Just for the records: Ain’t no sunshine when he’s gone (again)


Just for the records: Ain’t no sunshine when he’s gone (again)

A fortnightly review of music on vinyl

Andrew Donaldson
The late great Bill Withers.
LEGENDARY The late great Bill Withers.
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It said a lot of his humility and character that singer-songwriter Bill Withers, who died last week aged 81, abandoned his career at the height of his success and chose instead a self-imposed exile that would last 35 years. He’d simply decided he’d done enough, and that was that. Of course, “enough”, in this case, was considerable, and included some of the most ubiquitous and infectious earworms of our time: Lean On Me, Grandma’s Hands and, naturally, Ain’t No Sunshine.

Early retirement, as it were, was not without its hassles, and Withers would tire of people who would greet him: “We thought you were dead.” But he understood their reaction. “Sometimes,” he joked, “I wake up and wonder myself.” He stopped performing and recording in 1985; there would be no comebacks or revivals, and thereafter he steadfastly refused any attempt to thrust him back into the limelight. He even distanced himself from a 2015 Carnegie Hall tribute concert staged in his honour, refusing to sing with Ed Sheeran and the other artists who gathered to pay homage. 

Success came at a relatively late stage for Withers. He was almost 30 when he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a music career in 1967 following a nine-year stint in the US Navy. There, he recorded demos at night while working at a Boeing aircraft plant where he made toilet seats. His recording career began in 1971 when he met Clarence Avant, the president of Sussex Records, who signed him up.

His debut album, Just As I Am (Sussex), produced by Stax Records stalwart Booker T Jones and Al Jackson Jr, was simply astonishing; Withers immediately carved a distinct niche for himself within soul music by integrating folkier, more introspective elements than what was being heard elsewhere. The record remains an indispensable classic; it included Ain’t No Sunshine, his first charting single, which went gold and won a Grammy for best R&B song. 

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Just As I Am came with the gentle string arrangements and the light jazz-funk that was typical of the genre at the time, but Withers also clung to his blues and gospel influences, most notably on Grandma’s Hands and the lilting melancholy of Ain’t No Sunshine. Other tracks may be less well-known, like the grooving Harlem, Moanin’ and Groanin’ and Better Off Dead, but they too displayed an assured songwriting skill. All the songs here are originals, save covers of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’ and the Beatles’ Let It Be, and Withers made them his own with his acoustic-based folk-soul style.

His follow-up, 1972’s Still Bill (Sussex), was perhaps even better; a rich, subtly-layered album, but one that, for all the production involved, doesn’t come across as heavy-handed or laboured. Again, it’s a testament to Withers’s musical skills that his songs sound “easy”, so much so that it takes a while before Still Bill’s intricacies and nuances become apparent, especially on its best-known track, the gospel-tinged Lean On Me

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He was rather modest about his abilities as a songwriter, and nonplussed that so many different artists covered them. “I see it as an award of attrition,” he said when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Stevie Wonder in 2015. “What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in. I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.”

Just As I Am and Still Bill are Withers’s best albums. They’re absolutely essential additions to any collection, to my mind. Both were rereleased on 180g vinyl in 2012 by Dutch reissue specialists, Music On Vinyl. There are a number of compilation albums that have also been reissued on vinyl in recent years. If that’s what you’re after, then I’d plumb for 1975’s The Best of Bill Withers (Sussex), which draws extensively from the first two records. All meat then, and no fat. It was reissued on 180g vinyl by Sussex in 2018.

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With a little help from our friends

This coming weekend we mark the 50th anniversary of the break-up of the Beatles. It seems rather extraordinary that, after all this time, they should still have such cultural impact and demand our attention. My stepdaughter, who is 14, recently asked me about their best albums, and if there was any point in ranking their releases. I gave it some thought, and, without wishing to start a fight, came up with the following, which excludes compilation albums. Starting at the bottom, then:

13. Yellow Submarine (Apple Records). Originally released in 1969 as a soundtrack to the animated movie, it included previously released material. It was substantially padded out with hits in 1999 as Yellow Submarine Songtrack, a CD tie-in with the film’s DVD release that subsequently issued on vinyl in 2005.

