Musician and singer Kevin Coyne (27 January 1944 - 2 December 2004) was never as well known as he should have been. Alongside albums like Marjory Razorblade, Matching Head and Feet, and Millionaires and Teddybears there are a number of lesser known classics waiting to be heard. There is not enough space here to mention all of them. But I will bring a few to your attention.
Elvira: Songs from the Archives 1979-83
Elvira is a collection of songs recorded in October 1979 and released in the mid1990s. It is about the life of Elvira Barney a society hostess. In the 1930s she murdered her violent boyfriend. She escaped the hangman through her rich connections reflecting the class-ridden hypocrisy in British society. However Kevin saw Elvira as a victim. Rejected by friends and living a nightmare life, in a narrow-minded male dominated world. Her life was tragically short and she died in isolation.
In these songs Kevin takes us through Elvira’s life from childhood to her death. They are stark solo pieces, sung with acoustic guitar, except one song where Bob Ward accompanies. Stand Up For England opens with lyrics about domestic abuse and the horrors that go on behind the mask of wealth and respectability. Listening to this song it would seem that Elvira was something of a rebel, who tried to speak out about the cruelty and abuse that she saw going on around her. “I ask questions, I get no answers”.
In another song The Long Arm Of The Law Kevin sings about the dark side of celebrity life. The loneliness, hostility and rejection that someone faces when they have been shamed by society. The songs on this record have much relevance now. The issue of women going to prison after killing their violent husbands became topical in the 1990s. Many campaigners sought supsended sentences for women who killed their husbands after experiencing long-term domestic abuse.
Elvira was originally intended to be a stage play but Kevin couldn’t find a woman singer to play Elvira. I wonder who he had in mind for the part? On YouTube there is a version of the song Elvira sung by a band called Gogo’s Box.
The archive songs were recorded in 1983 but were never released. This was a time when Kevin’s mental health was in poor shape. Some of the songs like Rambling German Blues can be a bit unsettling. However other songs like Born In 1944 show Kevin’s blues story-telling. These songs paint a picture of what Kevin was going through. They were tough times, but Kevin eventually got through and found happier times.
At The Last Wall/ The Unknown Famous
The first half of this DVD is a Kevin Coyne concert from October 1982. It was performed in the Tempodrom, (a circus tent by the Berlin Wall). The film starts before the show with Kevin playing an acoustic version of Children’s Crusade. We then see Kevin and his band, (Steve Bull keyboards, Dave Wilson drums, Steve Lamb bass, Pete Kirtley guitar) arrive on stage for a sound check.
Kevin takes us through an inspired performance. I find the renditions of Sunday Morning Sunrise, Children’s Crusade and the then new song Nothing Seems To Matter to be particularly powerful. After the last song A Loving Hand, Kevin rips the backdrop fabric and leaves through the gap. We then see Kevin and the band out in the Berlin night. The audience can be heard calling out for an encore. Kevin and the band return to play Old Fashioned Love Song. Then we see the crowd going out into the rain, and a shot of Kevin in his dressing room. Over this we hear an instrumental version of Children’s Crusade played by Wolfgang Widder.
The DVD gives an insight into Kevin's stage performances. These were difficult times. Kevin's marriage was falling apart, his music was being ignored in Britain, and his drinking was getting out of control. However I saw him on stage a number of times in the early 1980s. He gave some inspired and emotional performances.
The Unknown Famous was made during 1997. It features a happier Kevin Coyne who had moved to Germany and given up drinking. Here he talks about his life his music and his artwork. The film also features Kevin at a gig in Paris performing the Big Joe and Mary Williams blues spiritual I Want My Crown. This features guitar accompaniment from Friedl Pohrer, a musician who Kevin often worked with during this period.
The Adventures Of Crazy Frank
This CD from 1995 is the story of knockabout music hall comedian Frank Randle who influenced Kevin’s on-stage humour. Kevin described Randle as “a drunk driven mad by drink”, an experience Kevin could relate to.
Randle was born out of wedlock in Wigan in 1901. The taboo around sex outside marriage fired his comedy, but it also got him into a lot of trouble with the censors. However he refused to compromise. It is said that his appearances in court became almost as frequent as his appearances on stage. He was intent on breaking through the inhibitions of his generation. Some people considered him to be mad.
During the Second World War Frank Randle and fellow comedian Rob Wilton were in the home guards. Wilton because of his age and Randle because he failed his medical. Both men made comedy about life in the army and influenced the popular 1970s television comedy Dad’s Army.
Born Crazy opens the album with the lyrics: “Everybody talks to me like I’m completely mad, they whisper in corners ‘he’s out of control, the devil’s captured him and eaten his soul’.” We start on Frank Randle’s troubled life journey. In the raw blues of The Devil Calling we find him alone in his hotel room getting drunk as the devil bosses the show along. In I Stood Up he has a spiritual vision and sees angels. There are rays of sunlight coming through dark clouds. In Playing The Fool we find him clowning around on a drunken Saturday night, while his life is falling apart. Kevin sings “Not much left of me now, just powder and paint”.
Heart Of Hearts finds Frank Randle desperately clinging to a love that he is frightened of losing. In the following track Perversions he questions whether his addiction to drink has a cause or is just a perversion. As we near the end of the record Time For Tears finds Frank Randle in hospital. “Time for tears in a world where all is smiles.” Then Blast Of Glory finds him ignoring doctors’ orders to take care and Never Ending brings Frank Randle’s story to a close, turning into an angel he flies away.
On this record Kevin is accompanied by Friedl Pohrer, guitarist Keili Keilhofer, drummer Werner Steinhauser and keyboard player Henry Beck. On its release this record was greatly overlooked in England. I don’t remember seeing any reviews.
Frank Randle made his last film It’s A Grand Life in 1953. The film featured a young Diana Dors and Trinidad born piano player Winifred Atwell. However by the 1950s music hall comedy was becoming unpopular. In 1955 Frank Randle became bankrupt. Then after years of alcohol abuse he was hospitalised and died in 1957.
