Updated: May 20, 2020
As I’ve had a bit of time on my hands because of the lockdown, I’ve been recording some weekly acoustic shows from home which I’ve published on Facebook and YouTube. I have covered some of my favourite songs over the last few Saturdays and I also I did a live streamed concert last week featuring my own songs. A friend of mine asked me to say something about each of the songs I’d chosen to perform so I thought I’d write something about the reasons for choosing these particular covers.
1. Here Comes My Baby – Cat Stevens
It was The Tremeloes that had a hit with this Stevens-penned number in 1967 but I much prefer his version. I heard The Tremoloes version when a DJ played it at a gig I was doing in Somerset last year (it was a 70th birthday party, I should say), and it must have sparked a memory of hearing it in my childhood or somewhere because I was very familiar with the melody. For some reason I thought that I remembered Kurt Cobain doing a slower acoustic version of it at some point, but I’ve researched this since and it’s not true. I just think it’s an absolutely brilliant pop song.
2. The Sun Never Shines On The Poor – Richard and Linda Thompson
This track is taken from Richard and Linda’s 1975 album, Hokey Pokey. It’s a devastating critique of societal inequality with its portrayal of working class life that could have been set a hundred years earlier but which is most likely contemporary. The “Ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling, the Devil he leans on your bell” line is so characteristic of Thompson’s songwriting craft - his ability to draw the listener in with a catchy melody disguising a disturbing or mournful lyric.
3. Riki Tiki Tavi – Donovan
I’m going through a huge Donovan phase at the moment. I have recently managed to get hold of a very good second pressing of his extremely rare 1971 album, HMS Donovan with its wonderful John Patrick Byrne cover art (the same artist whose rejected design for The Beatles “White Album” later appeared on the cover of The Beatles Ballads; incidentally, the album that started my Beatles obsession in 1980, but that's another story) and this is seeing me through the lockdown very nicely together with my A Gift From A Flower To A Garden box set. This song is from Don’s 1970 release, Open Road with musicians John Carr and Mike Thomson. It uses the mongoose from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book as a metaphor for the institutions that supposedly kill society’s problems. Donovan preaches that we must be self-reliant instead. I highly recommend the film ‘There Is An Ocean’ which documents Open Road’s tour around the Greek Islands that year. It was pretty difficult keeping the beat going with my suitcase drum kit while playing the reggae riff offbeat on the guitar.
4. Say You Don’t Mind – Denny Laine
This song is a 1967 masterpiece. In my view, it’s one of the finest songs from a year when there were a lot of fine songs! Denny’s version failed to chart, unfortunately, but four years later Colin Blunstone had a top twenty hit with it. I had only recently worked out how to play it when I recorded it and I didn’t realise what a challenge it would be vocally! Go Denny.
(By the way, the 'Vinyl Junkie' T Shirt I'm wearing designed by Richard Kilbey is available to order here.)
5. Nanana – Status Quo
The first long player record I ever owned was Dog Of Two Head by Status Quo. I’ve still got my gatefold copy on the Piccadilly label. I was nine years old when Quo’s 'What You’re Proposing' came out in October 1980 and I played the single my parents had obligingly bought me from John Menzies to death. Oddly, when I asked for a Quo album that Christmas, they decided to get me the Dog album instead of the single’s parent album, Just Supposin’, which would have been the obvious choice. I’m glad they did. Dog of Two Head was released in 1971 just as Quo had transitioned from psychedelic popsters to scruffy, denim-clad blues-boogie merchants. However, this album remains an anomaly in the Quo catalogue, in my opinion, because of the diverse range of musical styles and songcraft employed which, I think, sees the band at its creative peak. The AllMusic review sums it up perfectly: “never again were Status Quo going to sound as innovative and inventive as they sound here.” 'Nanana', for instance is a wistful, acoustic track with piano backed by a vocal harmony group called ‘Grass’. This could easily have been released by Peter, Paul and Mary. It’s very 1971 and it’s wonderful.
