How did I discover Shel Silverstein? Easy, I bought a copy of the Dr Hook and the Medicine Show album “The Ballad of Lucy Jordon” (a contractual obligation “greatest hits” package put together by CBS before the band departed to Capitol and commercial success). As an introduction to early ‘70s Dr Hook, it’s a belter. Released in 1975, it was obviously a vinyl album; you remember those, don’t you? I bought it on the strength of the chart hit “Sylvia’s Mother”, but that wasn’t even close to being the best song on the album; that’s at the end of the album and the end of the next paragraph.
A quick look at the album sleeve showed that fifteen of the sixteen songs were written by someone called Shel Silverstein, who wasn’t even a member of the band, and they were a fascinating collection of songs, ranging from the country pastiche of “The Wonderful Soup Stone” through the Rabelaisian comedy of “(Freaking at) the Freakers’ Ball” and “Roland the Roadie and Gertrude the Groupie” to the superb ( and much-covered) story of a suburban breakdown, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordon”. If you don’t listen to anything else picked out in this piece, you really should listen to the Marianne Faithfull version of this song.
I know this is a nostalgia piece, but there are a lot of things that weren’t better in the old days. In the 21st century, you can find out almost everything about a group or artist within seconds; you can get a biography, you can listen to their material (released and unreleased), you can probably get a message to them directly and they might even reply. In the mid-to-late 70s, you had NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, John Peel and some independent record shops to let you know what was going on. Although I was only really interested his music, I discovered that there was much more to Shel Silverstein than songs; he was also a gifted cartoonist, poet, screenwriter author of childrens’ books.
Eventually, I managed to track down a couple of imported albums (“Songs and Stories” from 1978 and “The Great Conch Train Robbery” from 1980). While the albums didn’t have the polish of the Dr Hook material, they covered a lot of the same territory and gave the impression that once Shel had an idea he had to get it down and move on quickly because there were ten more ideas banging on the door behind it. I loved “Songs and Stories”, from the sheer silliness of “Goodnight Little House Plant”, “Someone Ate the Baby” and “Never Bite a Married Woman on the Thigh” through “The Father of a Boy Named Sue” (he also wrote “A Boy Named Sue”) to the epic stoner poem “The Smoke-Off” and the ode to cop-outs, “They Held Me Down”. It had all the manic energy of a live performance by Robin Williams, who was just emerging as a stand-up at the time.
Shel Silverstein was that rare example of genuine Renaissance Man; he had gifts ranging across the field of creative arts, but it was as a songwriter (and ramshackle, shambolic performer) that I love his work. His serious work, such as “The Ballad of Lucy Jordon” was superb, but he also wrote comedy songs that were actually funny ( I still laugh out loud at the lines: ‘Everybody ballin’ in batches, pyromaniacs strikin’ matches’ from “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball”) and you could bear to listen to more than once. It helped that he drew a lot of his humour from the fringes of society and legality, which gave it an extra frisson to anyone looking in to that world from the outside.
You rarely hear Shel Silverstein’s name mentioned these days, which is a shame, but he has left a huge legacy in print and in music. If you’re still not convinced, just ask yourself what these songs have in common: “A Boy Named Sue”, “Queen of the Silver Dollar”, Sylvia’s Mother”, “25 Minutes to Go” and “Daddy What If”? Yep, all written by Shel Silverstein. Most songwriters would kill to have written any one of those songs, and that’s before you even get to “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” and the sadly under-rated “Last Mornin’”. He’ll make you laugh and he’ll make you cry, but he’ll never bore you.
AM – Just looking around Leigh as an outsider, it always seems to have had a bit of an artistic vibe to it; do you get that?
PB – I’m torn on this idea; if you asked me where I would love to have lived it would probably be Greenwich Village but I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. You sometimes come from hick towns and you get the mavericks and the big fish in little pools but I’m not really sure that it matters at the end of the day. Obviously New York is a great residence simply because so many great writers came from there but if Lou Reed was born in Leigh-on-Sea what would he have written about?
