Category Archives: Music

Stevie Nicks: visions, dreams & rumours review

A Stevie Nicks promo pic by Neal Preston for Atlantic Records. More images at Stevie's website, the Nicks Fix,

A Stevie Nicks promo pic by Neal Preston for Atlantic Records. More images at Stevie’s website, the Nicks Fix,

Zoë Howe has penned a timely and
unsparing biography of the Fleetwood Mac singer and songwriter


The story of how Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks,
dropped by their record label after a debut album that bombed, joined down on
their luck British blues band Fleetwood Mac and conquered the world is the
stuff of rock and roll legend.


In 1974 drummer Mick Fleetwood was scouting for a recording studio
for the next album by a group that had already lost guitarists Peter Green and
Danny Kirwan. At Sound City in Los Angeles, he was impressed when he heard
Buckingham Nicks’ songs being worked on for a second album that they hoped would salvage their career. When Fleetwood Mac’s then lead guitarist, Bob Welch,
announced that he too was quitting the band, Fleetwood realised he’d not only
found a great studio sound but a replacement guitarist too. But, as Zoë Howe
records in her compelling biography of Nicks, he was told by record producer
Keith Olsen: ‘Lyndsey and Steve are kind of a set. You’re going to have to take


That was 31 December 1974, and by July 1975 the new line-up
of the band had released the eponymous album that was to mark the turning point
in their fortunes. Among songs that are instantly recognisable the instant you
hear them cued up on the radio was Nicks’ Rhiannon, a song about a white witch.
She only later realised the connection to Welsh myth in the Mabinogion.


The speed and economy with which that album was recorded is
in stark counterpoint to the tortured creation of the follow-up at the Record
Plant in Sausolito, where tellingly the Eagles were recording Hotel California
in a neighbouring studio. By the account here, it really did become a place you
could leave but never escape.

‘A bunch of rumours’

What bass player John McVie christened by noting that it sounded
‘like a bunch of rumours’ charted, as their songs had always done, the
turbulent relationship of Buckingham and Nicks. But now singer and pianist
Christine McVie found herself reflecting on the breakdown of her marriage to McVie, which had brought her into the band in the first place, and her attraction to lighting
director Curry Grant as recorded in You Make Loving Fun.


When Rumours was released I was an undergraduate student at
Leicester University, growing my hair and listening to Yes and Bowie and
Supertramp, but also beginning to hear the first releases of the Clash, the
Damned, the Jam and, soon after, the Tom Robinson Band and Blondie. Yet I look
back now and realise that there was much more confected anger in much of punk
rock than in Lindsay Buckingham’s snarling putdown of Stevie in the track Go
Your Own Way, with the line ‘shacking up’s all you want to do’.


While politics moves on, and the sloganeering of some
records now sounds dated, the personal always strikes chords with the listener.
That’s probably why so many bands of that era have been forgotten, while the
Mac can still sell out stadiums (and may also explain the similar longevity of
Abba’s songbook).


But Nicks, this book reminds us, also managed to develop a parallel
career that eclipsed Buckingham’s own solo efforts, despite his claim to have
polished many of Nicks’ rough diamonds into platinum-earning songs.


It all kicked of with Bella Donna, produced by Jimmy Iovine
and boasting Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around, a rock duet with Tom Petty that
proved how well their voices were matched.


But there were also hints in her three-chord tricks and the
way she marshalled her female backing vocalists that Nicks had a country
sensibility, a way of reaching to the roots of ordinary people’s emotions that
would create for her loyal following.


And as well as the well-known affairs with Eagles Don Henley
and Joe Walsh her work with Fleetwood Mac and in her own right brought her
musical relationships with Dave Stewart, Rupert Hine, Sheryl Crow and Bob
Dylan, to name a few.


The true fans would stick with Nicks through the lean years,
when drugs took their toll and the music suffered. But the story here is also
of how she pulled back from the brink.


Tickets have just gone on sale for a Fleetwood Mac tour that
will bring the mid-70s line-up to the UK in May and June next year. If you want
to know why they sold out so quickly, this book is as good a place as any to
start to understand what was going on behind the lines of music and, as the
index records too, the lines of cocaine that could so easily have turned this
story of a brilliant career into another paen to wasted youth.


Stevie Nicks: visions,
dreams & rumours by Zoe Howe is published by Omnibus Press at £19.95 in



Electric musings: on Wintersmith and Peter Knight’s departure from Steeleye Span

There’s an argument that many bands outstay their welcome, clinging on past some notional sell-by date for rock and rollers to have new music worth sharing with an audience.

So when violinist Peter Knight announced, on the eve of Steeleye Span’s tour to promote their Wintersmith album, that he was leaving when the tour finished, it could be seen as going out on a high.

Will the loss of Knight’s distinctive fiddle playing and writing spell the end for the band? Too early to say, but I’ve a suspicion there’ll be more to come, with newcomer guitarist Julian Littman finding his writing feet and, perhaps, former member Bob Johnson continuing to contribute songs too, even if ill-health stops him touring. Just listen to Littman’s Dark Morris for the continuation of Steeleye’s tradition of marrying ‘folk’ with hard rock riffs – the best example since Thomas the Rhymer in my book.

