9 other things to do with a guitar

It’s all very well being able to play a guitar, but what else can you do with one?

1. You can spin around with it or even just spin it around:

 

2. You can perform acrobatics with it:

 

3. You can twat somebody with it:

 

4. You can take a chainsaw to it:

 

5. You can just smash it up:

 

6. You can blow it up:

 

7. You can use it for background music whilst you juggle:

 

8. You can make a bike ride more entertaining:

 

9. You can attach an outboard motor to a 20 foot long guitar (if you have one handy) and go for a cruise on the river:

 

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Climb up on my knee…

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It’s a sad fact that with the recent death of Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, the genre of music called ‘the Blues’ lost someone who was probably our last link with the people who have made the music what it is today and enriched its legacy out of all proportion to its humble beginnings.

Honeyboy was the last of the Delta bluesmen – as far as we know – and he actually knew and played with people like Robert Johnson. In fact, he stated that he was actually with Johnson when he drank the poisoned whiskey that allegedly killed him.

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Having said all that, the world of the itinerant black blues musician in the 1930s and 1940s was so badly recorded (indeed, why would anyone grasp the significance of musical events at this time and preserve it for posterity?) that rumour, speculation and even lies have often obscured the real version of events.

What we’re left with is a mish-mash of anecdotal histories and biographies that both fascinates and frustrates.

Take a blues great like Elmore James, for example.

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James was a seminal figure in the Blues, with his trademark slide riffs, his poetic lyrics and his frail but commanding voice. He cut dozens upon dozens of sides for a multitude of record labels – often recording the same songs or slightly adapted versions – and learned his craft in the company of Johnson and other Delta notables of the 1930s and 40s.

However, dig just a little deeper and an interview with his elder cousin ‘Homesick’ James casts some doubt on how much kudos Elmore should really have. Homesick claims that he taught his younger cousin how to play slide, that he either co-wrote or wrote classic Elmore James songs like ‘Dust my Broom’ and played as much, if not more slide as Elmore on record and at gigs.

Quite how much Homesick is to be believed is hard to say. There are obvious financial incentives to be economical with the truth, and no-one ever wrote down what actually went on at the time.

Thus, we’re left with stories that may or may not be true but can never be verified.

And that’s part of the pleasure I get from early blues music and the study of its proponents.

It’s a sort of mythology and as long as you’re content to accept that much of it has little basis in truth then it’s as fascinating, in its way, as any Greek or Roman tale of heroism and divine machination.

One of the most interesting characters in blues history – and one who epitomises everything I find engrossing about it – is Sonny Boy Williamson.

To be exact, Sonny Boy Williamson II.

Actually, to be even more exact, Aleck or Alex or Willie Rice Miller or Ford.

(When I say exact, I mean as exact as Sonny Boy II wanted to be about himself…)

He was also known variously as Sonny Boy Williams, Willie Williamson, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, The Goat and Footsie, but that’s another whole shitload of stories that’ll have to keep for another time…

However, I hear you ask, if Aleck was known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, was there a Sonny Boy Williamson I?

To which I can truthfully reply, yes there certainly fucking was.

Sonny Boy the First was actually born John Lee Curtis Williamson in 1914, dying in 1948.

Sonny Boy Williamson sonnyboy_3

Like Sonny Boy II, Sonny Boy I was a harmonica player and singer who pioneered the instrument as a solo player, had a great deal of success with his many recordings and kept such illustrious company as Muddy Waters throughout his relatively short professional life.

So, Sonny Boy I and II were both significant harp players and singers, but they weren’t even remotely related.

Why then did Sonny Boy II ‘borrow’ Sonny Boy I’s stage name?

Well, if you thought “money”, then you’ve guessed the reason.

As this very informative article puts it:

By the early ’40s, he was the star of KFFA`s King Biscuit Time, the first live blues radio show to hit the American airwaves. As one of the major ruses to occur in blues history, his sponsor-the Interstate Grocery Company-felt they could push more sacks of their King Biscuit Flour with Miller posing as Chicago harmonica star John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson.

It was a rather clumsy deception, but it obviously worked as the name stuck with Miller and there don’t seem to have been any lawsuits. Although the Insterstate Grocery Company didn’t actually pay him much, they allowed him to plug his gigs on air and this helped push up his earnings by getting bigger crowds to see him.

Indeed, such ruses involving aliases and stage names weren’t uncommon, with such luminaries as the late, great John Lee Hooker recording for different record companies under a variety of names early on in his career.

As well as his own name, he recorded under the names of Texas Slim, Delta John, Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar, Johnny Williams, The Boogie Man, Johnny Lee (getting slightly less imaginative now), John Lee, and even John Lee Booker and John Lee Cooker.

The latter two names must have taken fucking ages to think up…

Anyway, to his grave, Sonny Boy II dubbed himself the ‘real Sonny Boy Williamson’, in spite of appropriating Sonny Boy I’s stage name whilst #1 was at the height of his career.