12. Let It Be (Apple Records). Released in 1970, this was the sound of a band breaking up; disjointed and with only a handful of good songs. But where they were good, they were very, very good.

11 Beatles For Sale (Parlophone). Released in 1964, at the height of Beatlemania, it was a transitional record. It followed A Hard Day’s Night, and that, it must be said, was a difficult album to follow.

10 With The Beatles (Parlophone). Another transitional record. Released in 1963, this one followed the white-hot blast of their debut, Please Please Me, and it sounded as if they were still trying to figure things out. 

9 Magical Mystery Tour (Parlophone). It’s nominative determinism, I guess, but this is a bit all over the place and, at the same time, unsure of where it’s going. There were some hits, like Magical Mystery TourFool on the Hill and I Am the Walrus, but some dire misses too. Originally released as a double EP set in 1967, it was later issued as a single LP and included the Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever single. 

8 Please Please Me (Parlophone). Some iffy moments, but this is where it all starts, the first tranche of all those memorable tunes. Recorded in a single frenetic session in 1963, it was perhaps the closest we could get to experiencing the manic thrill of the group’s early Liverpool gigs without actually being there.

7 Help! (Parlophone). The group were now in a groove of sorts. This 1965 release represented the Beatles at the height of their early phase, and with songs such as Yesterday, which began to push at the boundaries of what a group could achieve in the studio, just a hint of what was to come.

6 A Hard Day’s Night (Parlophone). Brimming with confidence, this 1964 album was the first to feature only originals; the playing was terrific, there are no weak moments, and there’s still nothing to top the distinctive introductory chord of the album’s opener and title track.

5 Rubber Soul (Parlophone). The jostling for top spot gets tough from here on in. This 1965 release was a bold and adventurous step into complex, uncharted territory. But then they’d all be sonic adventures from here on. This is the start of a great three-album run, one of the best in the history of pop.

4 The Beatles aka “The White Album” (Apple Records). Released in 1968, this double album is a trip that could have done with some editing. Perhaps even released as a single LP. But it’s still one helluva ride. Sometimes derided as a record made by four individuals rather than a group, it has ... well, bits of everything: childish ditties, folks acoustic tunes, rock and roll, power pop, jazzy noodlings, experimental sound collages … 

3 Abbey Road (Parlophone). This, released in 1969, is how the group considered the greatest band of all time ended the 1960s. Perfect, except for the risible Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and the nonsense that is Octopus’s Garden

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone). A psychedelic masterpiece, our runner-up, and then only by a whisker, released in 1967, at the height of the Summer of Love, contains the group’s best song, A Day In The Life. But, strictly speaking, it’s another of those transitional albums, seeing as it continues the experiments that began with its predecessor.

1 Revolver (Parlophone). Some choose to think of this as the Sgt Pepper before Sgt Pepper. This is a bold push of the envelope. Look at it this way, less than three years passed from the simple “yeah, yeah, yeah” of the debut album’s She Loves You to the full-blown acid wig-out that is Revolver’s closing track, Tomorrow Never Knows, or the lyrical heartbreak of Eleanor Rigby. Here was peak creativity and ingenuity. 

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Buried treasure

Reports that Marianne Faithfull has joined the growing list of artists who have contracted the novel coronavirus has prompted a deep dive into the artist’s work, particularly the records she made before Broken English (Island Records), the 1979 album that relaunched her career. The massive success of that startling record, helped in part by the hit single off it, The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, as well as the controversy stirred by its closing track, the enraged and graphic sexual jealousy rant, Why’d Ya Do It?, conveniently divided Faithfull’s career into two distinct eras: before and after Broken English. It has, after all, been more than 40 years since its release.

