurgence of racist National Front vigilantes:- "they say, 'one nigger the less, the better the show. Stand still, black skin, and take your blow.'" Second on the bill was The Tom Robinson Band, doing his song about coming out, Glad To Be Gay:- "Don't try to kid us that if you're discreet, you're perfectly safe as you walk down the street.You don't have to mince or make bitchy remarks to get beaten unconscious and left in the dark."

Racism and homophobia may persist in this day and age, but they are surely less prevalent than forty years ago. As a white middle class kid who boarded at an independent, fee-charging school, I barely knew any black people. There was a pair of brothers at school whose dad ran a golf course in Tobago. I was relatively privileged, but liked to think I could be friendly with funky spliff-toting people with dreadlocks who were deeply into dub, man, if I ever actually met any. It was only a few years later, post-Two Tone, when Jerry Dammers was writing very direct lyrics - "if you have a racist friend, now is time for your friendship to end" - that I truly began to become aware of my own prejudices & naivety.

The homosexuals among my teachers - for there must have been several - certainly did not espouse gay rights. It's fairly obvious that some of the confirmed bachelors who chose to work in the almost exclusively masculine environment of a boys' school weren't too interested in women. As boys, collectively if not individually, our gaydar was pretty well attuned, but it was only after leaving school that the one boy in our boarding house whom we all assumed to be gay was able to come out and be glad about it.

For me, still sixteen, there was a romantic interest that day because the girl I most wanted to be friendly with was present, if not quite by my side. She lived in Lincolnshire, where I met her at a house party during the holidays, but went to school in Surrey, so our romance was mostly conducted by letter. You know, when I wrote those soppy love letters, I did not comprehend that I was actually addressing a whole dormitory full of what the Inbetweeners call, 'clunge,' to whom they were read out loud at bedtime before lights out. It's not like we really knew each other, or even shared the same interests, but she was pretty & squishy and there she was, with a gaggle of girls just like I was there with a dozen of my middle class school mates.

In the park, I remember her singing provocatively along with Tom Robinson:- "sing if you're glad to be gay, sing if you're happy that way - hey!" A pugnacious looking deisel dyke in wife beater and jeans with a flat top haircut was attracted by this lovely little girly whirly and sauntered over to check her out. To her utter consternation, of course. Very quickly, her arms were around my neck as she practically cowered behind me while urgently explaining that she wasn't gay herself but she was glad for others to be gay and thought they should be able to sing about it at the tops of their squeaky voices in public parks without being judged too harshly...

Telling this, I'm reminded that her favourite song, or one of 'em, was Patricia The Stripper by Chris de Burgh. Strange as it may seem, there was a time, before Lady In Red, when some people were not too proud to declare their affection for de Burgh. I don't mean myself, of course - perish the thought! - but those of a more camp sensibility, the kind who did the Timewarp and enjoyed a bit of bum-de-ay. Glad To Be Gay had a bump 'n' grind to it, so maybe that why she got so into the song. But singing along to a song about a stripper doesn't necessarily mean you're ready to get your kit off.

Backstage heroes: Mr Green & The Baker
The Clash performance at the RAR Carnival is well known because it was filmed by the crew that made Rude Boy, featuring Ray Gange, an anti-hero who hangs around with the band and aspires to roadie for them, but doesn't quite cut it. These were the days before Kosmo Vinyl came on the scene, when Johnny Green was The Clash road manager, along with the enigmatic legend they called 'The Baker' because he was a bit tubby. AKA Baker Glare on Facebook, The Baker is now a paranormal investigator (but aren't we all?) He's looking into the genetic manipulation of the human race by extraterrestrial, inter-dimensional beings.

The Clash didn't like the movie, possibly because it showed them warts and all. In memory, there is a particularly excruciating scene, after hours in a bar, with Strummer in his cups spouting polemical twaddle. On You Tube, however, this clip of Strummer putting Gange straight on the issue of Left Wing versus Right Wing doesn't seem so bad. Whatever the band's problem, it cannot be denied that Rude Boy does include phenomenal footage of The Clash in the exciting first flush of their historic victory as the Only Band That Mattered, not to mention the audio recordings, some of which were used on the posthumous live album, From Here To Eternity.

“This is a classic shot,”(left) says Syd Shelton. “The Clash were magic that day, but their management were mean about letting any photographers on the stage, even though it was our stage that we’d built. I got so few shots, just a single roll, and this was a lucky one. It just worked – it’s so rock’n’roll with the legs spread apart. I think they were playing White Riot. If you watch the documentary Rude Boy you can see the whole audience is pogoing at this point – 100,000 people jumping up and down. The excitement was fantastic. I didn’t mind getting thrown off the stage almost immediately afterwards because I knew I’d gotten the picture I wanted.”

