Cult Classics Album Breakdown 27

JJ Cale – Shades (1981)

In my hometown of Southport, near Liverpool, there is a wonderful independent record store called Quicksilver Music. It was in there, about ten years ago, that I happened to wander when Shades by JJ Cale was pulsing over the speakers. I knew instantly that I had to have it. It just had something about it that kept me in the shop for well over half an hour. Made Quicksilver Music seem cooler than ever, which is no mean feat. The owner, Dave, a lovely guy with a fountain of music knowledge, often spots me coming to this day and puts something on that he thinks I’ll like (LOL!). Then he leaves the case on the counter – bait, so to speak, for the vulnerable record collector.

Needless to say, Shades got swallowed whole, and praise the Lord.

A lot made sense once I’d got my hands on this record. I started to understand what the likes of Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and John Mayer had been listening to whilst homing their own craft. It started to make sense too, having read into it more, why Clapton particularly has always acknowledged and championed this man more than most. And, when reading the sleeve notes, it’s hardly a surprise, all considered, that JJ could call upon such stellar backing musicians for Shades – pianist Bill Payne, drummers Jim Keltner and Russ Kunkel, and legendary former-Elvis guitarist, James Burton, to name a few.

So, to the highlights. If I’m honest there are no low lights. This is a remarkably consistent record. It opens with the groovy Carry On, demonstrating Cale’s insistence on understated vocals left way back in the soup, and limb-tingling shuffle rhythm. It’s a killer hook, leading into the equally hypnotising Deep Dark Dungeon – another characteristically short but captivating novella of a song. JJ Cale doesn’t do the prog thing; he strikes a chord, delivers, then gets the hell out of there within three minutes.

Wish I Had Not Said That is a lighter shuffle with a particularly stripped back sound – it feels like you’re in the studio watching it being recorded, in fact. Pack My Jack is stereotypical JJ – smoky-bar, post-midnight Blues; both simple and sturdy. This is the gift of Cale – his tunes feel like they’ve been around forever. If You Leave Her is somewhat funky – a wah-wah infused jaunt, demonstrating JJ’s ability to slightly alter the goalposts. Friendly and inviting, it’s a sound that reels you in like a greedy Carp.

Mama Don’t, one of the album highlights, is an infectious, mischievous lyric riding over a jilted twelve-bar blues: “Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here / No Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here / I don’t care what Mama don’t allow / Gonna play my guitar anyhow/No Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ in here.” And quite right – who cares what Mama don’t want, right? Get that amp turned up to 11…

Runaround is Jazz soaked Blues in which Cale’s lyrics, about a woman giving him the ‘runaround’, hark back to traditional blues themes of old. What Do You Expect is lively bop-rock, Love Has Been Gone a nod to Cale’s Country influences, and the album’s final track, Cloudy Day, a moody but adorable instrumental in which guitar and saxophone duel beautifully – similarities could be drawn with Peter Green’s famed Albatross. A staggering end to a great record without a single stray note or unnecessary decorative filigree.

JJ Cale – a lifelong snubber of limelight and conscious avoider of Rock-star ‘celebrity’ – is now a cult hero. Heralded as the creator of the Tulsa Sound, Cale single-handedly pioneered a genre that fused Country, Blues, Rockabilly and Jazz. Clapton is chiefly responsible for Cale’s cult status, having made two of Cale’s songs – Cocaine and After Midnight – huge hits for himself in the 70’s. Admirers of the man also include Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Brian Ferry – what a collection of references! His laid-back, horizontal sound is compelling, and I feel there is no better example than this stunning album, Shades.

In 2005 JJ Cale released a DVD called To Tulsa And Back – a career spanning documentary that gives a great insight into this reclusive legend and his wonderful musical achievements. He was Leon Russell’s studio technician before being nudged towards making his own records, and never lost that sense of humility. His back catalogue is a must for any guitar lover – and there’s no better way to start than with this album, Shades.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Carry On

Mama Don’t

Cloudy Day


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 19

Stephen Bishop – Careless (1976)

What a very special record this is.