AM – There’s no CBGBs here is there?
PB – Well there isn’t, but it would have been interesting, and vice versa; you get parochial writers who, well, what would they have done if they’d gone to town? I’m not sure it’s important; it’s certainly relevant, where you come from and where you write about. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite of something good. You can get blood out of a stone; you can, you’ve just got to try hard. Sometimes you’re swamped; now, having written from a local area that isn’t particularly bohemian, if I now went to New York, I’d probably overwrite everything and it would just be a mass of input and no way of filtering it. Which would be great; I’d love to do it if anyone’s got an apartment in New York.
AM – And that kind of leads in to “Dunfearing…”, which is the first part of a trilogy.
PB – I’m fond of these things; I get a lot of stick for it.
AM – It’s obvious that that there’s a tremendous sense of place in it. It’s a very West Country thing.
PB – The rest of the trilogy won’t be. You were probably the only person that picked up on the idea of approaching America as the only possible escape after the end of England; the only place you can go. That’s developing a little bit and the other two parts of the trilogy are written and I’m sorting out the third one but it’s more about how you escape the idea of getting old and the only way to do it is to reinvent a youth, which never really works and the idea of America is that it’s supposed to be the land of eternal youth no matter what age you go, so there’s a cynical angle to it as well but I hope that it’s more hope than cynicism: pragmatism.
AM – Do you think that the way the music business has gone over the last twenty years has allowed people like you to do what you want to do?
PB – No, I don’t. I actually think the music business is poorer for what’s happened to it. I would rather be struggling to sign to Warner Brothers, in a way. There’s a philosophy now that anyone can do anything they like, they can record it in their bedroom and make an album, which is fine, because the punk ethos is fine, but there is a difference. Yes, someone could thrash away at three chords and sing ‘I hate Margaret Thatcher’ and be played on John Peel; fabulous, but that was it. Now there seems to be a corporate mentality attached to do-it-yourself.
AM – It’s so difficult now, with music, to actually make any money.
PB – Which is essentially what you have to do. There were people around punk who never thought they’d make any money and a lot of them didn’t but they thought they’d got a chance of maybe an album and that’s it and they’re now working in IT or whatever and that’s what they wanted. The problem is, while you’ve got that ethos is that if people are taking it seriously, then they get lumped in with it and it’s ‘Oh, you’re still here, are you?’ and now it’s even worse because nothing’s taken seriously. To include lyrics with an album now is seen as pretentious.
AM – And yet, to me, “Dunfearing…” was actually a very nice packaging job, but we shouldn’t be talking about packaging, really.
PB – I would have agreed with you a while back, but now I go back to albums I’ve listened to and loved and I think these are beautiful things, regardless of the music, I would want this album; as a piece of art, as a whole.
AM – I’m accused of fetishing the whole thing; going for the vinyl and the nice gatefold sleeve…
PB – My mantra for that is accused by whom? I’m a great fan of the Oscar Wilde saying ‘The show was a success, the audience was a failure’; it depends who’s criticising.
AM – It’s a completely different listening experience now; I sometimes stick review copies on a little MP3 player and you have to pull this thing out of your pocket to check the track title.
PB – This is the first album I’ve done with a record company as opposed to putting it out on my own and Phil’s great (Phil Penman of Drumfire Records) but if you want tracks for radio, or the hit track (not the hit single, that never happens any more), I just think ‘I don’t want one’. That’s why I hate the download culture so much; ‘I’ve listened to this album twice, these two are obviously the best songs so therefore I’ll stick them next to my favourite Kylie song on my iPod’. Well, fuck that, what are you going to do with Lou Reed and “Berlin”; take a couple of tracks from that and stick it next to Miley Cyrus. Would we do it with art? ‘I think I like that third sunflower but I think it would look nice in the Velasquez, so I’ll shift it over and Photoshop it in to that’. There’d be outrage.