It probably helped both men that Sonny Boy #2 didn’t start recording until long after #1 was dead and buried, although his recording career didn’t exactly set the world alight. In fact, somewhat ironically, it wasn’t until his contract was sold on to Checker Records – a subsidiary of the famous Chess Records Company – because he was so difficult to work with that he started to get blues chart success.

Recording with the likes of Willie Dixon and Robert Lockwood Jr, Sonny Boy II wrote and released many songs which have become blues standards – all marked by witty, sometimes desolate lyrics, a quavering baritone and sharp piercing harp lines. Notable successes include ‘Eyesight to the Blind’, ‘Help Me’, ‘Checkin’ up on my Baby’, Nine Below Zero’, ‘Don’t Start me to Talkin’’ and ‘Bring it on Home’, the latter covered by Led Zeppelin on their second album, but attributed to Page and Plant…

Sonny Boy II was a real showman. He’d play with the harp inside his mouth and up his nose.

Here he is from the early 1960s:

He spent a lot of time in Europe towards the end of his career and acquired a rather eccentric image for which he sported a chequerboard suit, a bowler hat, a furled umbrella and a briefcase which held his harps and a bottle of whiskey.

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And yes, Sonny Boy #2 liked a drink…in fact, as well as being a drinker he was a gambler, conman, brawler (wiry, but 6 feet tall and often armed with a blade) and ladies man, with a wicked sense of humour,

He was backed by some of the early UK beat groups when he toured the country and dubbed the Animals the ‘Mammimals’ and, with reference to the Yardbirds, he had this to say:

“These British want to play the blues so bad…and they play the blues so bad!”

He died in 1965 soon after he returned to the US, but even his gravestone is somewhat ambivalent – not about his name, but about the year of his birth. Although it states 1908, Sonny Boy #2 claimed it was 1899, although census evidence suggests it was 1912.

If it was 1912, then 53 years of hard living had certainly taken their toll!

However, amongst all the hard living, subterfuge and other roguish antics, Sonny Boy II was generous when it came to helping his fellow players. He mentored a young Howlin’ Wolf – who seems to have been his brother-in-law – and also helped spread the word about a guitarist and singer who went on to be known as BB King.

So, Sonny Boy II was many things throughout his life, but his constant was his music.

As usual, to conclude this post by letting the music do the talking, here’s Aleck, Rice, Sonny Boy II, whoever he was, with one of his classic compositions.

Just him and his harp…

Fuck You in the Super U

Living in France sometimes has its surreal side.

Take today, for example…

There I am in the Super U in Pouance buying bread and some pate for lunch. It’s fairly quiet although there’s piped musical pap playing in the background.

And then I hear something I actually like.

It’s a track by Cee Lo Green (who some joker once informed me is Hughie Green’s grandson) that was a hit a few months ago.

 

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I like it because it reminds me of some of the Philly stuff Ifrom the 1970s. It’s great, in fact – good arrangement, fantastic voice…

But the lyrics are somehow different.

He’s singing the ‘alternative’ version.

Here’s what I’ve heard before and was expecting to hear again:

 

 

And here’s what I actually heard:

 

Of course, as far as the French are concerned it’s just a song sung in a foreign language so it’s not at all offensive.

All the same, it amused me to see grannies and mums with kids shopping whilst old Cee Lo was singing ’Fuck you and fuck her too’…

Headline of the century?

 

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Zippy for mayor!

The comments section in the online Daily Mail is often worth a chuckle.

Today has been no exception with the news that the UK is about to get its first BNP mayor.

The worst rated comment on the story reads as follows:

What a disgrace. People should not be allowed to vote for fascist parties. The UK is a democracy not a Nazi state.

– Rainbow, Hackney, 12/4/2011 13:30

I don’t think Rainbow quite gets this democracy stuff…

Battered by the Ornaments

Pete Brown.

Who?

Well, if like me you were around and listening to music in the late 1960s then you might remember him as the lyricist who wrote with various members of Cream.

I hope he got a good royalties deal because, amongst other songs, he wrote ‘I Feel Free’ and ‘White Room’ with  bassist Jack Bruce and ‘Sunshine of your Love’ with banjoist Eric Clapton.

Anyway, perhaps it was writing for a band that inspired the move, who knows, but our Pete formed his own band in 1968.

Pete Brown and the Battered Ornaments comprised Brown on vocals with Pete Bailey (percussion), Charlie Hart (keyboards), Dick Heckstall Smith (sax), George Kahn (sax), Roger Potter (bass), Chris Spedding (guitar) and Rob Tait (drums).

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Quite a line up, and one which actually delivered on their debut album ‘A Meal you can Shake Hands with in the Dark ‘. Although the music is hard to characterise, it’s actually a pretty early stab at British jazz rock – think Hatfield and the North and National Health – with the added humour of Brown’s lyrics and delivery.

Spedding, Hart, Kahn and Heckstall Smith take some great solos whilst the rest of the band provide a rock solid but flexible accompaniment.

For me, there are four stand out tracks which add up to well over half the album so not too bad a ratio of goodies.

