Go Long ScrollerHow long is it since you heard a good song that was funny, or even a funny song that was good? One that wasn’t just whimsical and that you could maybe bear to listen to a second time around? There was a period in the seventies when Loudon Wainwright III, Warren Zevon and the brilliant Shel Silverstein turned out some hilarious songs alongside the serious stuff, but what’s happened since? Well, here’s the good news, it looks like Scott Cook can carry on the tradition. He’s a gifted songwriter, fizzing with boldness and ingenuity, writing about the environment, responsibility, commitment and the world stubbornly refusing to end according to anyone’s timetable. Scott describes “Go Long” as ‘a bunch of silly songs’ that were recorded live in the studio with a few overdubs and corrections later, giving it a fresh and spontaneous feel that works perfectly for the songs.

There are some ‘serious’ songs on the album (“Sweet Maddie Spawton”, “Come This Far”, “That’s Life (Loving You Right Back)” and “While the Party’s Still Going) but the remainder often look at serious subjects through a humorous filter. “Talkin’ Anthropocalypse Blues” typifies this, with a breakneck run through a few inaccurate Armageddon predictions before bringing the song back to the need to take responsibility for our planet, rather than waiting for someone to do it for us. It rattles along like Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” (written by Shel Silverstein) with barely a chance to draw breath as the failed apocalypse predictions are serially skewered.  “I Live Down Here” sounds like a children’s singalong, with a simple structure, lots of repeated lines and opportunities for audience participation but with a powerful environmental message permeating the nonsense verses.

And some are just funny. The album opens with the sound of a ringpull and the line ‘Judging by the angle of the sun, I’d say it’s beer o’clock” as the band rambunctiously stomp through “Long Weekends Theme”, while “Will the Circle be Unbroken” pokes fun at songs that are past their sing by date; both songs made me laugh out loud on the very first listen, even on a very bad day. “Lifer for a Wifer”, about the impossibility of relationships on the road, is packed with great lines, including ‘And if she can diddle the big bass fiddle, I’ll be wrapped around her strings’.

The sleeve notes suggest that this is a frivolous departure from the main themes of Scott Cook’s songwriting, and while it’s true that there’s plenty of fun on offer, more often than not there’s a serious message lurking. This is an album that will make you smile, probably make you laugh out loud, and should make you think. You don’t often find one of those.

“Go Long” is released on Friday July 8th on Groove Revival (GRP 007).

The sleeve notes also have lyrics, guitar chords and helpful hints from Scott about how he actually played the songs.

220px-Ssilverstein[1]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.

Rolling Stone July 2013

Rolling Stone July 2013

I can remember a time when Rolling Stone magazine was the standard against which all other music magazines were measured.  Things have changed since then and apparently not for the better as far as Rolling Stone’s concerned.  It’s been a long journey, but the July cover is a lowpoint for the magazine; it doesn’t matter how well-written or well-researched the piece is, what percentage of people who have seen the cover will actually read it?  I’m willing to bet that it’s in single figures and probably in one hand territory.  The magazine is going to be judged by the iconography of the cover and the Rolling Stone team should know that as well as, or better than, the rest of us.

Once upon a time, the Rolling Stone cover used to mean something.  Bands and fans saw it as a mark of credibility; there was an intense rivalry between performers over the amount of Rolling Stone covers you had featured on.  There was even a song about it, “Cover of the Rolling Stone”, written by Shel Silverstein and recorded by Dr Hook; you can see it on YouTube and it’s very funny.  Even in the 1970s being featured on the front of Rolling Stone was a big deal and that’s why this is such a disappointment.

The piece itself is nothing special; it’s very basic journalism.  You round up a few family members and friends and get them to give you some background and then pad it out with some simplistic pseudo-sociological theorising; it’s not going to win any prizes and it’s doubtful whether it has any place in a music/culture magazine.  I know the magazine claims it covers social issues as well as music, but that’s no excuse for this piece.  Janet Reitman stacks up the factors that could have led to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committing an outrage; his parents left him in America, he smoked weed constantly, he was jealous of his brother, his brother led him into Islam, his mother pushed him into Islam and so on.  In the end, the piece tells us nothing.

I can’t believe that no-one on the editorial staff at Rolling Stone asked whether this piece was a good idea.  Even the explanatory paragraph signed “The Editors” below Reitman’s byline makes dubious claims.  “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers”; I think you might want to have a fact-checker take a look at that one.  I did and, using Rolling Stone’s media kit figures, discovered that he’s at the bottom end of a bracket that contains 25.3% of their readers; it’s stretching a point really, particularly when you break down the other statistics on income, home ownership and ethnicity.  So was it a series of naive mistakes made by a group of well-meaning but misguided journalists, or was it a cynical attempt to shock the entire world in to talking about Rolling Stone again?

Well, let’s get back to the iconography.  The cover isn’t just a dreamy-looking young troubadour; it’s a specific visual reference to a Jim Morrison 1981 cover which, again, wasn’t one of their finest moments.  Ten years after his death, the tagline was “He’s hot, he’s sexy and he’s dead”.  Bad taste certainly but, ironically, at the time of his death he couldn’t be described as hot or sexy.  That particular image has become cultural shorthand for the soulful, tortured rock poet and that’s exactly what the magazine is trying to do here and it seems that they’re deservedly reaping the whirlwind.  Flirting with controversial topics to boost sales is always a dangerous game, even more so when the subject has a tenuous link with your core values.

And, just to give it a bit of local UK context, can you imagine a Q front cover and thinkpiece featuring  Michael Adebolajo?  Thought not.