Just for the record: When old age creeps up on you
A fortnightly review of music on vinyl
It may seem a bit coals to Newcastle, but vinyl junkies will find much by way of affirmation in music writer David Hepworth’s new book, A Fabulous Creation: How the LP Saved Our Lives (Bantam Press), which chronicles a golden age when the long-playing record had a profound cultural impact on baby boomers, a time when albums were statements of identity for an emerging group of hip new sophisticates: people who were “serious about music”.
Hepworth’s books go large in celebrating “golden ages”. Previous titles include Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars, 1955-1994 and 1971 – Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year. All are recommended, and provide much material for heated debate among those who are seriously “serious about music”.
His big thesis here is that, although LPs had been around since the late 1940s, their moment of arrival was July 1967 when the Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Here was something else entirely: no mere collection of songs, but an album, something more than the sum of its parts and the harbinger of the thousands that would follow.
The fall, Hepworth suggests, came in 1982 with the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It was paradoxically the biggest-selling LP of all time, but the format was already on the way out, put to pasture first by by cassette culture – suddenly Sony Walkmans and boom boxes were everywhere – and the rise of home taping and piracy, then the emergence of the compact disc, and finally the MP3 and streaming. Although LPs will never again hit that heyday, Hepworth does believe that, as more people are drawn to the music of the past, so too will they be drawn to the format in which that music first appeared. BAD? YOU BET…
Which brings us to a very thorny issue: what do we now do with our Michael Jackson records? As one columnist put it, after the screening in the UK of Dan Reed’s explosive documentary, Leaving Neverland: “It is the strangest shock of all when the thing you always really knew to be true turns out, after all, to have been true.”
Remember the jokes? When is bedtime in Neverland? When the big hand is on the little hand … Jackson was a paedophile who groomed young boys for sex by first grooming their parents, a fact given shape, voice and substance by Reed’s grim film.
It’s equally true there are hardcore Jackson fans who will insist to their dying day that the revelations of the singer’s relationships with young boys are false and malicious lies, but most of us will surely understand why Jackson songs are being pulled from the playlists of radio stations the world over.
It raises an old question: does the artist’s behaviour nullify the art? Western culture is full of examples where it doesn’t, but let’s stick to our vinyl remit, and consider the case of Lori Maddox, one of the most infamous groupies of the “golden era” Los Angeles rock scene. She was just 13 when, at the height of the “Ziggy Stardust” mania, she reportedly lost her virginity in a threesome with David and Angie Bowie. Do we stop listening to Bowie records? Hell, no.
Ditto Led Zeppelin’s records. Maddox, it’s been well-documented, then embarked on a lengthy affair with the group’s guitarist, Jimmy Page. The rest of the band and their management were initially entrusted to keep the relationship secret, not so much because Maddox was 14 at the time, but because Page was then still involved with another groupie, Pamela des Barres. (See her 1987 memoir, I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, for more details. It was reprinted by Omnibus Press last year.)
There are more examples. Rolling Stone Bill Wyman is an obvious one. He began his relationship with Mandy Smith in 1983 when she was 13 and he was 47. Granted, he did marry her five years later (it lasted two years), but still. Do we throw out our Stones LPs? A lot does depend on the art. We will happily have nothing to do with serial paedophile and “golden era” glam rocker Gary Glitter. Never mind the creepiness, the records are crap.
Consider, now, the present difficulties faced by Americana and alt.country rocker Ryan Adams. Several women, including his ex-wife, have accused him of emotional and verbal abuse and offering career opportunities as a pretext for sex. One, in particular, said Adams sent her explicit texts and exposed himself during a Skype call when she was a teenager. All of which may be chicken feed when compared to the excesses and appalling behaviour of the “golden era” but, within the current #MeToo culture, damning enough to warrant lame denials, grovelling apologies, the cancellation of a European tour and other cold-shouldered humiliations.
It goes without saying, of course, that Adams’s 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker, reissued on 180g vinyl by Pax Americana in 2015, is an absolute killer of a record, a must for any serious alt.country collection. It’s a set in which earlier, more raunchy leanings, which featured strongly in Adams’s work with his band Whiskeytown, take a back seat for a subtle and spare sound that blended folk-rock with a rootsy, bluegrass undercurrent. What it lacked in volume, it delivered fourfold in emotional impact. And nowhere on Heartbreaker is there any evidence of the brat he’d become once the “rock star” thing took hold.