Many comedians that have made us laugh over the years have lived troubled lives. This record tells a sad story, but also a story with hope. As Kevin says in the sleeve notes “Frank Randle is a man who believes there is a heaven somewhere and expects to find it.”
To find out more about Kevin Coyne visit www.kevincoyne.de and www.kevincoyne.co.uk
There is also a Kevin Coyne FaceBook page keeping his memory alive at www.facebook.com/kevincoyneofficial/ and a wikipedia page at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Coyne
Earlier this century I bought a copy of MOJO magazine. It had a free reggae compilation with it. One of the tracks on the CD was ‘A Place Called Africa’ by Junior Byles. The song is a heartfelt cry on the Rastafarian theme of repatriation. Listening to it reminded me how good Junior Byles is. This made me check out some of the man’s other work. We will return to his music shortly. First, I will tell you a bit about Junior Byles.
His full name is Kerrie Byles Jr. He was born in 1948 at Kingston’s Jubilee Hospital, and grew up in the city’s Jonestown ghetto. His father worked as a mechanic and his mother was a school teacher. His family were devoutly religious, and his early musical education was singing in church. In 1967 he co-founded a vocal trio called the The Versatiles. At this time he was also working as a fire fighter.
At the time Lee “Scratch” Perry was working as chief engineer for producer Joe Gibbs. He was scouting for talent for Gibbs’s new Amalgamated label and on hearing the group signed them. Two years later they went on to work with Lee Perry, who by this time was establishing himself as a producer. Then they moved on to work with Duke Reid for his Treasure Isle label and other producers such as Laurel Aitkin.
In 1970 the Versatiles split up. Junior Byles, while still working as a fire fighter, returned to working with Lee Perry. Other members of the group would sometimes provide harmonies on his recordings. Then in 1972 The Wailers left Perry to sign with Island. Perry needed someone to fill the void and Junior Byles fitted the bill. He gave up his job as a fire fighter, and over the next five years their partnership would produce some of Perry’s most highly regarded work. Every bit as good as the work he did with The Wailers.
In 1972 Junior Byles was one of several reggae artists who offered support for Michael Manley’s general election campaign. One of his songs ‘Joshua Desire’ was addressed to Michael Manley while another song ‘Pharaoh Hiding’ was addressed to Hugh Shearer leader of the ruling Jamaican Labour Party.
Manley was elected, but changes for Jamaica’s poor were a long time coming. Junior Byles addressed this with the scathing ‘When Will Better Come’. These songs were released on his first album titled Beat Down Babylon. With musical backing from the Upsetters, this album showcases his song writing talents, and his haunting tenor voice.
The title track has an anthem like quality to it, in another track ‘Curly Locks’ he sings about how his girlfriend’s parents won’t let him see her because of his dreadlocks and his Rastafarian faith. There is the previously mentioned ‘A Place Called Africa,’ while ‘Poor Chubby’ hinted at his unstable mental health.
The record also includes a version of the Little Willie John song ‘Fever’. A song made famous by Peggy Lee. While he was working with Lee Perry he was also self producing and set up his own Love Power Label.
In the mid-1970s Junior Byles left Lee Perry to work with other producers. Among the recordings from this period was a song called ‘Fade Away’. Some people consider it to be his finest work. “He who seeks vanity and no love for humanity shall fade away”. A couple of years later the song was featured in the reggae film Rockers. In 1976 he released his second album Jordan.
However, by 1975 Byles’s health started to decline. He was suffering from depression and became deeply affected by the death of Haile Selassie. Unable to reconcile this with his belief in Selassie’s divinity, he attempted suicide. He survived and was admitted to a psychiatric ward in Kingston’s Bellevue Hospital.
It has also been suggested that he had been overworking, and that this contributed to his breakdown. After the admission, his health continued to decorate. However, despite regular spells in hospital he continued to record. But by the end of 1976 he had vanished from the scene.
He attempted a comeback in 1978 and recorded two singles for Joe Gibbs. However it was clear that he was still not well. He didn’t re-emerge until 1982. Work on a planned new album went slowly. Then he suffered much tragedy when his mother died and he lost his home in a fire. His wife and children also emigrated to the United States.
Apart from a few singles, Byles would release nothing until his album Rasta No Pickpocket in 1986. The album sadly did not see a long lived upturn in his fortunes. The next year he found himself living on the streets, scavenging for food in dumpsters and begging from passers by. He did resurface in 1989 recording a couple of singles.
Three years later he played a few shows with Jamaican guitarist Earl China Smith. In 2004 he returned to live performing in Jamaica. These performances received positive reviews. This lead to a short tour of the United Kingdom. I don’t know if Junior Byles career is still active, but I wish him well. His recordings from the 1970s show him as being one of the pioneering voices in roots reggae, and are well worth listening to
Karim Harvey is a member of Hackney based mental health charity Core Arts. He is also a fine poet. This is his first book, put together with help from Core. Here he takes us on his life journey. Born to black parents who he never knew, he was adopted by a white family.
He grew up in Essex in a predominately white environment where “no Blacks, no dogs, no Irish” was an often seen sign on notice boards. He was given the diagnosis of gender dysphonic, whatever that means. Karim talks openly about his experience of being transsexual.
As he says in the title, this book is a memoir of healing and recovery. It is also about not letting them grind you down. The title of the opening poem is where the book’s title comes from. Here he says “they told me I couldn’t do anything, yet I am the master of my own destiny… So called friends called me a freak, I did not cry, I grew strong”.
The search for identity runs through this book. For example in the poem ‘Slavery’ he asks “why am I black?” However, later in the poem he asks “why am I white?” He then asks “why am I proud?”
The experience of not knowing his true parents is addressed in various poems, an example of this being ‘Why Did Mother Went Away?’ Here he says “It was not my fault that I was born, so why did you go away”?.