I was gifted Careless by a fellow muso with twenty years worth of information gathering on my musical taste. It fell through the letter box one day with the kind of clink that makes you wince. Yes, the case was shattered, but the CD emerged like an untouched pearl. I put it straight in the record player and was instantly gripped. Like that moment when the music starts in a rowdy pub and it all goes quiet.

Stephen Bishop. The name had floated round in conversation for years, though any further investigation had never been undertook. Better late than never, as they say. When you think you’ve heard it all and then something this good appears it’s so exciting. It makes me feel like the search is endless – even if I live a hundred years (I’ll have to give the biscuits up, like) I think I’ll still be discovering amazing music I’ve never heard. Isn’t that great?

The album begins with the very intimate On and On, a delicate song with sublime production. It struck me that the audiophiles would be rampant with this record – it has that perfectionist element of Steely Dan about it. The irony about the following track, Never Letting Go, is that this is exactly how the song makes you feel. I find myself watching the seconds ticking down on the song and hating it when it reaches the end. Bishop’s voice is like silk mixed with hope mixed with bright white light and trust and a gorgeous, warm sunny day. Honestly, his voice – at times Paul Simon-esque, at other’s knocking on McCartney’s door – is just about as accessible and feel-good as I’ve ever heard.

Careless, the beautiful title track, features backing vocals from Art Garfunkel, and is probably my favourite on a stunning album. It’s very early, solo McCartney, with a totally unique melody. In fact, having mentioned Garfunkel, a host of familiar names feature on this album. Session regulars Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour are heavily involved, and there are even contributions by Andrew Gold, Chaka Khan and Eric Clapton. Quite a roster for a debut record. Maybe they knew something that everyone else didn’t.

It’s got lazy Sunday afternoon written all over this album. Sinking In An Ocean Of Tears has something distinctly Boz Scaggs about it, with those emphatic horns and slight infiltration of 70’s Soul. Madge could well have been lifted from James Taylor’s debut record, and Every Minute written on a balcony overlooking the California surf. Maybe it was. Bishop’s sound is very scenic, and very emotive. Great music does that to you – places you somewhere and makes you feel something strongly. This music makes me feel very relaxed, satisfied, mellow and content. Little Italy breaks the mould slightly, with its slightly chirpier tempo – maybe one for late afternoon when the drinks arrive.

The album can be, at times, deeply introspective and moody. One More Night is personal, but again soaked in melody. He appears not to take himself as seriously as say, Jackson Browne, but the instincts to penetrate are there. Save It For A Rainy Day feels like the Bee Gees and solo-career Paul Simon have met on the street corner and decided to collaborate – and I mean that in as complementary a fashion as possible. Clapton rips out a tantalising little solo too that pulls an otherwise inoffensive record into rockier territory.

Bishop goes on to declare “I’ll be your Rock and Roll slave / I’ll be your warm sunny day” in the penultimate track, and for this 35 plus minutes that’s exactly what he is – serving us magnificent soundscapes as we lie back and inhale. The Same Old Tears On A New Background closes the record with a poignancy – it’s light but heavy, if you get me. He sings this like it’s the last song he’ll ever sing. That’s an achievement in itself.

Bishop has never been a chart star, despite this album making number 11 on the Billboard Album Charts, though he has remained in hot demand by movie studios to write or record title themes for their films. Most of his contemporaries from the 70’s wouldn’t have dared. He’s respected by the very best, and this is an absolutely brilliant, soulful, honest, immaculately crafted cult classic.

Oh, by the way. I let the postman off.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Stephen Bishop

Top track trio:

On And On

Never Letting Go

Careless


Being early doesn’t always pay…

The year was 2010.

And, sorry, I’m going to ruin the story straight away by assuring you that everything ended well.

However, it began terribly.

Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood announced a really unexpected joint tour – and by joint, I don’t mean two separate sets – they were promising a full show on stage together. I got straight on the phone to my bandmate Adrian and spilled a million reasons why we had to be there. He listened patiently then informed me that his arm didn’t need to be twisted up his back. And so, that was that.