The success of her reinvention as an artist prompted, as could be expected, some interest in Faithfull’s earlier work — with the result that much of it was reissued or repackaged in compilations in the hope of cashing in on her renewed popularity. Some were better than others, but most of it was fairly dodgy — and redolent of the crass opportunism that launched her career in the first place.

She’d had no specific desire to be a singer, and had instead chosen acting as a career. In 1964, aged 17, she’d attended a Rolling Stones launch party with her then husband, John Dunbar. There, the group’s manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, had been struck by her beauty — “I have seen an angel,” he declared, “an angel with big tits!” — and set about getting her to record her first single, As Tears Go By, a Mick Jagger-Keith Richards composition that the group would release only after Faithfull’s version charted on both sides of the Atlantic. Richards, incidentally, didn’t think much of the song. “We though, what a terrible piece of tripe,” he later wrote. “We came out and played it to Andrew, and he said ‘It’s a hit.’ We actually sold this stuff, and it actually made money. Mick and I were thinking, this is money for old rope!”

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Nonetheless, Faithfull now had a recording career. She is one of the few recording artists to have not one, but two debut albums: both Marianne Faithfull (Decca) and Come My Way (Decca) were released simultaneously in 1965. The former is the marginally better album, a lushly baroque, pop-oriented collection that listeners would have expected, and the latter probably more interesting, a stripped-down collection of interpretations of traditional songs much in keeping with folk singers of the day. Her third album, 1966’s underrated and now fairly rare North Country Maid (Decca), continued to explore traditional folk, only this time with greater vocal imagination and a more forceful musical backing. 

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Both Marianne Faithfull and Come My Way have been reissued, in one form or another, on vinyl in recent years, along with various compilations of material from this period. Russian label Lilith’s 2006 edition of Come My Way, on 180g vinyl, rather tackily adds Sister Morphine, Faithfull’s abrasive song about her near-death experience after overdosing in 1969, thereby making the record an anachronistic mess. Sister Morphine, a co-write with Jagger and Richards, was recorded, like As Tears Go By, before the Stones’ version. 

Decca last reissued a version of Marianne Faithfull, in mono, on vinyl in 1984. But, thanks to copyright loopholes, questionable versions thereof abound. None of these records are absolutely essential; the proverbial curate’s eggs, they have been damned with faint praise — “pleasant and competent” — and the best of her work from this period can be found in the wonderful Ace Records/ABKCO compilation, Come And Stay With Me: The UK 45s 1964-1969, a double LP set of sheer pop pleasure and a fascinating glimpse into a slice of 1960s culture.

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If there is one hiccup with Come And Stay With Me, it is that it, too, includes Sister Morphine. This was the only material Faithfull had recorded since 1967, when her chaotic affair with Jagger had started, and even then it was more a stab at shock therapy than the pop charts. The relationship with Jagger, which ended in 1969, left her in emotional turmoil, and her personal life, to put it mildly, was not in great shape when she next entered a recording studio in 1971 for sessions with producer Mike Leander. Most of the material that emerged here was destined to be released by Bell Records, who then shelved the project.

These songs were eventually released in the mid-1980s on CD by budget label Castle as Faithfull’s post-Broken English career went from strength to strength. That album, Rich Kid Blues, was reissued on vinyl in 2017 by Demon Records, and it’s a surprisingly worthwhile collection. Faithfull’s voice had by now lowered a full octave, and her interpretations of familiar, well-chosen covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, James Taylor, Tim Hardin and Cat Stevens, along with folk and country standards, were dignified and knowing rather than weathered and worn. Some of the fuller band arrangements have dated a bit — a “mellow-rock sluggishness”, one critic said — but the stripped-down songs, with little more than a guitar accompanying Faithfull’s sensually low voice, are terrific. It is a worthy transitional work, and provides an insight to her evolution from pop thrush to the dramatic chanteuse of recent years.

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