There is much to learn from in this book. It is an interesting read. Karim’s mental health experiences are conveyed in various poems. In the poem ‘Anxiety’ he talks about a much overlooked state of being.
At the end of the poem ‘Bi-Polar’ he says “Can I smile even more, It has been proved possible. Because today is a good day. I am well”.
The closing poem ‘The Monkey And The Doggy’ is based on ‘The Owl And The Pussycat’ by Victorian poet Edward Lear.
As these poems show Karim’s life has been a tough one. There has been much to struggle through. However, he is not a victim, but a survivor with a story to tell, and with much experience to share.
I hope Karim keeps writing, and publishes future books.
Blues songs reflect their artists’ backgrounds and personal experiences. One of the many fine blues songwriters and musicians is Bukka White.
Bukka White was born Booker T. Washington White in Mississippi, in 1909. ‘Bukka’ was a misspelling on one of his early recordings. His father worked on the railways, and was also an accomplished musician who taught Bukka how to play the guitar. Bukka’s mother was the daughter of a preacher. Bukka worked as a field-hand by day, at night he played in juke joints and at parties. His recording career began in 1930. He recorded both blues and gospel songs.
In 1937 Bukka travelled up to Chicago where he recorded ‘Pinebluff’, ‘Arkansas’ and ‘Shake ‘em on Down’. Afterwards, Bukka travelled back down south. He was ambushed and shot his attacker in the hip. He spent three years in the Mississippi Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm. In later years Bukka played down the harshness of his prison experiences. While he was in prison, the single ‘Pinebluff/ Arkansas/ Shake ‘em on Down’ became a hit. In 1940 Bukka returned to Chicago to record again.
When Bukka returned, he was playing covers of popular songs of the time. Bukka’s producer was unimpressed, and paid for him to spend two nights in a hotel to come up with some new songs. In the resulting album, Bukka sings two songs about his prison experiences: in ‘When Can I Change My Clothes?’ Bukka wonders when he will be able to get back into his civilian clothes again. The other ‘prison’ song is ‘Parchman Farm Blues’. ‘Fixing to Die’ is a song Bukka wrote after watching his mother die. Bukka’s mother also appears in ‘Strange Place Blues’. Here we find him at her graveside wishing he could see her again. ‘High Fever Blues’ deals with sickness, but is also a love song. As its title suggests, ‘Good Gin Blues’ is sung in praise of good gin.
Bukka then retired from music, but in the early 1960s a new audience started listening to his music. Bob Dylan recorded ‘Fixing to Die’ on his first album. Folk guitarist John Faye tracked Bukka down, and brought him back to the music world. Bukka started performing again, playing at folk and blues festivals, and also touring Britain. Towards the end of the decade Bukka recorded for Blue Horizon, the top British blues label of the time.
Bukka carried on performing until his death from cancer in 1977. Along with his contemporaries he showed that blues lyrics have a depth to them, and in their subject matter cover a wide range of topics.
The Legacy of the Blues by Samuel Charters is essential reading and puts the blues in a contemporary context.
There is also quite a bit about Bukka White on the internet.
In this book Robert Dellar traces his life journey from his childhood in a working class area of Watford, through Sussex University and the London squatting community, to what he calls the ‘murky waters of mental health’.
Of special importance is the pioneering work Robert did in Hackney Hospital, setting up a patients’ council and advocacy department. At the time of the hospital’s closure in the mid-90s, Robert organised some lively gigs, which he describes here in colourful detail.
He subsequently worked at Southwark MIND, (the first user-run MIND group), before joining Mad Pride, an organisation which linked mental health to rock and roll through the gigs it produced. Dellar and his friend Peter Shaughnessy also turned mental health demonstrations into theatre.
The title of this book is taken from a song by punk legends Alternative TV. They make several appearances here, as do Nikki Sudden and two survivor punk bands, the Ceramic Hobbs and Rudimentary Peni.
Lesser-known but equally talented artists like Dave Russell and the Astronauts also make a number of appearances here. While Mad Pride is associated with punk rock, a number of folk musicians and poets also took part in their gigs.
Some parts of this book deal with grim and tragic topics, but it is also shot through with a sense of humour and a deep compassion. There are also flashes of anarchy. The titles for a lot of the chapters come from songs, many of which are those relating to the Punk and new wave years.
This was a period of great importance to Robert, during which he also produced many fanzines. His fanzine influence continued with the Southwark MIND newsletter, which was always an inspiring magazine to read. The book also exposes some little-known capitalist scandals like the exploitation carried out by drug companies.
It also shows how charities like SANE (Schizophrenia a National Emergency), whilst appearing to be respectable, do a lot to demonise people with that label, contributing to schizophrenic people’s negative experiences of such things as heavy medication, stigma, and locked wards.
The book highlights the demonstration Mad Pride organised against SANE in the late 1990s which forced SANE’s founder, Marjory Wallace, out to face the protesters.
This book is an enjoyable, entertaining read. Robert’s journey has been an uphill struggle, but there have been proud achievements along the way. I have a lot of respect for the good work that Robert Dellar has done over the years.
The Astronauts’ latest album traces the history of the band from 1979 to 2013. Urban Planning is a beautiful yet gritty retrospective that showcases the skilled songwriting of Mark Wilkins.
The Astronauts are based in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. Thanks to the dedication of singer-songwriter Mark Wilkins, (better known as Mark Astronaut), the band are still active, and will no doubt continue to be so.
I first saw The Astronauts play at a Mad Pride gig in the mid-1990s. While it was a late introduction to the band, I am glad that I discovered them. Mark Astronaut has shown consistent support to such causes as Mad Pride.
Over the years the group have had a number of different line-ups. This is reflected in the different musical styles displayed here. Some tracks like ‘Sod Us’ and ‘Seagull Mania’ are folk songs. Both songs feature a lively fiddle accompaniment.