The closest gig was at Birmingham LG Arena, so we booked tickets months in advance and excited ourselves stupid with every mention of it. After all, both these legends were getting on. Right?

The date of the gig was the 18th May, 2010. It was clearly written on the ticket. They had arrived at my house, and been filed away safely, away from reckless lurking hands ‘cleaning up’ or the overly-vexatious boxer dog. In fact, I’d slipped them inside my vinyl copy of The Beatles’ Blue Album. That was the Holy Grail in my house that no-one else dare touch.

I’ve always loved the feel of a concert ticket in my hand. They feel like freedom and possibility and exhilaration. I love the writing on them, big and bold…a famous name that promises to become a face, right in front of you. The curious hologram. The date – a moment of your personal history captured in print. That thrilling line of punched holes, ready to be ripped by a bored concierge with spots and sincere disinterest. The type that have no idea who the legends are you’re going to see.

Adrian, the great guitar player and co-singer in our regularly gigging duo, Little Wing, had nothing to do with the admin. I handled it, paid for it, and he simply reimbursed the cash. I was just about as experienced a gig-goer as anyone you could possibly meet from my generation. I’d watched hundreds, all over the world. I could reel a few off to impress you if you like? The Eagles in Melbourne, Australia. Chuck Berry in Luxembourg City. The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple in Paris. Paul Weller in Benacassim, Spain. Leonard Cohen in Montruex, Switzerland. I could go on, but I’m sensing you hating me already.

The point being, I’d been on trains, planes, ferries, trams, buses, cars…basically everything but horseback to get to gigs. Logistically, for a daydreaming technophobe, I was pretty slick. So what could possibly go wrong?

Well, how about this.

“Hey, Adrian, you ready for the gig this week?”

“Yes, great.”

“You fancy driving? We’ll split the petrol?” (Tactical – he’s not really a drinker).

“No problem. Let’s set off early and get there in good time.”

So, off we went on our two-plus hour jaunt down the M6 to Birmingham playing Clapton and Winwood CD’s, riling ourselves up for the gig of a lifetime.

Upon arrival in Birmingham we were surprised by the lack of traffic.

“I knew setting off early was a good idea,” Adrian said.

I’d spotted a McDonalds, so my attention was otherwise occupied.

“Yep,” I said.

When we landed at Birmingham LG Arena a short while later, we were even more astonished to see no cars in the car park. In fact, the whole place was a ghost town. The barrier was down, and when we approached the gate a baffled looking security guy stepped out of a small hut and approached the van.

“Can I help, lads?”

“Hi mate, yeah, we’re here for the Clapton / Winwwod gig,” Adrian said since he lingered at the driver’s side.

“The what?”

I leant over. “Eric Clapton,” I reiterated. “And Steve Winwood. Here. Tonight.”

What?”

I wanted to shout THE FUCKING GIG! but the genuine concern spreading across the bloke’s face stopped me in my tracks. Adrian turned to face me and that sinking feeling melted me into my seat.

“No gig on here tonight, Lads,” the Brummy chap said, hands aloft in apology.

“Fucking hell,” I whispered, pulling the tickets out of the envelope. The guy stuck around for the climax. “But it says here, the Birmingham LG Arena, tonight.”

The guy leant into the car to see the tickets in my hand. Then he slowly withdrew.

“That ticket says 18th May, mate. It’s the 11th today.”

Well, my ass fell clean through the van flooring. Adrian laughed. I sank back into my seat, horrified by my own stupidity. Other people might have punched me. Adrian said:

“Let’s go get something to eat.”

The only compensation for such a mistake was that we arrived a week early and not a week late, but it wasn’t round the corner. We made the best of the situation, and had a rather nice curry before making the trip home.

The following week we made the gig, on the correct day. We even got there for the correct time and sat in the right seats. We did really well. Clapton and Winwood were superb – a raucous mix of tunes from both solo careers, Cream, Traffic, Derek & The Dominoes, The Spencer Davis Group and some covers too. A career spanning retrospective by two of England’s finest. Clapton’s slowhand was on fire, and Winwood’s voice better than ever. Well worth the two trips!