The Wintersmith collaboration with SF author Sir Terry Pratchett to capture his Disc World in music deservedly reignited fans’ enthusiasm for a stalwart folk-rock band that has sometimes seemed content to rework old favourites from the tradition rather than explore new ground.

Those critics who cared to listen to Wintersmith ladled out the superlatives and there has even been some radio play outside the folk ghetto. If Steeleye had been ageing Americans, they’d have got a whole lot more attention in the press and on TV, but UK media folk always seem embarrassed by any mention of Morris dancing.

Yet this is a world away from the twee olde English folk that, for some, is still represented by All Around My Hat, though it didn’t seem to worry guests John Spiers and Jon Boden when they ran back on stage to join in the encores at a gig at the Barbican before Christmas.

They’d already brought additional muscle to the live performances of songs from Wintersmith that were only lacking labelmate Katherine Tickell’s Northumbrian pipes to capture the full impact of the album.

At one point on stage there were so many pieces of percussion being played by so many people during Knight’s instrumental The Dark Morris Tune, that I was reminded of a Yes performance of Tales from Topographic Oceans at the Rainbow in the mid 70s. But perhaps that shows my weakness for a concept album.

Here are Maddy Prior’s thoughts on Knight’s departure and Wintersmith in an interview with Emma Hartley from her excellent Glamour Cave folk blog.

It’s always possible that Knight will change his mind and return to the Steeleye fold, though his comment that ‘enough is enough’ and complaint at the lack of democracy in choosing the album cover art suggest otherwise. But Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp in the past have taken time out and returned. In the meantime, Wintersmith’s closing song, We Shall Wear Midnight, is a fitting lament to his contribution to the band and a fine tribute to Pratchett.

PS: It’s both amazing how close Erasure’s rendition of Gaudete is to Steeleye’s unaccompanied version (ignoring slight differences of pronunciation), and how sinister Vince Clark’s keyboards sound. Almost a Wintersmith outtake…

 Update February 27: Just caught up with the news that Steeleye have added a new violin player, Jessie May Smart, for live dates in 2014.

Gavin Sutherland: Tango at the Lost Café – review

There must be a temptation when you’ve written a worldwide hit, in Gavin Sutherland’s case Sailing as performed by Rod Stewart, to sit back and watch the royalties roll in.

Yet Sutherland has quietly kept exploring his bluesy roots and mastering the art of musical understatement in his solo recordings. More recently he’s explored social media to collaborate on projects with friends and family.

Sutherland writes on his website of not having been sure where his music was heading until he chanced upon a tango session at Mike’s Old Bus depot in new Pitsligo, next door to the Lost Café in New Pitsligo, near Peterhead.

The CD he’s produced after being tutored around this Aberdeenshire dance floor by a young woman called Kirsty is perhaps his most complete work since the days of Sutherland Brothers & Quiver. He even looks the part on the cover, a touch Mr Del Monte.

Like Diamonds & Gold from 1999 and 2008’s The Deal, Tango comes from the less is more school of rock. Laid back much of it sounds at first hearing, but there’s a deceptive beat that could have you up and on your feet with the right partner in the right place.

A hint of JJ Cale

There’s more than a hint of JJ Cale in the backing tracks crafted by Sutherland on guitar, bass, drums and even sax.  Drummer Billy Rankin (I think it’s the one who played in Brinsley Schwarz and Ducks Deluxe, and not the former Nazareth guitarist) is on four tracks and former bandmates Tim Renwick and Willie Wilson contribute guitar and mandolin parts by email on the title track.

Gavin Sutherland comes over a little Mr Del Monte on the cover of Tango at the Lost Cafe

Gavin Sutherland comes over a little Mr Del Monte on the cover of Tango at the Lost Cafe

The sum of the parts is all the greater because of the economy of the playing by a cast of Sutherland’s musical friends – a brass fill here, a deft vocal harmony there – including backing vocals from his brother Iain on the rocking Two Tone Shoes (Let it Roll) and harmonies from Americana singer/songwriter Nancy K Dillon (a satellite contribution from Seattle) on Something I Said, an achingly lovely song that would be a number one hit in a just world.

Sutherland’s lyrics match the playing, making their point then moving on to the next number. The inane tweets of people with nothing to say but a determination to say it anyway are skewered in The Tweeter.

There can be few songs where the writer is ‘standing in the Co-op in the under 10 items line’ with ‘a two for one for coffee and a special on Italian wine’. He knows this is too much information. ‘There’s nothing happening but I think you should know, I’m gonna tweet, where ever I go.’

Sutherland has played three rare gigs with three different line-ups since the album slipped out with too little fanfare in the summer. His life and his music is clearly rooted around his north-east Scotland birthplace now, but this isn’t backward looking. Tango was recorded by James Hunter at Arc Recording Studio, located in a country park at Mintlaw. The studio is mainly used for traditional Scottish music but was one of the first in the country to embrace 5.1 Surround recording.

