Living for the City: Remembering Charlie Gillett, 10 years on

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50 YEARS AFTER his landmark Sound of the City was first published (and a decade since his death), Rock’s Backpages remembers the great Charlie Gillett: listen to Bill Brewster’s 1999 audio interview with the writer, broadcaster and label-owner, and read Alex Ogg’s long conversation with him from 2008. Plus RBP writers pay heartfelt tribute after Charlie’s passing in March 2010… mine was as follows:

NO ONE COULD overstate the importance of The Sound of the City, the first significant attempt to make sense of the tangled genealogy of American popular music. Acquired in a Pan paperback edition circa 1974, the book was my portal to the history of myriad music genres, record companies, and assorted behind-the-scenes protagonists.

I never imagined I would one day meet The Sound of the City‘s author, let alone play football with him – along with a motley band of Africans and Latin Americans – on Clapham Common. I shan’t ever forget Charlie’s lithe 60-year-old frame in those games. Though he rarely crossed the halfway line, he patrolled his defensive beat like a man half that age. Which makes it that much harder to comprehend how he has now gone: he should have lived into his nineties.

Charlie was one of the elders, a man of true integrity and unceasing curiosity. His love of soul and swamp music laid tracks for me and many others. He was so helpful and encouraging when I set to work on my first book, a study of “country soul” (the term came, ironically, from The Sound of the City). The love of southern singers and storytellers was a passion we shared for years, culminating for me in the night he brought Dan Penn, Allen Toussaint, Joe South, Guy Clark and the late Vic Chesnutt together on the same South Bank stage. When I strayed outside of that orbit he sometimes seemed nonplussed. I’m not sure he ever forgave me for sullying his “Radio Ping Pong” show with what I’m sure he heard as the antiseptic jazz-funk of Steely Dan’s ‘Babylon Sisters’.

Though Charlie’s evangelising for world music prodded me to invest in sublime albums by everyone from Youssou N’Dour to Salif Keita, I always felt slightly guilty that I hadn’t – through sheer laziness – wholly converted to the world music cause. Typically the last communication I had from him was a testy email about the long list for RBP’s best albums of the Noughties. “What an embarrassing, disgracefully white and inbred list this is,” he fulminated. “Reminds me of the NME Top 100 albums back around 1972 when only two black albums made the list. Have we really not moved on even by an inch to embrace the rest of the world?”

Thanks to you, Charlie, we have.

Neil Tennant on our podcast

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King of the Weirdo Misfits: My 1993 interview with the great William Gibson

The deranged Dominic Cummings’ recent call-out for weirdos & misfits out of William Gibson novels prompted me to dig out this Vogue profile of the cyberpunk seer, whom I interviewed in Vancouver in the summer of 1993. I liked him so much, and so much of what he said in this piece was so eerily prescient – and, frankly, terrifying.

 

 

Laura Barton on the RBP podcast

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In this week’s episode of the Rock’s Backpages podcast, Mark & Barney welcome the wonderful Laura Barton and learn all about her career as a star Guardian writer – and as an author and broadcaster.

Laura talks about her travels in America, and about working with photographer Sarah Lee on the newly-published collection West Of West. The hosts ask her about her pieces on Bon Iver, Daniel Johnston and Riot Grrrl power – and more generally about her deeply personal approach to music writing.

A new Sam Cooke box set prompts a conversation about the pin-up gospel star who crossed over to become an icon of “proto-soul” before his shocking and tragic death in 1964. A 2010 hymn to Sam by the legendary Lenny Kaye provides the platform for ruminations on the man’s sublime voice and his immeasurable influence on everyone from Otis Redding to Rod Stewart.

A clip from the late Andy Gill’s 2005 audio interview with ex-Belle & Sebastian member Isobel Campbell is the catalyst for a discussion of the latter’s collaborations with brooding grunge survivor Mark Lanegan. Having interviewed the Scots singer-songwriter when the duo’s Ballad of the Broken Seas came out in 2006, Laura helps to place the pair in the tradition of such “beauty-and-the-beast” hook-ups as Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra.

Mark talks us through highlights of the week’s additions to the RBP Library, including pieces on the unsavoury Jonathan King, the fabulous Freddie Mercury and David Bowie’s personal tour of his London landmarks. The episode concludes with discussion of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame‘s just-announced Class of 2020 – with specific reference to the covert racism (not to mention misogyny) underpinning reaction to the inclusion of Whitney Houston…

Fave albums 1974-1985

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Johnnie Johnstone of New Perfect Collection asked me and a bunch of other folks to list their 30 best albums released between January 1st, 1974 and December 31st, 1985. As resistant as I am to lists (as blokey and reductive), I couldn’t, well, resist. So here in no particular order are my platters of choice… no doubt fairly bloody obvious, but still as honest as I can be:

Todd Rundgren: Todd

Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey

Joni Mitchell: Court & Spark

Television: Marquee Moon

Talking Heads: ‘77

Associates: Sulk

Gene Clark: No Other

Led Zeppelin: Physical Graffiti

Earth, Wind & Fire: I Am

Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life

Bob Marley & the Wailers: Natty Dread

Ramones: Leave Home

Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures

David Bowie: Low

Al Green: Al Green is Love

Bobby Womack: Lookin’ for a Love Again

Neil Young: Tonight’s the Night

Chic: Risqué

Kate Bush: The Dreaming

Prince: Dirty Mind

Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates

Tom Waits: Swordfishtrombones

Steely Dan: Gaucho

Dennis Wilson: Pacific Ocean Blue

Fleetwood Mac: Tusk

Randy Newman: Good Old Boys

Suicide: Suicide

Elvis Costello: Get Happy!!

Donald Fagen: The Nightfly

Luther Vandross: Any Love

A Waits in your ear: Happy birthday, Tom

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Happy 70th birthday to Tom Waits: That’s me in the middle of David Hepworth & Mark Ellen, clutching the paperback of my Waits biog Lowside Of The Road… and about to start the highly enjoyable Word In Your Ear podcast last Monday. Thanks to those major dudes for inviting me… and also for inviting the excellent Alexis Petridis to talk about Elton “Me” John.

Blue is the Colour: the legendary Barbara Charone on the RBP podcast

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In the new episode of the Rock’s Backpages podcast, Mark Pringle (left) and I welcome music scribe turned PR legend Barbara Charone to the RBP “cupboard” (© David Hepworth) and ask her about moving to London from her native Chicago in 1974 – along with her experiences of interviewing the Who, the Stones and other superstars of the ’70s.

“BC” talks about befriending Keith Richards and writing his biography while staying at his Sussex home, Redlands, then reminisces about her move into PR and her decades-long association with such clients as Madonna and Robert Plant. Finally, Mark & Barney ask Barbara how she came to support the team they all three (and Jasper!) adore: Chelsea FC. (Spurs fans may wish to fast-forward at this point.)

The conversation segues seamlessly into a discussion of the week’s fascinating new audio interview, in which John Tobler asks Pete Townshend about his 1993 solo album Psychoderelict – and all about the Who, Tommy and Pete’s childhood traumas.

After semi-skirting around the week’s free feature on Coldplay – an act for whom none of the three can muster much enthusiasm – Mark takes the reins and talks us through his highlights of the week’s new additions to the RBP library – including a report of the 1966 scrapping of seminal TV pop show Ready, Steady, Go!, a review of the opening date of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 tour of America, and a 1977 Rolling Stone interview with the ‘Clean-Up Woman’ woman Betty Wright.