The throng grew much bigger than the organisers anticipated; it was fucking immense, man, but I wormed my way into the heart of that crowd, edging nearer to the front when The Clash came on and feeling its pulse. It was the first experience I'd had of a big crowd behaving like a single organism, united by a shared cause, bouncing in metronomic rhythm to the music of what were by then the hardest-drilled hit men to charge out of the trenches and go over the top. In archive footage, the entire park appears to throb.

There was a kerfuffle at the end of the set, when someone turned off the power to the PA because the band were running overtime, but The Clash prevailed and returned to a glorious reception that transformed the crowd into a seething mass, all pogoing alonga White Riot, led by Jimmy Pursey.

It was symbolically important to have Pursey sing a song about a race riot; against oppression, performed at an anti-racist benefit concert, because he was lead singer of Sham 69, whose fans included an element that was openly racist and proud of it. But it quickly became apparent that Jimmy Pursey did not know the words much beyond the chorus:- "White riot, I wanna riot. White riot, riot of my own." Joe handled the more subtle lyrics, about schools teaching you to be thick and that.

Thirty years later, 26.04.08, I went to an anniversary concert put on in Victoria Park by Love Music Hate Racism. Paul Simonon was the only former member of The Clash to grace the stage that day, still smoking, and playing a highly stylised bass part in his project with Daman Albarn, The Good, The Bad & The Queen. At the end of their set, Simonon surrendered his bass and a troupe of brass players - in fact, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - trooped on, with Jerry Dammers, who introduced an extraordinary version of Ghost Town. The edited version of Don Letts' film record of the day - it went on for fifteen minutes, with a succession of freestyling local rappers - does justice to what was the most avant garde live  musical statement I witnessed in 2008. When Space Ape came on the declaim the lyric inna dub poetry style, one could hear a pin drop.

Earlier that day, Drew from Babyshambles - heirs to The Clash! - had put together a band to play with punk heroes reviving their great moments from back in the day. Poly Styrene screechily declared, Oh, Bondage! Up Yours! one final time (she died of cancer in 2011). Jimmy Pursey, too, revived his rendition of White Riot and he still had not learned the words!

The Clash Rock Against Racism in Victoria Park, April 30, 1978
Complete Control
London’s Burning
Clash City Rockers
Tommy Gun
Jail Guitar Doors 
(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais
Last Gang In Town
Police & Thieves
English Civil War
Guns On The Roof
Capital Radio
White Riot

Friday, 8 April 2016

The Last Laugh Now

Photo by Tim Platt
Half a dozen years ago, in 2010, I was hard up. I was complaining about being broke to a friend to whom I sold a pretentious book by your man from El Bulli, the Spanish King of Molecular Gastronomy, for twenty quid. I had it as a consequence of having worked with Mr Alan Yau OBE, the restaurateur. It was slightly damaged on arrival and I made the publisher send a replacement, so got to keep the torn one. My friend's son wanted to be a Chef, so this was a nice gift for him and I was so broke that twenty quid actually mattered.

My friend pointed out that I could hardly plead poverty when I had a thousand pounds hanging on the wall in the form of a beautiful original Banksy print. It's the one of the monkey wearing a sandwich board that says, 'Laugh now, but one day we'll be in charge'. This is another souvenir of my association with Hakkasan, Yau's former company, which owned the lease on premises in Kingly Court, just of Carnaby Street, now occupied by Cha Cha Moon. Before work started on the interior, the space was let to a crew of street artists as the venue for a pre-Christmas sale in 2003, Santa's Ghetto

Mog Morishima co-ordinated the event for Hakkasan. I was well aware of Banksy by then - my sister lives in Bristol, where his Mild Mild West piece is a local landmark - and asked Mog what was going on? He told me that a gaggle of Nathan Barley types were smoking weed in the courtyard (which is bound to make the landlord nervous). I asked about the art and Mog indicated a drawer that contained about half a dozen items from the sale. I recall a discussion about the prices. The Laugh Now print was a numbered edition of 750, 150 of which were signed. The unsigned prints were fifty quid (actually, £49.99) while the signed ones were going for £150. As I recall, we talked about whether Banksy's signature was worth a hundred quid? The question was academic to me since I had no spare cash (then, in 2010, or now!)