When I have seen Mark Astronaut perform ‘Seagull Mania’ (a song about urban squalor and and disillusion caused by the failing of radical ideas), he has always sung it a cappella. It is interesting to hear him do it here as a folk song.
In recent years Mark has teamed up with a group of teenage musicians. One recent song ‘Hersey’ is about the loss of community - something that is all-too-common in these days of gentrification. The song shows the band in fine form tackling 70s dub reggae, whilst another song ‘Have It’ shows them taking on rap and techno sounds. The lyrics of this song talk about modern-day DJ culture.
Sometimes the Astronauts have put harsh lyrics to gentle tunes - an example of this being ‘Baby Sings Folk Songs’. At one point in the song Mark sings about the Fulham nightlife being controlled by the knife. We are reminded that there was a time when parts of Fulham were quite rough. However the music gets tougher as the song progresses.
Another song ‘Don’t Think about It’ features some nice saxophone playing from Loll Coxhill. The recent song ‘Melisa’s Party’ is about the down side of hedonism. Musically and lyrically it has a brooding sense of menace running through it. A similar sense of menace runs through the epic ‘Protest Song’.
Since the Astronauts started in the late 1970s Mark Astronaut has shown himself to be a fine singer and a gifted songwriter. As the new songs here show Mark’s song writing and singing continue to shine brightly. Mark Astronaut is a national treasure.
To buy this record visit All the Madmen website at www.allthemadmen.co.uk Also available at All the Madmen is the 45 single ‘A Typical English Day’, one of my favourite Astronaut songs.
There are a number of Astronaut songs on YouTube including some live performances, but there is also an American surf rock band from the 1960s called The Astronauts. To get the right band type in ‘Mark Astronaut’.
You can also follow Mark Astronaut on FaceBook
I first heard Son House on the John Peel radio show around 1969 or 1970. He had so much power in his voice. The first Son House CD that I bought was called Delta Blues and Spirituals. It was recorded live at the 100 Club in London in 1970.
Son House was born Eddie James House Jr., on March 21 1902, in Riverton, Mississippi. At the age of 15 he began his career as a Baptist preacher. He became attracted to blues music, despite the church’s stand against it. Son House spent his life struggling with this conflict. He addressed it in a song called ‘Preaching the Blues’.
Son House made his first recordings in 1930, accompanied by Charlie Patton and Willie Brown. His recording career continued into the 1940s. However sometime during that decade, his friend Willie Brown died. After this Son House stopped recording and retired from music.
In 1964 a group of blues enthusiasts tracked Son House down in upstate New York. He didn’t have a guitar any more, and was unaware of the revival of interest in country blues. But in 1964 he performed at the Newport Folk Festival alongside Skip James and Bukka White. Son House was a complex songwriter. For example one of his songs, ‘Death Letter’, linked bereavement with the loss of love.
In 1970 Son House toured Britain, including two dates at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, London. This is where he recorded Delta Blues and Spirituals. The record starts with Son House explaining to the audience that you can sing the blues in church if you use the words right. He then launches into ‘Between Midnight and Day’, a sad blues song. He sings “I cried last night, I cried the night before”. Next, he sings ‘I Want to Go Home on the Morning Train’. The image of the morning train runs through the blues. People travelled from town to town looking for work. However the train sung about here is the train to heaven.
Next, Son House plays ‘Levee Camp Moan’. He sings, “I left a woman in backdoor crying I nearly drove her out of her mind”, and he sounds like he is confessing to something that he feels bad about. Next he sings the spiritual ‘This Little Light of Mine’. Then there is a monologue, ‘Thinking Strong’. Here he talks about religion, “God and the Devil, those two fellas don’t get along too well together” The second concert begins with another monologue, also called ‘Thinking Strong’. House talks about his struggle with his drinking.
In the end House and the audience are sharing jokes. It sounds almost like they know each other. It is heart-warming. Son House grew up in the segregated American South, when a black person was taught to know their place. That is why it is so great to hear Son House and a mostly-white audience sharing so much with each other.
Next, House sings ‘Death Letter’. After this he plays ‘How to Treat a Man’. He sings about “the blues being a low-down heart disease“. Then he goes into the a cappella ‘Grinnin’ in Your Face’ and the audience claps along. The gig ends with ‘John the Revelator’.
Son House never toured Britain again, but he did carry on performing in America until the mid-1970s, when his memory got bad and he started forgetting what song he had just played. His manager Dick Waterman decided to retire him.
The last years of Son House’s life were spent in a rest home in Detroit. A couple of years before he died a fan from Detroit came to visit him, with a guitar. Despite his failing health Son House’s eyes lit up. He reached for the guitar and tried to play it. However relatives took it from him. It has often been speculated on as to what he would have played.
Son House passed away on October 19th 1988. Recently enough for a band like the White Stripes to come along singing his praises. In doing so bringing back the memories I had of hearing Son House on the John Peel show back in the day. God bless you Son House.
My introduction to Jackie Leven came in 1978, when I was living in a mental health hostel. I read in the NME (New Musical Express) that Jackie’s band Doll by Doll were doing benefit gigs for R. D. Laing’s Philadelphia Association. I knew that Laing offered an alternative way of thinking about mental health. This inspired to me go and see Doll by Doll live, and to buy their records.
Jackie Leven was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, to an Irish Cockney father and a mother from a Romany background. At fourteen he was expelled from school for taking drugs. He later settled in Devon. He started playing in folk clubs. Around this time he released an album called Control. Jackie and guitarist Jo Shaw moved into a squat in London’s Maida Vale. With drummer David McIntosh and bass player Robin Spreafico they formed Doll by Doll. The name came from e.e.cummings’ poem ‘The Enormous Room’.
In early 1979 Doll by Doll released Remember, their first album. In the track ‘More Than Human’ Jackie sings “there is a land beyond the spoken word, communication that only some have heard”. Shortly before the release of Remember, Jackie had tried to commit suicide.