I had a brief frisson of excitement at the news that the guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson will be touring SA next year – only to learn that his performances here will be part of some “safari” organised by an Australian tourist company catering for the luxury end of the market. Punters will be paying almost R70,000 a pop to be whisked off to the country’s top game lodges and tourist destinations, and then be treated to intimate campfire concerts by perhaps the most legendary of all British folk-rock legends. Absolutely brilliant idea, agreed – but just a pity that we aren’t invited.
The records will have to do, then. Thompson’s canon is massive, but the best place to start would be with his earlier stuff. He was a founding member of Fairport Convention, a group which, despite initially negligible sales, would have a massive impact on folk and rock music on both sides of the Atlantic. The two albums worth checking out here are Unhalfbricking (image above) and Liege & Lief (Island Records). Both were released in 1969 and both were reissued by Island recently. The latter was particularly effective in its use of traditional music and would spark a new interest in British folk.
After leaving Fairport, Thompson recorded a number of memorable albums with his spouse, Linda Thompson, that established his reputation as a dazzling guitarist and an estimable songwriter just as his wife would emerge as one of the great interpretive vocalists of the folk-rock era.
The first of these, 1974’s I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight (Island, reissued in 2014), though sombre and moody, was a masterpiece of striking and unmistakable beauty and demonstrated what a powerful force this team were. Sales, alas, were dismal.
The great irony, of course, is that commercial success – the great US breakthrough, in other words – came just as the pair were separating; 1982’s Shoot Out The Lights (Hannibal Records; reissued by Rhino in 2018) is often considered by critics to be a painful document of a rancorous divorce despite the fact that its songs were written years before the couple parted. More accurately, Shoot Out The Lights is considered Thompson’s finest work, and it’s difficult to argue otherwise despite the great albums that would follow.
It’s a shame that the Louvin Brothers’ 1959 release, Satan Is Real (Capitol Records), regularly turns up on internet lists of worst album covers ever. Granted, it is a pretty weird cover: the two brothers standing in front of a giant cardboard cutout of Old Nick and a bunch of burning tyres. But the truth of the matter is that Ira and Charlie Louvin were deadly serious here: these are forthright Christian bluegrass tunes dealing sin and redemption with a ferocity that remains unmatched. Hellfire has never been, well, more hellfire.
If, however, that’s a bit too much for you, the brothers’ more secular debut, 1956’s Tragic Songs of Life (Capitol) should do the trick. Like it says on the box, this is a collection of downbeat ballads that explore the dark stuff from bittersweet nostalgia to heartbreak all the way into murder.
Both albums are quite brilliant. The Louvins were extraordinary performers. As the New York Times critic Alex Abramovich put it: “Ira Louvin was a full head taller than his younger brother, played the mandolin like [bluegrass star] Bill Monroe and sang in an impossibly high, tense, quivering tenor. Charlie strummed a guitar, grinned like a vaudevillian and handled the bottom register. But every so often, in the middle of a song, some hidden signal flashed and the brothers switched places – with Ira swooping down from the heights, and Charlie angling upward – and even the most careful listeners would lose track of which man was carrying the lead. This was more than close-harmony singing; each instance was an act of transubstantiation.”
Heady stuff, indeed. But, despite the heavy Baptist tenor of their music, things weren’t so holy rolling off-record. Ira Louvin, in particular, was a hard-drinking womaniser with a volcanic temper. He was married four times; his third wife, Faye, shot him four times in the chest and twice in the hand after he apparently tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. When it came apparent that he would survive, Faye promised: “If that bastard don’t die, I’ll shoot him again!”
Ira would sometimes perform drunk and get so angry that he’d smash his mandolin in frustration at not being able to tune it. (He’d glue it back together when sober.) Charlie Louvin finally had enough of his brother’s abusive behaviour in 1963, and embarked on a solo career. Ira died two years later, together with his fourth wife, Anne, in a head-on collision. The driver of the other car was drunk. At the time, there was a warrant out for Ira’s arrest on charges of drunk driving as well.
Charlie passed away in 2011. His and Ira’s reputation as country music’s finest close-harmony duo remains intact.