I don't want to drag you into my private hell, but my ownership and sale of this print is inextricably tied up with what some brusque bloke on the UAA forum called my, 'sob story.' In late 2003, my mother had finally died after hovering in the vicinity of death for nine long months. My so-called 'career' as a freelance writer had practically disappeared, but Mr Alan Yau - he had yet to be honoured with The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire - kindly kept me going with odd bits of work for Hakkasan. That's how I came to be in their office, joshing Mog, that day. I asked what was going to be done with these prints - surely they were not just going to languish in that plan chest? - and the idea arose that they may as well be shared among those of us who happened to be present and interested: Merry Chrstmas!

I chose Laugh Now because I thought it was the wittiest image. Someone had drawn on its back, a rough pencil outline sketch of what looked at a glance like two seated figures. I didn't mind because you don't look a gift horse in the gob, so I took it home and stuck it up on my bedroom wall with BluTac. Some months later, after I had inherited a decent chunk of change from the sale on my mother's house and was in a sufficiently secure position, financially, to titivate my environment, I bought a cheap IKEA frame in which my Banksy has been displayed ever since. When Graham came round that day in 2010, it was hanging on the wall behind my front door. After he told me how much it might be worth, I moved it to a more prominent position over the record player!

I found it hard to believe that miBanksy - my mad magpie mind plays a version of Sleng Teng with Banksy in the lyric instead of sensi - was really so valuable and took to the internet to find out, WTF? The deal is that an outfit called Pest Control handles Banksy's business and verifies artwarks that are claimed to be by Him, issuing Certificates of Authenticity (COA). A COA guarantees the provenance of a Banksy piece, which is all important so far as its market value is concerned. There's a form on their website for claimants to complete and, if the arbiters approve, they'll issue a COA and charge an admin. fee. I took miBanksy off the wall, laid it on the carpet and shot it with my camerafone. Then I turned the frame over, took its back off, and photographed the puzzling sketch on its reverse. They are not good photographs - you could barely see the pencil outline of the sketch on the back - but I sent them off to Pest Control and hoped for the best.

The Laugh Now stencil was first used to decorate a Brighton nightclub, the Ocean Rooms, in 2002 and has become one of Banksy's most popular images (I refuse to deploy the adjective, 'iconic,' in this context). An eBay search yields dozens of versions of it, mostly produced without license from the artist, who is unlikely to care, since he is a squillionaire. (When Banksy did New York in 2013, a local group of jealous guerilla artists responded with a sign saying, 'Laugh Now But One Day I’ll Be So Rich That I Can Do Graffiti Wherever I Want'). Banksy's sandwich board-wearing monkey was reproduced ten times in black and white on three boards, six metres long, running along a wall of the club (the artist also reproduced this on the side of a District Line tube train, as shown in his book, Wall and Piece). The piece sold at Bonhams' Urban Art sale in 2008 for £228,000, exceeding its estimate.

That's all very well, you say, but what's yours worth?

Pest Control got back to me eventually, declining to authenticate miBanksy. I've lost the e-mail but there's a photo in a Facebook album called Chez Moi dated 31 July 2010 with a caption that notes, 'the Banksy in the corner... It's not signed or numbered, so not worth big money.' Without a COA, I might have got a few hundred quid for it, but not ten hundred, so I let miBanksy be and looked for other sources of revenue. I wound up painting Michael Freeman's house! Mr Freeman is a photographer with whom I had collaborated in 1994 on the production of a book for wagamama, the noodle bar with which Mr Alan Yau OBE earned his name, not to mention his medal from Her Maj.

Now, fifteen-odd years later, here I was painting the exterior of his house in one of London's most chic streets on the W8 side of the Gate. It has a bow window that was rotten and needed replacing. That held the job up for several months over the Summer, while I was considering AirBnB and posting pics on Facebook, and by the time I finished painting this house single-handedly (I mean, on my own; I had two hands at the time) it was winter. In September, I sat a meditation course after which the teacher asked me, "when are you coming to India?" I replied that letting my London flat and going travelling was an increasingly attractive proposition. At a group meditation session in October, I encountered an acquaintance who had moved to London and was looking for a place. The following day - in late October, mind - I was twenty feet up a ladder in drizzle thinking I would rather be anywhere else when I had the idea of renting to Udo and using the Freemans' money to buy a ticket to India. With, as it transpired, life changing consequences.

This is where my shaggy dog sob story gets really shocking (sic). My story got literally, electrically shocking! And people tend to be shocked when they hear about it. They ask me what happened and I tell them, "I received a massive electric shock in the shower of an Indian hotel room." They ask for more details and I say, "you don't really want to know." They insist that they do, so I start telling them and they look concerned. I tell them more and their expression turns to alarm. I carry on but they stop me, because it is too upsetting. These days, I direct enquiries to YouTube, where the tale is told in a series of short videos, so people can have as much of the horror as they can handle. Suffice it to say that it left me as a left transradial amputee with a gammy left foot.