In the autumn of 1979 Doll by Doll released their second album Gypsy Blood. The album ends with Anna Akhmatova’s poem ‘When a Man Dies’, which was translated into English by Russian translator and survivor poet Richard McKane.
According to one-time editor of Zigzag magazine Kris Needs: “There is no way you could call Doll by Doll a punk band in terms of what that meant at the time. But if it meant people from the street … being honest with themselves and playing emotionally-charged music, then this was the truest punk band of all”.
In 1980 the band moved from Automatic to Magnet Records. In 1981 they released their third album, Doll by Doll. The autobiographical ‘Main Travelled Roads’ is the story of a son that Jackie had lost contact with. ‘Soon New Life’ is about a baby being born. By 1982 Jackie was the only founder member left in the band. Jackie, his girlfriend Helen Turner and a band of session musicians made one last album, The Grand Passion. But in early 1983 the band finally split up.
In 1984, Jackie was mugged. One of the muggers kicked Jackie in the throat; he couldn’t talk or sing for a year afterwards. Jackie became addicted to heroin, but weaned himself off it with homeopathy and acupuncture.
In 1994 Jackie released his first solo album, The Mystery of Love Is Greater Than the Mystery of Death. The mugging had robbed Jackie of his falsetto. But his voice continued to be a strong instrument. The track ‘Heartsick Land’ continues the theme of ‘Main Travelled Roads’ but is more desperate. Jackie sings about staggering drunkenly through the pouring rain.
In 1995 Jackie released his second solo album Forbidden Songs of the Dying West, which has some fine songs on it. Jackie’s third album is Fairy Tales for Hard Men. The track ‘Extremely Violent Man’, is about a man who is unable to control his violence. ‘Boy Trapped in a Man’s Life’ carries a similar theme. Here however the man is asking, how can he move on from here? Since the end of the 1970s Jackie’s songs have been an important influence on my poetry.
Shortly after Fairy Tales came out, Jackie said how after The Mystery of Love is Greater than the Mystery Of Death, and Forbidden Songs of the Dying West, he wanted to call the new album It’s Always Better When Rigor Mortis Sets In, but the record company disapproved.
Around 2006 Jackie took part in a gig for Mad Pride, a survivor-run mental health organization. At the gig I told Jackie about the Kevin Coyne tribute album that I was involved with putting together. Jackie suggested asking Kevin Hewick, an underrated singer-songwriter, to contribute. Kevin’s contribution is one of my favourite tracks on the album.
In August 2011 Jackie got diagnosed with cancer. He carried on performing for a while but then became too ill and had to cancel gigs. By November he had lost the fight.
Jackie’s death came as a shock. I will miss the stories he told at his gigs. God bless you Jackie, and thanks for the music and memories that you have left behind for us to value.
Some obituaries to Jackie:
Deep Down with Dennis Brown was published in 2000, but is still available on the internet. In Penny Reel’s writings in the NME (New Musical Express) during the 1970s, he would often sing the praises of reggae artists who were little-known outside the world of reggae. Penny Reel also wrote for other magazines of the time like Black Echoes and Let It Rock. Before this he wrote for the underground magazine International Times.
Deep Down with Dennis Brown is subtitled Cool Runnings and the Crown Prince of Reggae (a title given to Dennis Brown by Bob Marley). During his many visits to England throughout the 1970s, Dennis Brown would spend time in conversation with Penny Reel. A whole supporting cast appear in this book as a result of those talks. Penny Reel introduces us to a number of little known reggae artists. I found myself going to YouTube to check out their work.
The sudden death of Dennis Brown in 1999 sent shockwaves through the world of reggae. In this book Penny Reel traces Dennis Brown’s career from his days as a child star to his hit with ‘Money in My Pocket’ in 1979. He digs below the surface of this gifted performer.
Dennis Brown’s career started at the age of nine when he became known as the ‘Boy Wonder’. When not at school he would be recording and performing. At the age of 14 Dennis Brown fell ill and was hospitalised. There were rumours going round that he only had one lung, though he denied this.
An added bonus to this book is Penny Reel’s knowledge of London’s history. For example when talking about Colombo’s nightclub in Carnaby Street he traces the history of the club back to the post-war years. He also traces Carnaby Street’s history back to that time, describing what the area was like in the days before it was transformed by the 60s fashion revolution.
This book also takes us to many parts of 70s London, and to a sound system clash at the Four Aces club in Dalston. Penny Reel’s writing is extremely descriptive, helped by the photographs, concert posters and record labels that accompany the text.
As the story progresses we see Dennis Brown approaching adulthood. He attends a meeting of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and joins the Rastafarian faith. He makes many trips to England to set up his label DEB records. We see him producing and promoting fellow reggae artists, and having many of his own records released.
‘Money in My Pocket’ appears on a number of occasions in this story. The song was around in various forms over the years before it became a hit. Towards the end of the book Penny Reel gives a history of Jamaican music in Britain. He shows how the music has been compromised and marginalised over the years. Either by putting strings on the music, or by novelty records.
He explains how many hardworking artists have been unable to get played on daytime radio. He also readdresses the popular notion of Bob Marley being at the centre of reggae by explaining that while he had won over a rock audience, his records were rarely played on the sound systems. The story ends on a cold February day in 1979 when ‘Money in My Pocket’ was in the pop charts and Penny Reel interviewed Dennis Brown for the NME (including a front cover photo.)
The book finishes with some words of wisdom from Dennis Brown. This is a wonderful story that leaves you wanting more. This is also essential reading if you want to learn more about reggae music, and many of the artists who helped to make the music the inspiring force that it was in the 1970s.
‘Penny Reel’ is the title of a reggae song from the ska days, recorded by Justin Hinds and the Dominoes and Eric “Monty” Morris. I imagine this might be where the journalist and author got his name.