The opener, ‘Dark Lady’ has some great slide guitar from Spedding (he plays a lot of slide throughout the album)  with an explosive solo from Heckstall Smith. Hart plays some lovely Hammond on this which is surprising because although he was hired to play keys, he’s not best known as a keyboard player. Brown supplies singing which is both effective and idiosyncratic.

Cream fans will be interested in Brown’s own 12 minute version of ‘Politician’, which has far more verses than the Cream track, and this features a very funny spoken improvised intro from Brown all about the events that lead up to the events in the song itself – the bit about him kissing his butler on the fly still amuses me greatly, even after over 40 years…oh and the mention of a girl’s ‘flowery khyber’…and the ‘politician’s pinstripes vibrating with neon glow’. There then follows a sax solo – no backing – which sounds like someone being very sick but in a good way and then the song itself. No Clapton riff, but instead a very uptempo 12 bar with great saxes and slide guitar. In fact, I prefer this to Cream’s version.

‘Sandcastle’ has a great bass riff with a faintly Eastern melody, wah slide guitar and flute. No laughs here from Brown but the band really carries this track so no matter.

The other stand out track is a 12 minute 12 bar which shows that the Battered Ornaments could have been a blues band to reckon with. Entitled ‘Travelling Blues (Or The New Used Jew’s Dues Blues) it has great solos again and more clowning from Brown who wants to go to the country (man) where ‘the colours of the cows are cool’.

The other tracks are good, don’t get me wrong, but not up to the high standard of the four described above.

So, what happened next?

Well, they recorded a follow up called ‘Mantelpiece’ and then they got booked to support the Stones at the legendary Hyde Park gig.

Things were looking good!

However, in a move that I believe is without precedent in rock, the band sat down, decided Pete had to go and sacked him!

A bizarre move as it was Pete’s band in the first place…

‘Mantelpiece’ had Pete’s vocals wiped and replaced by Chris Spedding’s and the band was renamed – rather predictably – ‘The Battered Ornaments’.

The Ornaments had zero success – despite playing Hyde Park with the Stones – and Pete went on to form Piblokto, which was OK but not up to the Ornaments’ standard.

Surprisingly, Pete Brown’s still.making music and his recent stuff bears investigation. His recent collaborations with Phil Ryan (ex-Man, ex-Piblokto) are a little too serious for my taste but the band is good and Brown sounds as if he’s taken singing lessons.

Anyway, as ever, Spotify is your friend and you can hear ‘Meal’ (and Piblokto and the recent Brown/Ryan stuff) and judge for yourself.

I think it’s a great little album.

The truth, almost the truth and nothing like the truth

So, the inquest into the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests is well and truly underway.

Today the police officer who pushed Tomlinson over, minutes before he died, was giving evidence.

Pc Simon Harwood stood by his statement in which he said Mr Tomlinson’s posture was “almost defiant”.

Almost defiant?

So not defiant then.

I’m glad we’ve got that sorted.

Carry on like that and we’ll have criminals pleading ‘almost guilty’.

Giving evidence for the third day, Pc Harwood said he had not expected the newspaper seller to fall over and he had not helped him while he lay on the ground because it was not part of his training.

So, Harwood doesn’t expect someone to fall over when he pushes them. OK, that might not happen every time you push someone, but surely you expect it to happen sometimes.

Oh, and heaven help you if this police officer arrives first on the scene at an accident because there’s fuck all he can do for you due to his lack of first aid training.

Are we really expected to believe that standard basic first aid training is not given to serving police officers out amongst the public?

Matthew Ryder QC, for the Tomlinson family, said Pc Harwood was denying events clearly visible on the video.

He asked Pc Harwood: “Do you agree he had his back to you? We’re all here in this room looking at the video.”

Mr Tomlinson was filmed moments before he died on 1 April 2009

Pc Harwood replied: “No.”

Mr Ryder said: “You’re lying Pc Harwood, I suggest, and you know it.”

To that, Pc Harwood said: “No. I’m just trying to help.”

 

Tomlinson quite clearly has his back to Harwood.

Harwood was trying to help by lying?

Trying to help himself more like…

The officer maintained that “from his angle” it had appeared Mr Tomlinson had not been moving away.

I thought minimum eyesight requirements were rather higher for the Met, as it appears Harwood is virtually blind.

Pc Harwood has already apologised to the Tomlinson family for “any way” he may be responsible for the death.

He has admitted Mr Tomlinson was no threat to him or his colleagues before he hit him with a baton and pushed him.

So, Harwood admits he may be responsible for the death of Tomlinson and, moreover, that he assaulted Tomlinson twice prior to his death.

Members of Mr Tomlinson’s family walked out in tears after hearing the policeman’s denials.

Hardly surprising after Harwood’s behaviour up to that moment.

Pc Harwood, who is suspended from the force on full pay, has been told he will not face any criminal prosecutions over what happened – but he is still facing a Met Police misconduct hearing, due to take place after the inquest.

Off work with full pay and exempt from criminal prosecution?

Now that really is adding insult to injury.