As you might have gathered from the news, being disabled under the current UK government is no picnic. Within a couple of years of my injury, I was assessed as being fit for work, even though the only paid jobs I'd done in the previous decade were manual, handyman-type tasks and the one indispensable qualification that every handyman simply must have is a pair of hands. Now, while nominally self-employed as a freelance copy writer, like in the old days, and a student editorial coach, I don't actually have any clients, which is also like the old days. (Still, if you need some copy written, or are a student whose written English needs to improve, my rates are very reasonable.) I get by on Disability Living Allowance - which is being cancelled - and the kindness of friends. You might be surprised how cheaply one can live in London if one is mortgage free, barring extraordinary service charge demands like the one I now face. Still, it gets boring, havng no money and not going out much, and once again I got to thinking about flogging miBanksy.

I went online, to the Urban Art Association forum and started talking about my copy of Laugh Now in a reactivated thread entitled, 'Banksy Laugh Now Artists Proof,' because that is what I initially thought my unsigned/numbered copy of the print was. In this instance, 'Artist's Proof' refers to a run of 69 copies of the Laugh Now print, in addition to the 750 copies in the commercial edition, which were also signed and numbered and, consequently, sell for more moolah. Indeed, there is one on eBay that I am told has been there for some time with a 'Buy It Now' price of £25,000. Sexual connotations aside, 69 seems like a random number. Could it be that this was a hitherto unknown 70th AP, rendered unsaleable by the doodle on its back? If you think about it, this is one of only some 70 proofs and is therefore rarer than the 750 numbered ones or even the 150 of those that were signed!

Peeps on the UAA boards were understandably sceptical, describing it as, 'backdoor,' i.e.: lost, stolen or strayed. Illegitimate. In fact, the correct designation of miBanksy is, Commercial Sample, which is still not a copy intended for sale and, as such, won't be verified by Pest Control, I was informed. Still, a few prospectors messaged me privately, asking for pictures. I rooted through an old hard drive and dug out the old snaps I'd taken with my phone. I couldn't remember the sketch on the back of the print, having only seen it once in a dozen years, and that was six years ago. I thought it was a floor plan, perhaps. The picture was worse than I remembered. It was so faint, I could hardly make out the line of the drawing. I fiddled with the contrast in Photoshop and what came up seemed like a rough sketch of two seated figures. It was evidently done quickly, but with great fluency in the line, by someone who can draw, for sure. I couldn't post direct to the UAA forum, but someone kindly pasted them up for me so that everyone could see this mysterious sketch. The first response was from astroboy who simply said, 'Pulp Fiction.'

The mysterious sketch, with BluTac marks in corners!
The Old Street Pulp Fiction piece.
As soon as I read that, the following morning, I saw it. The two figures were not seated, but pointing bananas! Oh.My.Days. Is it a preliminary sketch for another of Banksy's best known pieces, Pulp Fiction

Banksy's Pulp Fiction depicts Travolta and Sam Jackson as Vincent 'n' Jules from the Tarantino film in black and white, pointing yellow bananas instead of pistols. It was thrown up above a barber shop, on the side of an electrical substation near London's 'silicon roundabout,' where the trendy techy internetty start up companies are clustered. As such, it was important in the expansion of Banksy's reputation and there was outrage and sadness when it was obliterated in 2007.

In Banksy Does New York, the HBO documentary about Banksy's Better Out Than In 'residency' in New York during October 2013 - when he produced a new artwork every day for a month - there is a discussion of one stunt that involved selling spray can art at $60 a pop from a stall by Central Park. The critic, Carlo McCormick talks about the torment of acquaintances who missed this opportunity. He asked them, "do you really want a Banksy that badly?" and they said, "No, but I want one for $60!" And who can blame then when those pieces (suitably certified by Pest Control, I guess) are now estimated to be worth $250,000 each? "It plays into that fantasy people have of going into a thrift store and buying a painting and a piece of paint flakes off and there's another paining underneath and you discover a lost DaVinci! It's the last bit of dreaming we have left in a culture that promised the American dream," claims Carlo.

(Since the days of Santa's Ghetto, Banksy has himself become a kind of alt.Santa. If he visits your property - or a Bristol Youth Club - and paints on your wall.... kerching!)