You can buy Deep Down with Dennis Brown by Penny Reel by clicking on this link to xraymusic.co.uk
Alternatively the book is also available at www.regaeregaeregae.com and www.ukrockfestivals.com
Kevin Coyne’s first solo album, Case History, was recorded in 1972, shortly after Nobody Dies In Dreamland. Last year, it was re-released by Turpentine Records.
Shortly after its release its label, John Peel’s Dandelion, folded and Case History became very hard to find. I only heard the record in the early 1980s, when it was issued as a box set with the two Siren albums. The label that issued the records in the early 1980s was called Butt records whose logo was an ashtray overflowing with dog ends. When I listened to Case History the songs stirred up something in me. They are as direct as any punk recording of that time.
Kevin has been quoted as saying that the songs for Case History were recorded in just three or four hours, and that Case History is not just an album but a whole period of his life. This becomes very clear as the album unfolds. Dave Clauge and Nick Cudworth from Siren accompany Kevin on the first two tracks. The opening track ‘God Bless The Bride’ is an upbeat number where Kevin asks God to bless everything from the bride and groom and their families, to the hotel by the sea, and the little room with its pot dogs. Track two ‘White Horse’ is a gentle song. I have never understood what the song is about, but the imagery is quite fascinating. Track three (‘Uggy’s Song’ ) is where Case History really starts to let rip. We find Kevin on his own with his frantic acoustic guitar playing. As I mentioned in my review of Nobody Dies In Dreamland, ‘Uggy’s Song’ is the story of a black tramp murdered by the police in 1971. The police called him ‘Uggy’ because they considered him to be ugly. The next song ‘Need Somebody’ is about growing old and lonely. However Kevin also expresses the difficulty of reaching out to a friend. Then comes ‘Evil Island Home’, a disturbing picture of England as Kevin saw it at the time. The chorus to Evil Island Home comes across with a sense of disorientation.
As Case History moves on we come to ‘My Message to the People’, a statement of intent from Kevin. He sings “don’t tie me to your steeple, don’t put me in the stocks in your market square“. While Kevin’s guitar playing was very basic, it could also be very powerful. The next track ‘Mad Boy’ is a picture of someone who has been diagnosed as mentally ill. Someone who others feel needs to be controlled. Kevin sings “fetch the doctor, the doctor’s done his job. No more disagreeing with his mother”. The song’s chorus of “mad boy, mad boy” is quite otherworldly. Kevin’s mates from Siren return for Case History’s last track. Titled “Sand All Yellow” Kevin sings in two voices. One is the voice of the patient, the other one is the voice of the doctor. When Kevin speaks as the doctor there is a sinister tone to his voice.
After Case History the CD contains some bonus tracks, starting with ‘Cheat Me’, a single that Siren issued shortly before their split. Then we get ‘Flowering Cherry’. As Kevin anticipates the coming of summer, he also hopes that his love will grow. Then we get alternative versions of ‘Evil Island Home’, ‘My Message to the People’ and ‘Mad Boy’. We get a previously unreleased Siren song called ‘Doctor Love’, a rough and ready rocker. Then there is another version of ‘Cheat Me’ from a radio session. There is a version of ‘Flowering Cherry’ with a delightful trombone solo. The record finishes the way it started with another version of God Bless The Bride.
Thank you to Robert, Eugene and Helmi Coyne at Turpentine records for making this CD available. I look forward to whatever they bring us next. While this record was released a long time ago I feel the things Kevin is singing about still have relevance in these times.
Most of the old Victorian psychiatric hospitals have gone now, to be replaced by modern psychiatric units. But our life struggles can still lead us to nervous breakdowns. Case History is the beginning of a long and prolific career by of one of Britain’s most gifted songwriters.
To buy a copy of Case History visit Turpentine records at www.kevincoyne.co.uk
For the official Kevin Coyne website visit www.kevincoyne.de
For more about Kevin Coyne’s long and prolific career visit PASCAL’s fans website at www.kevincoynepage.free.fr
Available on Turpentine Records these recordings were made in 1972 after Siren, the band Kevin was in, had split up. Also shortly before his first solo record Case History was made. The story behind these recordings is as follows. Someone gave Kevin a one track reel to reel In his rented flat in Clapham, where he then lived, armed with his guitar and harmonica, he recorded these songs.
A number of the songs on Dreamland would appear on Case History. However the opening track “Black Cloud” would appear on his 1984 album “Legless In Manila”. The second song A Distant Desert features Kevin on slide guitar. Kevin very rarely played slide guitar, so it is interesting to hear him play it here. One of the songs that appeared on Case History is Uggys Song, here titled Tramps Song.
The song is about a black tramp who got murdered by the police in 1971. The police called him Uggy because they considered him to be ugly. On songs like this Kevin showed great compassion for the outsider.
On other songs like Hypnotise for example, Kevin portrayed himself as the outsider. On the harmonica songs Kevin interspersed his words with blasts of harmonica. These songs echo the spirit of country blues harmonica players like Sonny Terry.
There is one cover on Dreamland. This is a version of Georgia On My Mind. A lovely song made popular by Ray Charles. It is also a song that Kevin performed at talent shows in local pubs. Here Kevin accompanies himself on guitar. It is different to how Ray Charles did it. But Kevin’s delivery is still very soulful.
There are places on this CD where you can hear the tape machine being switched off and on. The guitar is sometimes very basic. There are rough edges. Kevin sometimes liked having rough edges on his music. The rough edges are right for what Kevin is singing about. From the raw blues of Mean Molecatcher Man, through the desperation of Need Somebody, to the disorientation of Sleepwalking.
This record is in the same spirit as old delta blues recordings. But Kevin was also influenced by music hall comedy. This adds something else to Kevin’s music. Congratulations to Kevin’s sons Robert and Eugene for putting this great CD together. Uggys Song remains relevant with the terrible plight of homelessness in our cities.