© Southport Reporter

Anyway, we’re still friends. We still play music.

I don’t book the tickets anymore.


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 6

Cream – Disraeli Gears (1967)

Disraeli Gears reads like a Cream Greatest Hits – except it’s better!

Eric Clapton has been involved in some amazing projects over the last fifty plus years, but this one (bar maybe his solo Unplugged album) is the defining moment of his career. It charted Cream’s super powers; their progression into a psychedelic avenue of swirling, kaleidoscopic rock music in a burgeoning scene that boasted the likes of Hendrix, Sgt Pepper era Beatles, Steppenwolf, The Doors, Iron Butterfly and Spirit.

Disraeli Gears spawned two all-time classic rock singles – Strange Brew and Sunshine Of Your Love – both Clapton masterpieces that have never faded in terms of popularity and influence. Strange Brew, the album’s opening track, is a radical groove built upon Jack Bruce’s pioneering frontline bass. Clapton’s guitar work is, quite simply, very special. Dreamy, ambiguous lyrics are the norm on this record – and it’s not rocket science working out why. Clapton, whose drug problems nearly killed him, was literally traversing other dimensions. Ginger Baker probably lived fifty years longer than expected. Jack Bruce’s struggles were well documented.

Sunshine Of Your Love is the soundtrack to a jilted generation. A genius riff ably supported by stunning drum sequences from Ginger Baker, and mesmerising duel vocals by Bruce and Clapton. World Of Pain is psychedelia personified; a stoned reflection of one’s view from a window: “Outside my window is a tree / They’re only forming / And it stands in the grey of the city / No time for pity for the tree or me.” Clapton’s Beach Boys wah wobble lifts the song sky high. It’s an album that makes you wonder about the capabilities of the imagination.

Dance The Night Away boasts a fantastic vocal from Jack Bruce – testament to his great talent as a co-frontman. Tales Of Brave Ulysses is an surging, ethereal number featuring a mesmeric spoken vocal from Bruce, whereas Blue Condition is a total change in direction; Ginger Baker singing in his monotone Cockney drawl to a light hearted melody, echoing the Small Faces Ogden’s Nutgone Flake era. For a man who came across as warm as an iceberg in everyday life, Baker’s voice is rather endearing.

Swlabr features more stunning guitar playing from Clapton, whose natural ability to follow the song with just enough of everything and never too much of anything, has remained nothing short of genius. We’re Going Wrong is a powerful ballad in which Baker takes flight with his fearless drumming, and Outside Woman Blues, one of Clapton’s finest and most underrated arrangements. It’s a thumping, infectious fast-Blues with a profound ability to draw you towards the repeat button.

The album takes another diversion with Take It Back – a rolling and tumbling, harmonica driven number with a melody reminiscent of late Beatles material. The album’s closing track, Mother’s Lament, is another comic-cockney ditty led by Baker – an odd ending to a storming Rock record, but charming all the same.

Cream reformed in 2005 to play five sell-out nights at The Royal Albert Hall, London, for one last time. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce did not look like well men. Clapton, rather ironically considering his terrible vices in the 60’s and 70’s, looked in great health. Bruce and Baker are now gone – Bruce in 2014 of liver disease, and Baker in 2019 having reached the milestone of 80. It’s Clapton’s turn to look frail now, though at 75 he’s still on the live scene, albeit much less frequently. He’s the last man standing from this pioneering power-trio.

Cream as a cohesive unit were absolutely untouchable – and the reunion of 2005 a marvellous event which will live long in the memory. Much of Disraeli Gears was returned to during this farewell residency, and why not. It’s a seminal album from a unique and trailblazing period in music history.

Music like this should never fade into obscurity – and believe me, it wont.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© Roz Kelly/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Top track trio:

Strange Brew

Sunshine Of Your Love

Outside Woman Blues