While I don't dream in American, we all live in a capitalist culture for the time being (until the chimps take charge) and I too can relate, totally. Had I seen that stall in Columbus Circle, I doubt I would have identified its classic Banksy images as being from the spray can of the master his bad self as there are so many fakes about and they are stencilled, FFS. It's not like these are sophisticated images, like my tasteful three colour screenprint, and I probably would not have forked over forty-odd quid for something I could pick up in Camden for a tenner, but wouldn't, because bogus Banksys are naff. One guy, who bought four, made little such aesthetic judgement. He just wanted something to put on his walls. Now his four pictures are worth a million! I paid nothing for miBanksy, but got it because I liked that cheeky monkey and have enjoyed his mischievous message daily for a dozen years. Unsigned and not certifiable, it wasn't worth megabucks. But now, it seemed, I might be the owner of an original Banksy sketch for what was a crucial work in the artist's developing oeuvre!

Except that the dates don't match. The internet told me that the Old Street piece went up in 2002 and, presumably, not in the depths of winter, so that was well over a year before Santa's Ghetto at which, mojo on the UAA forum informed me, the print edition was for sale. So, this was certainly not a preliminary sketch. Whether or not it was drawn by the hand of Banksy is a matter of speculation. 'The sketch certainly looks like it's done in Banksy's hand,' reckoned Nuart Festival, 'so rather than a pretty much worthless 'test' print, you have an original sketch.' 'That drawing on the back of the print is of a standard that I would want to see by an accomplished artist, very fluid and not forced at all,' said cjp. 'By Banksy, I do not know, but I think it looks bang on and what you would hope to see.' But mojo - not being a killjoy, just keeping it real - pointed out, 'the sketch on the back could of been doodled by anybody working at the show.' What we are all agreed on is that only one man knows for sure. Or possibly two.

I got in touch with Mog to see what he knew. He came back to me promptly, saying, 'I read an article about Banksy's agent who made it big in NYC and I recognised the guy in the photo as Steve, who organised the show and came to our offices afterwards to give us the prints. Here's a very recent article about him - I would suggest that you get him to authenticate as I've heard this is now essential in order to get a proper valuation (presumably loads of fakes doing the rounds). But be aware that he seems to have fallen out with Banksy which may or may not help you...!'

Steve Lazarides, who split with the artist in 2007, curated an Unauthorised Retrospective of Banksy's work at Sotheby's in the Summer of 2014 and, in January 2015, sold his own copy of the Laugh Now screenprint at Bonhams on 28 January, 2015, for £20,000. I wondered if that made Lazarides a parallel authority to Pest Control when it came to authentication, but the one response I received from several galleries that advertised copies of Laugh Now for sale, was negative: 'Laz authenticating it now won't carry a lot of weight TBH,certainly not to me. Banksy hasn't dealt with him in 10 years and Pest Control really is the only authentication that counts to the market now,' said Andy from Belfast.

I gave 'Laz' a go, anyway, and tried Pest Control again, too. I e-mailed that poor quality pic of its back to both and await a response. I may wait in vain, but I won't wait for long. I'm going offline for ten days or so now, leaving miBanksy with a photographer who can take better pictures. When I return, miBanksy, complete with its mysterious doodle on the reverse, will very likely be offered for sale on eBay. If the buyer collects it from me in person s/he can satisfy themselves of its quality before the deal is finally done, so they don't have to just take my word, but can use their own discernment. Without Banksy's signature, it may not be worth what a dealer would characterise as a decent sum, but it is actually a highly desirable, genuine Banksy screenprint, so will appeal to those who are fond of Banksy's work as art first, rather than a rapidly appreciating investment. How much I can get for it, however, remains anyone's guess...

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Bowie Top Six #6: Blackstar, 2016

See the Blackstar video, ten minutes long

Hear hypertextualised lyrics to the Starman's farewell song*


02:15 The Ecstatic Twitchers

Your eyes

03.30 Solar Eclipse

(Instrumental interlude)

04:00 The Book Of Blackstar
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried 
'I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar!'

I can’t answer why (I’m a blackstar)

- I’m a blackstar; I’m not a popstar; I’m a blackstar -

05:50:  Bowie thumbs his nose at the camera and to all his critics, over all the decades of his long and successful career!

(I’m a Blackstar, I’m a Blackstar)

Something happened on the day he died

I can’t answer why (I’m not a gangstar)
We were born upside-down (I’m a Star's star)
I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar

07:40 Three Crucified Scare Crows

In the villa of Ormen stands a solitary candle
Ah-ah, ah-ah
At the centre of it all, your eyes
On the day of execution, only women kneel and smile
Ah-ah, ah-ah
At the centre of it all, your eyes, your eyes

*This may be an-ongoing project, but it's been seven weeks today since David died, so that's enough Bowie for now!