Hopefully this record will reach a few new people. If you like the delta blues then this record is worth listening to. If you like Lo Fi music then I think you will like this. Like the Virgin anthology box set from 2010 this is a testimony to the talents of a much missed national treasure.
To buy this record go to Kevin’s website at www.kevincoyne.co.uk Hopefully this record will also be available from some record stores.
For more about Kevin Coyne and his long prolific career, visit Pascal’s Kevin Coyne website at www.kevincoynepage.tk/
My first introduction to the music of Blind Willie Johnson came in 2002. The guitar teacher at CORE Arts in Hackney, had encouraged me to have a go at learning to play the slide guitar. As a result I got a slide guitar compilation out of the library. There was some great stuff on the record. About half way through following straight after a track by the mighty Son House, was You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond, by Blind Willie Johnson.
His gruff voice, accompanied by a gentler woman’s voice, really grabbed my attention, as did his slide guitar playing. Soon after this experience I bought a copy of the compilation Dark Was The Night. When I played it I realised that I had heard some of these songs before by other artists but hadn’t realised where they had come from.
Blind Willie Johnson was born near a town called Brenham in Texas on 22 January 1897. While growing up he attended the Church Of God In Christ. This is one of the Afro American churches that was set up after the abolition of slavery. It was a church that encouraged enthusiastic music making. Two other fine gospel singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Georgia Peach also attended the church. When Willie was five, he told his father that he wanted to be a preacher. He made himself a cigar box guitar. However around this time his mother died and soon after her death his father remarried. So the story goes, Willie lost his sight when he was seven. His father gave his step-mother a beating after catching her going out with another man. In revenge the step-mother threw lye water (detergent) into the young lads face, in doing so blinding him.
Blind Willie Johnson had a powerful singing voice. Because of this his father would often send him out on the street to sing for tips. He learned piano and taught himself to play guitar in regular tuning, while using open D for slide. Many of his lyrics and songs were gathered from old hymnals. He played at church functions where he developed incomparable timing and tone, using a pocket knife as a slider.
The 1920s saw him performing on the streets of a place called Herne in Texas. He had a cup wired to his guitar for people to put tips in. In 1926 Willie married his first wife - Willie B Harris. His recording career started the following year. His first session took place in Dallas Texas in 1927. His first 78 release was I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole backed by Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. At the time of its release, it was proclaimed: ‘This new and exclusive Columbia artist sings sacred songs in a way you have never heard before. Be sure to hear his first record, and listen closely to that original guitar accompaniment.’ The hype was true, and the records popularity quickly made Johnson one of Columbia’s best selling artists. Despite this popularity Blind Willie Johnson only received one small payment for the recording, He received no royalties. As such he continued to make a living as a street singer. The second release ‘It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ and ‘Dark Was The Night,’ was reviewed in a national magazine, Bookman. The review spoke of Johnson’s ‘violent, tortured and abysmal shouts and groans, and his inspired guitar playing in a primitive and frightening Negro religious song.’ Chant, moans, and ghostly slide. 'Dark Was The Night' was based on an old hymn about the crucifixion.
The term race music was used to describe Afro American music of the day, blues, gospel, jazz etc. Music made by poor white people was called hillbilly music. This was early country music. Despite the racial climate of those times, and the segregation and inequalities that existed, there was interaction between the blues and country music. One example being a blues group called the Mississippi Sheiks. They had a fiddle in their line up, and for me they had a country feel to their sound. The Mississippi Sheiks were around during the 1930s. They are known for songs such as ‘I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You' and 'World Gone Wrong'. Bob Dylan recorded 'World Gone Wrong' in the early 1990s on the second of two albums of old folk songs that he made at the time. Another example of the blues influence on country music can be heard in the Carter Family.
One of the first tracks that I got into on Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night’ compilation was ‘Motherless Children Have A Hard Time’ - written from first hand experience. First there is the slide guitar and the cries of well, well, well, then he starts singing in a powerful gruff voice. This song really made me sit up and listen. Its sentiments are universal, and fully relevant today. Then comes 'Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground' - a haunting atmospheric wordless hymn in which Blind Willie Johnson plays some beautiful slide guitar and sings in a wordless moan. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music that I have ever heard.
Blind Willie Johnson often sang in a voice that was used to making himself heard over the noise of the street. However he sometimes sang in a softer more tender voice – and one example of this is his singing on ‘Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning’. It’s a deeply spiritual song on which he is accompanied by the voice of his wife Willie B Harris. Sometimes they sing in harmony, sometimes Willie B Harris finishes off lines in the song. Halfway through the song there is a beautiful slide solo.
I began listening closer to the songs. ‘If I Had My Way I Would Tear This Building Down’ tells the story of Samson and Delilah. Johnson’s powerful vocal makes Samson’s struggle seem like it was a contemporary event that took place around the time when he recorded the song. ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ features some powerful vocals and slide playing. On ‘Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed’ he uses the slide guitar to finish the lines to powerful effect. Then there was ‘John The Revalator’ where he again duets with Willie B Harris. Some of the early recordings have an eerie quality to them. Several other songs on the CD – eg ‘Praise God I’m Satisfied’, and ‘Come And Go With Me To That Land’ – are a testament to the strength of his Faith.
I came across an interesting article about the life of their daughter Sam Fay Johnson Kelly recently. She still lives in Marlin Texas in the same house where she was born in 1931 - a four room shack with a sagging roof and walls warped by the heat. Now in her 70s she is in a wheelchair and helped out by her grandchildren. In the interview she recalls her father playing his guitar and singing in the kitchen. She remembers him reciting from the bible. Her mother worked seven days a week as a nurse, while her father was busking on the streets.