The Sutherland Brothers, with or without Quiver, were one of my favourite bands of the 70s and watching SB&Q perform was a highlight of my time as a student journalist with Ripple at Leicester University. Now I’m just hoping the gap before Gavin Sutherland’s next album is not so long.

Shear Shazar – review: greetings from Woodstock

Jules Shear and Pal Shazar have broken their silence to make an album – their first together – for grown-ups who have been there, done that, picked up some baggage along the way, but moved on. Love has found a way.

The producer, Julie Last, has a track record including John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. It could all be too sugary for words, but their mastery of the song-writing craft means the traps are avoided with deft lyrical turns, harmonies that take unexpected directions and deceptively simple backing with a touch of country – all present in the opening track Beauty to my bones.

See that star has a piano and guitar-driven lilt well illustrated by the stills of a walk in the park in the YouTube video. You can hear the emphasis in the line: “I don’t need anyone to agree with my view of life BUT YOU.”

On Passion flowers, feet are on the ground but the stars “sparkle like rare confections / They fill my eyes like candy bars / They sweeten my recollections.”

Mr softee celebrates “the promise that no-one can revoke, the promise between man and wife” with two cherry cokes. If this all begins to sounds a bit too autobiographical, then Pal’s watercolour illustrations for the lyrics, available as pdfs on their website, illustrate two young lovers to keep you guessing.

The mermaid of Lake Hollywood is a story of seduction: “This lovely fish grants your wish as the warm winds blow across LA from Pasadena.” There’s a small psychedelic moment, a Beatle-ish interlude in the strings and la-la-las , for “this experience is magical, this experience is mythological”.

Like One more heatbreak with its discarded phone book, What you’ve heard about me brings up past lovers and files them under history. It kicks off with a confession straight out of Nashville via the Troubadour: “Come to think of it there ain’t much about love I understand” but confirms “there’s no need to analyse each circumstance”.

Hesitation town is “a state of mind not where you were born” and a gem of a song. A guy has messed up over the wrong girl “now any kindness and your heart might break”. But there’s a waitress who’s caught the eye. “A customer jokes, you hear the waitress a laugh and a crack begins to break your shell / You leave the counter – but this time you’ll look back – just in case she’s looking back as well.”

Shear and Shazar are, like Last, based in Woodstock and working outside the traditional record industry system. They’ve made a timeless album, 10 songs and a rich 32 minutes of reflection and insight.

HMV and the lost chords

I can remember when Richard Branson swept away the cushions and headphones and put security guards on the doors at the Virgin store in Manchester in the early 80s to stop the shrinkage.

It was the end of of any illusions that a national chain of record shops could be a flagship for youth culture, a place where you could discover Phaedra by Tangerine Dream or Gong’s Camembert Electrique among the chart mainstream.

HMV was always more corporate – a retail outpost of EMI, the first label that couldn’t handle the Sex Pistols – and marched across the land in tandem with the other store chains that turned our high streets into clone streets.

It long ago afforded DVDs and console games equal shelf space with CDs and token specialist vinyl. Only on Oxford Street in London has there been space for the widest range of music and staff with thorough knowledge of jazz or blues or folk or opera or heavy metal to support the genres and share their enthusiasm with potential buyers.

On the high street and even in the bigger malls – Bluewater or Westfield – the choice has been little better than in a Boots or WH Smith of the mid-70s. That is, execrable.

The latest attempt to turn round HMV’s fortunes – by shoehorning in tablets and other “technology” at higher prices than Currys PC World ­– reduced even further the choice of music. It was hardly a strategy to lure people away from the download sites.

So the news that HMV is about to go into administration – the morning after they sent out emails announcing a Blue Cross sale with 25% reductions – will be mourned by me more for the likely loss of jobs than for the threat to the last record store chain. See the Guardian’s story here.

Does this mean there’ll be an opening for a latterday Rob Gordon to turn in a decent profit from his enthusiasm for the music, ­­without having to satisfy shareholders or get the branding just so, let alone discounting to compete with the fake top 40 that the supermarket down the road never quite keeps fully stocked and where the staff can never introduce you to the next big thing.

It may even be that a sensible landlord or two will take the long view and offer up some floorspace at an affordable rents for a small business to do more than limp along before closing. High Fidelity? High hopes.

While you’re waiting

Welcome to my blog. I’ll be writing here about the adventures of a former Guardian staff journalist striking out on his own after 27 and a 1/2 years. While I get to grips with this new outlet, please take a look here where you can watch the YouTube video to the delightful See that Star and consider buying the first CD made together by Jules Shear and Pal Shazar. Pal tells me it’ll be on Amazon soon but there is a shop on their site. Here’s a piece I wrote for the Guardian’s Old Music blog on a duet, Dreams Dissolve in Tears, from a Jules solo album, The Great Puzzle. My fuller thoughts to follow.