In the Seventies, my old portable reel to reel tape recorder was as important to me as my Ted Dexter autograph cricket bat. I spent hours listening to Radio One, recording songs that I thought I would like. By default, I would record anything but if, after thirty seconds, it hadn’t grabbed my attention, I would stop recording and rewind. That’s not too dissimilar to today’s practice, due to Spotify and other streaming services, of ensuring that the first part of a song is interesting. Artists only get a royalty if the first part (thirty seconds?) of a song is streamed and so their label bosses encourage them to make the start of a song punchy and appealing.
I used to have some great recorded interviews on those tapes. Jackson Browne talking in depth about the songs on his first album. Lou Reed explaining the story arc of The Velvet Underground’s third album. Whenever I venture into the loft I hold out hope that I’m going to find a large box with hundreds of small white cardboard boxes inside containing those tapes but I fear I threw them out in a manic bout of decluttering. I also fantasise about finding the typed lists of track details for each tape. My parents had given me a typewriter and the day I discovered correction tape was a breakthrough. I had pages and pages of detail on all those tapes.
One evening, in October 1971, I was listening to the disc jockey Alan Black on his Sunday evening programme when he played the title track from Van Morrison’s fifth album, “Tupelo Honey”. I clearly remember listening to the song for the first time. The start of the song is great; soulful vocals, typically not-quite-right lyrics (“You can take all the tea in China”), lovely instrumentation and a catchy chorus. Just lovely but the song takes off as embellishment is added to embellishment. Firstly a lovely saxophone solo from the great Jack Schroer (who played the remarkable solo on the title track from “Moondance”); a restrained and melodic acoustic guitar solo from Ronnie Montrose (who would later form the hard rock band, Montrose); one more verse and the song quietens, threatening to end but it then builds again with sympathetic drumming from Connie Kay (formerly of The Modern Jazz Quartet, who also played drums on “Astral Weeks”); finally, as the song reaches the climax, backing vocals sing “She’s an angel”. I’m sitting here in 2020 and I can clearly remember the euphoric feeling I got in 1971 at this precise moment which was so overwhelming that I burst out laughing. After which I got back to completing my A level Maths homework.
Here’s a clip from the Montreaux Jazz Festival several years later and, arguably, Pee Wee Ellis’ sax solo is even more outrageous than Jack Schroer’s. He played with Van Morrison for many years having been an integral part of James Brown’s backing band in the Sixties. This clip also features the magnificent Mark Isham on trumpet. The Wikipedia entry for Mark Isham lists over one hundred films for which he composed the score. I’m not sure which is more thrilling – this live performance or the recorded studio version.
There was a phenomenal magazine called “Zigzag” which Peter introduced to me. I used to have about fifty different copies of this until I sold them in another misguided fit of decluttering. Pete Frame (who researched and drew the endlessly fascinating family trees) and John Tobler were the two best writers in Zigzag and John Tobler wrote about “Tupelo Honey” like this: “If all music were as good as this, there would be no need for anybody to make any more, because this is the real thing”. That reminds me of my Mum asking me, twenty five years ago, why I kept buying new records. “Don’t you have enough?” Here’s a whole area of exploration. How often can I listen to the same music? How many times have I listened to “Tupelo Honey”? Why do I still get excited when I find a new album that I love? Right now, I’m listening to “Folklore” by Taylor Swift. Normally I listen to the album I’m writing about but I’ve listened to “Tupelo Honey” so much that I don’t feel a need to listen to it while writing about it and I’m taking the chance to fully explore “Folklore”. How often have I listened to my most played albums (Sgt. Pepper? Astral Weeks?)? Over a thousand? Why is it that certain art forms (music, painting, sculpture) can bear repeated scrutiny but others (books, films) can only be encountered a few times. Sure, I’ve watched “Apocalypse Now” about five times and I’ve probably read “Fever Pitch” the same but I’ve listened to “Tupelo Honey” hundreds of times.
The other magnificent song on this album is “Moonshine Whiskey”. I don’t want to focus too much on the lyrics (“I’m going to put on my hat and my hot pants and promenade down funky Broadway until the cows come home”), preferring to listen to two very distinct genres of music. There’s the up-tempo R’n’B style in sections one, three and five and the gentler, slower, soulful style of sections two and four. A gentle guitar introduces the first up-tempo section in which Van Morrison sings about how his girl gives him moonshine whiskey and southern comfort in his best R’n’B mode with great pedal steel from the misspelled John McFee (a member of the Doobie Brothers and a long time collaborator with Elvis Costello). The song slows to a more soulful second section in which he sings about “streamline promenade”, a phrase that he repeats many times throughout the song. The meaning of “streamline promenade” is not as important as the sound it makes – towards the end of this section, he belts the phrase out and Connie Kay’s drums and the backing singers create the first high point of the song. The third section is the up-tempo R’n’B that we had at the beginning before reverting to the fourth section when he is watching fish in the sea and marvelling at the bubbles that come to the surface. He encourages Jack Schroer to play his saxophone in the style of fish making bubbles. He gives instructions on how to play “Get funky. Streamline promenade. Funky as you want to be” and the tension builds with the backing singers and Connie Kay’s drums and his own vocals and it builds and builds and builds until “Oh she gives me moonshine whiskey” introduces the last section. This is a majestic and appropriate finish to this ridiculously good song. She gives him southern love and he tells us this over and over again as the tempo increases until it’s manic and then at the end he reminds us that she gives him moonshine whiskey in a dramatic finish. Wow. What a song.