Les Paul and Mary Ford – Bye Bye Blues! – 1952 – Capitol

Les Paul and Mary Ford - Bye Bye Blues! - 1952 - Capitol

Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford were a huge success back in the 1950s. They sold millions, they had 16 top ten hits in the space of four years and they also had a televison show, Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home. Their sound was pretty new and unique for the time involving multi-tracked vocals from Mary and plenty of echo on Paul’s multi-tracked electric guitars. Les Paul, who is still a well known name for his solid body electric guitars, was an innovator who was one of the first to work with overdubbing, multi-tracking and tape echo. He was also a great player. The back cover of this record proclaims “a dazzling cascade of notes… a sparkling combination of phantom guitars… the blend of a gentle voice with its own reflection… these are the hallmarks of music by Les Paul and Mary Ford.” It’s a good record. When you listen you get the feeling that the techniques are new because there’s a sense of novelty and a little bit of excitement that someone could be singing their own harmonies. I like their renditions of Frankie and Johnnie, and St Louis Blues. It’s all fairly laid back and relaxed, well played, well sung and nicely produced. It’s easy on the ear and good for winding down after a long day.

This album is a 10 inch EP, a little smaller than the regular 12 inch LP. I’ve only got about 30 10 inch records. The problem with 10 inch records is that often there’s more surface noise than with a 12 inch since the grooves are closer together and the volume of the music can’t be as loud. Also, for some reason the 10 inch records I own seem to be made of more brittle material than LPs. What is nice about them is that the artwork still looks great and the they are more convenient to carry than full size LPs.

Anyway, back to Les and Mary, they had a messy divorce back in 1963 which put an end to their musical collaboration. Mary Ford kept making music, sometimes with her sisters, and she died in 1977. Les Paul kept performing and recording until his death in 2009 at the age of 94. Their contribution to musical history was significant.

The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band – Wangaratta Wahine – 1974 – Image Records

The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band - Wangaratta Wahine - 1974 - Image Records

Those who remember Captain Matchox remember them fondly. They were active in the 1970s playing a crazy, souped up 1930s style of jug band music, in many ways they were swimming against the stream. They were a really, really great band but I don’t think anyone, the band included, expected them to be the nationwide success that they were. The core of the band was the two brothers, Mic and Jim Conway. Mic was the front man, the vocalist, he was a great showman. As well as singing and playing a variety of instruments he did magic tricks and fire breathing during songs. (This aspect of their show couldn’t really be demonstrated on vinyl.) Mic’s voice was fantastic, he has a great way of replicating that 1930s phrasing but he sounds like no one else. His brother Jim is a great harmonica player. He’s played with everyone – Johnny Shines, Brownie McGhee, Colin Hay, Jon Lord and so on. The two brothers are coming from related areas musically but they are fairly distinct. Jim is more into the blues end of the spectrum and Mic’s influenced by music hall, vaudville and novelty songs. There’s a good energy between them though, a clear respect for each other’s talents.

I never got to see them back in the 70s, I was too young, but I have seen Mic Conway’s band, The National Junk Band, a couple of times and I know Jim. Jim played on my most recent album, Mr Living Good. That was a fantastic experience. I never thought he’d say yes to being on my album. He has an inate understanding of what a song needs. I’ve seen his band, the Big Wheel, once. They are really great. Jim’s health isn’t so good these days, he has multiple sclerosis, but he performs and records regularly and his playing is as good as ever.

I was glad to find this album on vinyl. This is their second LP. I already had it on CD but, as you may have guessed by my blog, I prefer vynil. It’s bigger, it looks better and I suspect that most of my vynil will outlast my CD collection. I love the cover art by Michael Leunig. For those of you who aren’t from Australia, Michael Leunig is one of our most well known cartoonists and has written and drawn a regular cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald for many, many years. He has a whimsical, sad and surreal style. I love how there’s the creepy pervert looking guy on stilts trying to lick the stomach of the naked woman who is holding the bridge together with a parade of unsuspecting people walking across. It’s absurd, weird, sort of disturbing and a bizarrely funny image, a strange catastrophe in motion. It suits the record. It won Album Cover of the Year in 1974. It deserved it.

Wangaratta Wahine is a fantastic album, wild, carefree, funny, satirical, nostalgic, crazy. It’s perhaps the most unlikely gold record in Australian music history but it is one of the best. I love playing this to people who’ve never heard the band before. The reactions it gets are interesting indeed.

Captain Matchbox reformed a couple of years back for a final bunch of shows. The only original members were the brothers, the rest of the band being made up of members of Mic and Jim’s bands. There were so many shifts in lineup during their initial run anyway that it didn’t really matter and the new version was made up of first rate musicians so it sounded great. I managed to see one of those shows in Leichardt, Sydney. It was a riot of a show. Captain Matchbox were all set to do a show at the Sydney Opera House as the backing band for 60s underground cartoonist Robert Crumb that year but Robert Crumb cancelled because of an Australian media backlash against him (because his art was deemed to be degenerate by the conservative press, it probably is degenerate in its way but it is brilliant too). He decided it was safer not to visit Australia. That’s a pity. It would been a great gig. It would have sounded fantastic.

Harry Belafonte – The Midnight Special – 1962 – RCA

Harry Belafonte - The Midnight Special - RCA - 1962

On this album Harry Belafonte branched away from calypso to American folk songs and blues. It was recorded in Webster Hall, New York City in 1962. This was the first Belafonte album I bought. It is a great record. He’s such a perfectionist but the gloss doesn’t kill the feeling. Harry Belafonte possessed one of the purest sounding voices, it was sweet like honey, smooth and light but it had guts and soul too. The versions of Midnight Special and On Top of Old Smokey are still my favourite recordings of those songs. I got this album when I was still a teenager and it was a time when I was starting to search for where the music I liked came from. I was starting to look at the musical ancestry so to speak. More than anything this record really got me interested in folk music. It was like a signpost pointing in two directions. You could go back further from here to people like Leadbelly and forward to people like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.