6. Only A Hobo – Bob Dylan
I play Bob in a Dylan tribute band called Mr Tambourine Man but this is a song of his I’d never tackled before. I’d first heard it on the first official Bootleg Series albums (Volumes 1-3) in 1991, but became re-acquainted with it via the version Bob recorded during the sessions for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol.II with Happy Traum in 1971 which was finally released on 2013’s excellent Another Self Portrait. The melody got into my head and I just had to figure out how to play it. Unfortunately, when I was figuring it out I did it from memory and got the chords slightly wrong, but there you go.
7. Look Around You – Danny Kirwan
As I mention in the introduction to this song on the video, ‘Look Around You’ was written by fellow sacked Fleetwood Mac member Dave Walker. Danny recorded it for his 1976 album Midnight In San Juan, a gem of a record. It is a very beautiful song which is done no justice at all by my badly recorded effort using my iPhone. I’d first heard the album sometime in the early nineties after becoming obsessed with the early incarnation of the group following the screening of the BBC documentary Fleetwood Mac at 21 in 1988. You really couldn’t make up the history of that band. I covered Danny’s songs ‘Dragonfly’ on The First Snow (currently available as a free download, incidentally) and ‘Dust’ on my 2018 LP, RIDE.
8. I Love You – The Rutles
I saw The Rutles perform in Bath, just down the road from me, in June 2019 and they were amazing. I was as shocked (and stunned) as anyone at Neil’s untimely death in December. I love The Rutles albums almost as much as my Beatles albums. This particular song always affected me (or is it ‘effected’, I never know?). It reminds me of the innocent days of the early Beatles but I also imagine singing it to someone that I love to express in such a sweet yet profound way what they actually mean to me and how that feels. Of course, Neil’s passing added particular poignancy to this performance.
9. Blues Run The Game – Jackson C. Frank
I first heard this song performed by Simon and Garfunkel on the Old Friends box set released in 1997. That was also when I heard the duo’s version of ‘The Star Carol’ for the first time, which I also fell in love with and later recorded and later still released on my Holy Roller album (also available as a free download, currently). I am more familiar with the original (and definitive) version of ‘Blues Run The Game’ now by the relatively obscure American folk singer, Jackson C. Frank. Paul Simon said, apparently, that it was the one song he’d wished he’d written. In 2013 I was briefly a member of a band called The Bearfield Commune and we performed ‘Blues Run The Game’ live a few times. You can listen to a recording of a performance of it here.
10. God’s Children – The Kinks
Ray Davies’ environmental and semi-religious anthem was released as a single in 1971 but, incredibly, failed to chart in the UK. I have loved the song since I first heard it on a compilation album in about 2002. I originally intended to sing his ‘Sweet Lady Genevieve’ but I couldn’t quite get it right in time.
11. Mother Divine – George Harrison
I mention some of the history to this song when I introduce it on the video. It was demoed for All Things Must Pass, but like a lot of other stone cold classic songs that George had stockpiled by 1970, it didn’t make the cut. Personally, I would have traded the ‘Apple Jam’ third LP for another album’s worth of songs like this and 'Window, Window', 'Tell Me What Has Happened To You', 'Beautiful Girl', 'Cosmic Empire', 'Nowhere To Go' and the gorgeous Dylan composed ‘I Don’t Want To Do It’. The fantastic riff to 'Mother Divine' would have been worth the price of the entry fee alone.
12. Brian Wilson – Barenaked Ladies
I was introduced to this song soon after Gordon was released in 1992. Although I enjoyed the album, this track seemed head and shoulders above the rest to me at the time. (I feel similarly about ‘When The Stars Go Blue’ on Ryan Adams’ Gold LP, which I covered on The First Snow, and which is another remarkable song). Lyrically it’s clever as hell and I love the pace of it and the chord changes. The instrumentation is perfect. I don’t do it any justice whatsoever but I really enjoyed singing it.