AM – I think Pink Floyd were entirely right…
PB – There has to be a first time for everything
AM – When they blocked the downloading of single tracks from “Dark Side of the Moon”.
PB – Funny you should say that, but it occurred to me the other day that if I blended my music in so that it tinkled out on one track and tinkled in on the next, nobody would be able to download it; don’t tempt me.
AM – I can’t do it, I can’t buy in to the download thing; I’d rather pay full whack…
PB – And be wrong. I’ve spent ten quid on an album and it’s been bullshit apart from the track I liked. That’s what you get; you can buy a sofa for four hundred quid and the leg falls off and that’s life, get used to it.
AM – So you’re going to be recording the second album in the trilogy soon.
PB – This year we’re doing the second. The third album is very ephemeral, but I want to get that done because I want to get on to the next phase. There’s a bunch of folkie songs that I’ve written and I want to get them out of the way, so I’ll do a double folkie album next year, but I might get two albums out before then. I’ll have to put out one on my own label because I don’t expect Drumfire to do it. It’s weird really; if Bob Dylan was still fabulously creative, I’d want an album from him every month. There’s an idea that you can only put an album out once every year or two years but The Fall make an album every twelve minutes; some of it’s all right, some of it’s not but I’d rather have that.
AM – That’s just reminded of someone that I know you admire, Jackie Leven, who would do exactly the same thing.
PB – That’s what I’m aiming for actually. Jackie recorded what he called his platinum albums for Cooking Vinyl. Someone would give me a tape from a live gig I did somewhere and I’d love to release that so and that’s why I kept my own label. I can put stuff out that’s not a big production number but it’s a bunch of songs that hang together well and say ‘Have a listen to this’ and Jackie did that really well. Other than that, I’ve got a good setup for recording that I use with a few people and Mark Elliott especially and it’s easy to do. We get the band together, rehearse it and record it. “Mercenary Thoughts of a Lush”; we went up to London and recorded the whole thing in two days. Bit of punk spirit and some people say it sounds like it but that’s what it needed to be with that bunch of songs. We could never have done that with “Dunfearing…”because it needed a bit of time but there should be room to do that.
Neil Young would be cruising about, just out for a drive and he’d drive down to New Orleans and hear a bit of music and end up writing ten songs and think ‘I need to record this’, so he’d phone up local musicians, get into the studio, record them and send them to his recording company and they’ll say ‘Well you only had an album out a month ago, you can’t do this’, and I’m with him, why not. If you love Neil Young, or whoever, and you hear that a month after you’ve paid out ten pounds for his new album, he’s got another one out, I think I’d find ten quid but apparently it’s an unwritten law that you can’t do this.
AM – What I find quite interesting is that more and more bands are rehearsing stuff, getting the songs right, going into the studio and recording as a band rather than doing separate tracks.
PB – I don’t exactly do that. I like the idea but I find it takes a lot more time because you have to do a lot more takes but certainly, with the next album, it’ll be a lot looser; it’s nothing like “Dunfearing..”. It loosely follows on from that album; the third of the trilogy ties it all together. The second one will be a bit ‘what’s this?’, but it’ll make sense with the third one. I’m already on to next year with the folkie album, trying to get into Pentangle now, God help me.
AM – That’s something to look forward to then.
PB – Well that’ll be a double album because there’s a lot of songs there. Just songs that I’ve written in a folkie/country style that don’t need a lot of embellishment so they’re easier to record. There’s a lot of them, so let’s stick them out on a double album, which no-one does any more; gatefold sleeve coming up here.
AM – I bought the Ben Watt album, “Hendra” on vinyl, a few weeks ago and that had a nice gatefold sleeve and lovely packaging.
PB – I had a drink with Ben Watt, once; a very polite drink.
AM – It’s a great album and it’s nice to hear that people are still making music in that way.