One of the things this album is famous for is the appearance of a young Bob Dylan on harmonica. It was Dylan’s first professional recording gig. Apparently Dylan didn’t enjoy doing take after take after take and walked out after just one song (Midnight Special). Dylan was much more of a one or two take recording artist and it makes sense with the sounds that Dylan’s interested in. The point to remember here is that there is no right or wrong way to make art. There is the way that makes the most sense for the particular artist. For Harry Belafonte doing endless takes until he is satisfied works and for Dylan doing one or two takes and moving on to another song works. It’s interesting to note that on this record Dylan plays the harmonica with a lot more finesse than on his own recordings. Maybe it’s because he was holding it in his hands and wasn’t restricted by a harmonica holder but maybe it is because Dylan deliberately downplayed his own abilities on other recordings. Maybe it is a bit of both.

This album was pivotal in developing my appreciation of so much music. In that sense it was also pivotal in my development as a musician. I can’t stress enough how important it was to me. Great, great stuff.

Leadbelly – Shout On – 1972 – XTRA

Leadbelly - Shout On - 1972 - XTRA

This was the first Leadbelly album I ever bought. I was a teenager in high school back then. I’d read about Leadbelly but had never heard him before. Back in those days I didn’t know anyone who liked the music I liked and there was no internet and radio stations weren’t catering to my tastes so the only way for me to hear new sounds was to buy the records. It wasn’t like these days with Spotify or Youtube or things like that. There’s more accessibility to obscure music now than there was then. Back then it was a chore just to be able to hear the stuff. I can’t remember where I bought this record from, probably one of the secondhand record stores that were on Pitt Street. Most of them are gone now but there used to be a little pocket of record shops all together. I used to fossick through them regularly. It was heaven. When I took this home and first listened to it I was amazed. Leadbelly was great. His voice was incredible and his guitar playing was good too. The first thing I noticed was that he wasn’t a regular blues singer. In fact he wasn’t really a blues singer at all. He seemed to be singing songs that were older than the blues. It was a revelation for me, a teenager growing up in the 80s, to hear these recordings from the 40s of a performer who in many ways was archaic back then. Though he was great Leadbelly wasn’t that successful in his day partly because the material he was doing was seen as out of date. It is a shame. The songs were great, like nothing else I’d heard. John Henry, Ain’t Going Down to the Well No More, You Can’t Lose a Me Charlie. Amazing songs. This record really opened up many doors for me. It pointed the way down so many musical paths I could follow. It also got me thinking a lot about Leadbelly and his life. The few things I knew about him made it sound like a really difficult but incredible life and it had always seemed like the greatest irony to me that Goodnight Irene became a huge hit for the Weavers about 6 months after Leadbelly died. It still seems like a strange twist that he never got to experience that success. But anyway, I digress… One of the interesting things about these recordings was that they were live radio broadcasts from New York station WNYC-FM. They were from 1948, just a year before Leadbelly died. In the liner notes Fredrick Ramsey Jr talks of taping these at home with his Brush Soundmirror which was an early reel to reel tape machine. It always amazes me when there is one person out there who just happens to preserve something like that. So these recordings are sort of bootlegs in a way, though the album itself was licensed through Folkways. Thank you Mr Ramsey for preseving these. They opened my ears to so many musical possibilities.

Marianne Faithfull – Strange Weather – 1987 – Island Records

Marianne Faithfull - Strange Weather - 1987 - Island Records

My favourite record to come out of the 1980s. I hated growing up in the 80s. Not much of the music being made then sounded good to my ears. This record, with it’s slow burn smokey dark blues and cabaret, sounded as far from the typical 80s release as possible. It didn’t have the 80s drum sound. It didn’t sound vaccuously upbeat. It had guts. It was a nicely sad album. I didn’t hear it until 1992 though so it didn’t save me from the aural pain I had growing up but it did impress me that this flower grew in such a barren environment. I first heard this when I was having dinner with my friend Özlem at her home in Guildford. Our friend Michael was there too, He wanted us to hear this album. He a cassette in his pocket. We put it on. It was amazing. For me this album and her 1967 album Love in a Mist are Marianne’s best works. Her voice changed so much between those years, from high and sweet to a deeper rasp that it is almost as if they are different people. She has always been a great singer though. The musicians on this record are a high point too particularly Bill Frisell with his silvery guitar and Fernando Saunders’ great bass playing.

Bob Dylan – World Gone Wrong – 1993 – Columbia Records

Bob Dylan - World Gone Wrong - 1993 - Columbia Records

World Gone Wrong is my favourite Dylan album. It doesn’t matter that none of the songs are written by him. Everything about it is perfect in a rough hewn, homespun, lonesome, bleak and burned out way. Starting with the cover art which for me was reminiscent of the art on  his 1965 album Bringing it all Back Home but this time he was solitary, alone. It seemed to be the same character in the photo but with his world imploded into a brightly coloured gloom. When I first heard it I was amazed. It was a follow up to his Good As I Been To You album. That was a good record of old folk songs and blues but the sound on this one was rawer, more alive. It was a perfect selection of songs. After years of putting out records that were of variable quality it felt like Dylan had returned to form and was going to stay that way for a while.