The next week I performed some of my own songs in a live stream on Facebook: ‘Know’, ‘Going Back To Liverpool’, ‘Dignity’, ‘We’ll Be Champions’ and ‘Vinyl Junkie’. Unfortunately, the mic on my computer was not up to the job of capturing the sound in my living room so the live broadcast sounded terrible! Fortunately, I also recorded the show on my phone camera so I have a recording of it with decent sound which I was then able to post.
13. Stars Burn Out - The Bevis Frond
I’ve blogged before about my love for The Bevis Frond – one of the primary influences on my decision to start recording and releasing my own music from home and playing all the instruments myself. Since 1987, Nick Saloman has been doing the same thing under the ‘Frond’ pseudonym. My favourite album of Nick’s is (probably) North Circular and ‘Stars Burn Out’ is the first track. A tale of ageing and of celebrities (musicians?) fading away, it’s typical of his amazing ear for melody combined with a dark lyric. In fact, there are similarities with Richard Thompson here. Nick is a virtuoso guitarist but also a gifted songsmith and one of the things I enjoy most about his records is the way he adds fantastic vocal harmonies. Check out North Circular on Bandcamp here.
14. Oh! Yoko – John Lennon
You may know that I play the role of John Lennon in Beatles tribute band, All You Need Is The Beatles (although I intend to hang up my wig soon – it’s been thirteen years!), so this choice isn’t surprising. It’s one of my favourite John songs to play. It was a toss up between this, ‘Beautiful Boy’ and the acoustic version of ‘Real Love’. Actually, I probably should have done ‘Grow Old With Me’ because that one is my toppermost of the poppermost!
15. Sexuality - Billy Bragg
I heard this song for the first time when I was studying at the University of La Verne in Los Angeles in 1997. The university radio station received promo CDs from record labels and I used to go down there and they would give them away if they weren’t being played anymore. Billy’s most recent album at the time was William Bloke and they had a copy of a promo CD which had a bonus sampler CD with it, which they let me have. ‘Sexuality’ was one of the tracks on it. I think it also had ‘A New England’, ‘St. Swithin’s Day’, ‘She’s Got A New Spell’, ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and ‘Greetings to the New Brunette’ on it. I played it a lot because I was homesick and it reminded me of England. This particular song contains one of the best ever lines in pop music: “I had an Uncle who once played for Red Star Belgrade.” It’s equally as good as his line from ‘Greetings to the New Brunette’: “How can you lie back and think of England when you don’t even know who’s in the team.”
16. Wall of Death – Richard and Linda Thompson
A second Thompson song, this one I know very, very well. I love it. I was introduced to the R.E.M. version first, funnily enough, which was a track on the 'E-Bow The Letter' CD single, as I recall. At this point, I hadn’t yet begun to explore Richard’s oeuvre (I’ve always wanted to use that word in a sentence, although I’m not sure exactly how you pronounce it). The adventures I’ve had doing that are too many to mention and there’s still many more to go. He is possibly popular music’s best kept secret. If I had the inclination to do any more of these covers shows, I would probably perform ‘Shaky Nancy’ and ‘The Poor Ditching Boy’ – songs featured on Thompson’s first post-Fairport LP, Henry The Human Fly.
17. The Mandolin Man and his Secret – Donovan
I slipped in this cover of this enchanting song from Donovan’s A Gift From a Flower to a Garden double LP box set from 1967. I just really wanted to learn how he played it in that delicate fingerpicking style of his. The second record in the set is called “For Little Ones” and Donovan wrote the songs for children. This song is featured on that second record.
So, there you go. I hope you have enjoyed some of these selections. I have now finished writing the songs for my new album which I will begin recording shortly. I’ll post occasional updates about this here on my blog and on my Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram. I hope to get it out by the Autumn. Take care.