By the time she was seven Blind Willie Johnson went travelling. He ventured all over Texas singing in churches on the street and at railway stations in company with Blind Willie McTell. A blues artist known for songs such as ‘Broken Down Engine’ and ‘Statesbrough Blues’, he started singing gospel songs towards the end of his life in the 1950s. Together they wrote some impressive songs sometimes sharing the same studio. Their travels took them as far as New Orleans. Legend has it that while singing 'If I Had My Way I Would Tear This Building Down' outside a New Orleans courthouse, Blind Willie Johnson started a riot. However other reports suggest that the police arrested him because they misunderstood the lyrics, and took them to be incitement.
During this period in America there were a large number of blind Afro American street musicians. The only opportunities left open to a blind person were to be a beggar or to be a musician. Obviously being a musician was the preferable of the two choices, and these guys helped to lay the foundations for Rock and Roll.
On April 20th 1930 Blind Willie Johnson made his final recordings. However he carried on working as a street singer. He married his second wife Angeline, who sang with him on the street. He settled in Beaumont, Texas, where he sang on Beaumont Street. Shopkeepers remembered him as a gentle dignified man who dressed neatly and wore close cropped hair. Blind Willie Johnson and Angeline regularly sang at the Mt Olive Baptist Church and occasionally journeyed to Huston for revivals. People also recalled hearing him over KTM, a radio station in Temple Texas as well as a Sunday morning church service broadcast over KPLC radio based in Lake Charles Texas. Huston based music historian Mack McCormick said how Johnson left memories at Corpus Christi during World War Two, when there was a fear of Nazi submarines prowling the Gulf Of Mexico. Submarines often listened to radio stations to triangulate their position. He went on air with new verses to one of his songs ‘God Moves On The Water’, a song about the Titanic. First offering grace to his audience, he then followed with a dire warning to the crew of any listening U Boats with, ‘Can’t Nobody Hide from God’. I don’t know if any of these recordings still exist?
Blind Willie Johnson remained poor until the end of his life. A Beaumont city directory showed that in 1944 a Rev W J Johnson operated the House of Prayer at 1440 Forrest Street. This is thought to be Blind Willie Johnson as this is the same address as that listed on his death certificate. In 1945 his home burnt down in a fire. With nowhere else to go, he and his wife slept inside the burnt ruins of their home on a bed of damp newspapers. They carried on singing on the streets during the day. Then a few days later he fell ill with pneumonia. Angeline took him to a local hospital. However he was refused admission on the grounds that he was black, (some accounts say that it was because he was blind). He died a couple of days later. His death certificate reports the cause of death as malarial fever with syphilis as a contributing factor. But as it also lists blindness as a contributing factor, which makes the coroner’s thoroughness very suspect.
In 1953 music historian Samuel Charters interviewed Angeline who confirmed the facts of his death. What happened to Blind Willie Johnson at the end of his life, is an example of the discrimination and injustice that took place in America in those days. However his music lives on, and in many ways his spirit does too. Many musicians and bands from diverse musical backgrounds have recorded Blind Willie Johnson’s songs. The Reverend Garry Davis taught the songs to people on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s and from there the numbers of recordings just kept on growing. Blind Willie Johnson's influence on contemporary music is vast.
There are plans to give back royalties to his surviving family. Hopefully these plans will be successful. Nobody quite knows where his grave is, though. It is thought that he was buried in Beaumont’s Blanchet cemetery, a seemingly unattended piece of land overrun with weeds where members of the Afro American community were often buried. The people of Beaumont are dedicated to finding his grave and preserving it.
In relation to his slide playing, the common theory is that Blind Willie Johnson used a pocket knife as a slide. Blind Willie McTell said Johnson used a metal ring. I have a friend who is an accomplished guitarist, who has suggested that he used a bottle as a slider. In the only known picture of him he sits at a piano holding a guitar. No sliding instrument can be seen. What ever he did use one fact remains. Blind Willie Johnson is one of the all-time great slide players.
Unfortunately not much is known about his life. His real year of birth – often recorded as 1902 – has only recently been confirmed as 1897, since the discovery of a birth certificate. The Guinness Who’s Who Of The Blues suggest that Johnson also made blues recordings under a different name. Wikipedia suggests he was also known as ‘Blind’ Texas Marlin. Does this mean that there are still some unreleased recordings? Another question I’d like to ask is, did Blind Willie McTell get interviewed in the 1950s? Did he shed any light on his partnership with Blind Willie Johnson?
Blind Willie Johnson’s spirit is still very much alive. In 1977 when the Voyager spacecraft was sent into space to orbit the earth, ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’, was one of the tracks chosen to be included on the voyager Golden Record. (The other tracks included Beethoven and Chuck Berry.) On a street corner in heaven Blind Willie Johnson is surely singing to the angels.
Moments in the Day
The papers print a creepy image
A boy with a rucksack on his back
At the train station.
Of to take his life
And bring others down with him
All for the promise of paradise
What kind of paradise?
I was talking to my Muslim neighbour
He told me he disagreed with the bombing
Nowhere in the Koran does it say you must kill.
I read the newspapers
The front page exposes its scandal
I hear politicians talking
I hear politicians waffle.
I can’t help wondering
Are there grey areas they don’t tell us about?
The papers print a troubled image
I would like to feel
That this wounded world can heal.
One Thursday morning
I went to the chapel
With an Afro-Caribbean friend
Other Christians of different persuasions
And a Muslim.
We said prayers for peace
We all said prayers for peace
Sometimes I get wound up by positive discrimination
And it brings out the worst in me.
In this mixed up melting pot of a society
We express differing views
It can cause conflict
Will it ever be possible
To learn from our differences
To share enlightenment
To share enlightenment,
To believe that wherever possible
Barriers are meant to be broken down?
Lord I pray
Can the time come
To learn from our differences?
To share enlightenment
To share enlightenment.
To find words for a proud rhythm
To create a song
Break barriers down.
Lord I get weary
Competing in this human race
I would like to think this tearful world can smile.
Let God be
A God of love
A God of peace
Striving for hope