PB – Well, these Drumfire gigs I’ve been doing, I supported Clive Gregson and my first reaction was ‘Christ, he’s still going’ and Martin Stephenson played there as well (at The Cabbage Patch in Twickenham) and I thought it was great because you don’t to discover that they’re dead or working in Macdonald’s or something; they’re still out there playing and that’s really reassuring. They must love it. They must love and hate it enough to carry on doing it. Any ordinary, sane person would just say ‘I’ve had my shot now’, but the rest of us drink ourselves to death and write songs.
AM – The first time I saw you play was supporting Dean Owens in Clerkenwell at Drumfire gig. I spoke to Dean and he wasn’t happy because the venue was half-empty because they hadn’t used the posters he’d sent to publicise it and that must be incredibly frustrating.
PB – This was the other myth about myth about punk, that you used to have all these gigs going on everywhere. If you had a punk band or a new wave band or a post-punk band, you could probably get a few people to turn up but if it was a solo, forget it, it would be the owner and his dog, and his dog will hate you.
Which brought us neatly back, almost full circle, to Phil’s punk beginnings and the end of the interview.
Now here’s an interesting one. International Rescue, or IR, hit their peak in the post-punk early 80s in East Yorkshire with lots of Peel plays, a prospective Polydor deal and a substantial live following in the north-east of England. Then the deal fell through and, after releasing a couple of singles, guitarist Stephen Skinner left to work with Orange Juice then Edwyn Collins as a solo artist for 15 years and the band went the way of most small bands, slowly grinding to a halt. Which is where the story usually ends, but this one has a bit of a twist in the tail.
In 2011, Stephen Skinner (vocals/guitar), David Waller (guitar) and Chaz Cook (bass) decided to reform the band. Spec (the original drummer) couldn’t make it but Joel Cash was recruited in his place and the band played a triumphant hometown return gig. One thing led to another, songs were written and “No Country for Old Men” was recorded for the band’s own Cowboy City Records label.
The album opens with the gentle country feel of the pleasant but unremarkable “If I’m Going Down” and eases through the jangly riffs of “Don’t Ever Change” and “I Don’t Know What it is, But I Like it a Lot”(which sounds heavily inspired by the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville”). The album finally grabs the attention with “He’s the Man” which shows some lyrical invention, although I’m not sure about “the man who put the nonce in nonsense” and “It’s my Parade” which is a 60s girl group pastiche leaning heavily on the Lesley Gore (or Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin) classic “It’s my Party”. “It’s All Tongue in Cheek” is a twisted love song in the style of “My Funny Valentine”, while the idea of “Let’s Rip it Up” seems to be to use as many lyrical clichés as possible in one song, which also applies to “Love Train” to a certain extent.
Three of the last four songs on the album have a more personal feel and, for me, work much better than some of the earlier academic exercises in songwriting. “The Beast of Love” deals with the experience of being struck by love, passion, lust or all three, while “Cowboy City” seems to be about the reformation of the band and “The Old River Bed” seems to look back nostalgically to a happier, more innocent time.
Overall, the album has a very 60s/70s feel which is accentuated by the backing vocals (credited to Laura and Maisie) which could have been taken straight from the Shangri-Las. The lead vocal (imagine David Gedge meets Paul Heaton) is a little fragile and sometimes a little strained at the higher end of the range but generally works well within the framework of the songs. For me, there were hints of some of the classic Peel bands here (Half Man, Half Biscuit or Sultans of Ping) with a twist of pop and country.
The album works best when the songs are about personal issues; some of the remainder sound a little contrived by comparison but it’s still a very listenable album. What I admire most is that the members of IR are doing this because they love it and they want to do it. There’s no megabucks reunion tour on offer or the chance of a lucrative greatest hits re-package, just the chance to get the new songs out to old, and hopefully new, fans and probably play a few gigs. For that, I completely respect them.
Out Monday June 17 on Cowboy City Records (CBOYC020812).