CSM’s Choice: Norman Watt-Roy storms the Half Moon, Putney – review

Norman Watt-Roy at the Half Moon, Putney,

Charles Shaar Murray reviews
NORMAN WATT-ROY

Half Moon, Putney
June 24, 2014

By all accounts, the veteran master bassist — I’ll repeat that: MASTER BASSIST — Norman Watt-Roy was crapping Land Rovers before he took the stage of Sahf Landan’s hallowed Half Moon for his first gig in over a year as frontman for his own band. With Wilko Johnson’s recuperation from miracle surgery leaving a hole in Norman’s normally busy schedule and coinciding with the release of a rather impressive solo album, Faith & Grace, to promote, it was time for Norman to take centre-stage. Hence panic attack.

He needn’t have worried. From beginning to end of the set, he and his band — drummer Asaf Sirkis, keyboard guy Frank Harrison and Gilad Atzmon (who produced and co-arranged the album) on saxes and accordion — were loudly and lovingly received by a near-capacity house in which everybody present seemed to be fully paid-up fans of The Blockheads, Wilko or (in most cases) both.

Repertoire: beginning and encoring with Ian Dury’s Hit me With Your Rhythm Stick and, in between, a mix of crowd-pleasing faves drawn from the Wilko and Dury catalogues and the jazzfunkier Faith & Grace material, including Jaco Pastorius’ John And Mary (performed as a tribute to a key influence), the autobiographical Me, My Bass and I and the stunning Norman! Norman! (with Atzmon leading the title chant), in which he pounded seven shades of used food out of a few riffs which he’d contributed uncredited to other people’s records, notably Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax and The Clash’s Magnificent Seven.

The band gave Watt-Roy plenty of both space and support. The sure-footed (and sure-handed!) Sirkis locked into the leader’s bass like a very tight thing indeed; Harrison restricted himself to cushy chordal beds (apart from the odd fleetfingered solo) and the burly, bespectacled Atzmon displayed his unparalleled instinct for knowing when to chip in a tersely appropriate riff, when to blast out a characteristically formidable tenor solo … and when to lay out. As for yer man himself, you might feel that a sax/keys/bass drums quartet in which the featured instrumentalist is the bass player might seem overly sparse and skeletal … and you’d be wrong. Watt-Roy’s consistently surprising sonic and harmonic invention, his tautly muscular sound and balletically agile playing render him as compelling as a featured artist as he is in his more familiar sideman role . Plus (as anyone who’s ever seen him with either Wilko or the Blockheads will know) he’s almost as much fun to watch as he is to hear. He’s not exactly a singer (yet) … but his voice has charm and character and his phrasing is a delight.

There’s an ancient cartoon of a prisoner being grilled in a cell by a couple of interrogators. Next to the prisoner is a guy playing a bass. One interrogator tells the other, “Everybody talks during the bass solo.” Not when it’s Norman Watt-Roy they don’t. He is, after all … NORMAN! NORMAN!

If Jeff Beck ever again performs with a male bassist (let alone one not significantly younger than he is) the only real contender would be Norman Watt-Roy. And if Norman was a superhero, it would be Wolverine — because he’s ‘the best at what he does.’


4/5

[Anna writes: Would the photographer who took the great pic of Norman please get in touch re credit and permission? Thanks.]

Felix Dennis, without whom — a requiem

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This just in: Felix Dennis has left the building, departed this plane of existence, passed away. Another man done gone, less than a year after Mick Farren split. (Felix and I both wrote introductions of sorts to Micky’s best-of collection Elvis Died For Somebody’s Sins But Not Mine.) You’ll be seeing summaries of his extraordinary life and career all over mainstream media any second now, but since I pretty much owe what I laughingly refer to as ‘my career’ to Felix, let’s just stick with the personal stuff …

I first met him in 1970 at Richard Neville’s basement at the preliminary editorial meeting for what eventually became the OZ Schoolkids Issue. As the magazine’s business manager and in-house ‘freak with a briefcase’, I was struck by the clash of his pinstripe suit with his Louis XIV hair and wildman beard … and his near-hysterical piratical guffaw.

He was both the most practical and the most hedonistic of the OZ triumvirate: simultaneously brusque and compassionate. When I decided to relocate to London on New Years Day of 1972, it was Felix who put me up, rent-free, in the spare room of his then dwelling at 44 Wandsworth Bridge Road, allowing me unlimited access to his fridge, his library and his record collection, and there I stayed until Felix moved out several months later. By then I was able to roll a decent spliff and I’ve still never flatshared with anyone who had so many girlfriends – or such noisy ones. All he asked in return was that I always made sure there was an untouched pint of milk in the fridge: he needed it for the ulcer he already had in his mid-20s.

Without OZ I might never have found a first home in print: without Felix’s generosity I’ve no idea how I’d have gained my first foothold in London. Many years later I worked for him again, at MacUser, and more recently he helped me out of a massive jam, even though we’d seen very little of each other for decades. ‘We’re not close friends,’ he explained, ‘but we’re old friends.’

He was booked to appear alongside R Crumb and former OZ lawyer Geoffrey Robertson at a panel about the OZ trial which I’ll be hosting on July 14 as part of The British Library’s Comics Unmasked season, but last week we heard that he was unwell and not able to appear. Guess he wasn’t kidding … Felix, if you changed your mind about doing the gig, just saying so would’ve been enough. I therefore intend to dedicate the event to him.

For now: in his honour — a poem. Hail and farewell, Felix …

We only meet at funerals
Fewer of us each time
More and more passengers disembark
As we approach the end of the line

Fewer and fewer chairs required
At each gathering of the clan
How long before we can count ourselves
On the fingers of one hand?

Some of us split long ago
Some of us hang on
Some keep an empty glass on the table
For those already gone

Some of us got famous
Some of us got rich
Some of us just got all fucked up
Ain’t that a bitch?

Some of us remember
When it wasn’t all just for show
Some of us still light a candle
For the dreams of long ago

Some left the party early
But no matter how many are dead
A spliff still burns in the ashtray
For revolutions in the head

CSM’s Choice: Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen

Charles Shaar Murray reviews
ROCK STARS STOLE MY LIFE!

Mark Ellen
Coronet, 2014

Any autobiography worth reading (ghosted or not) will reflect the character and personality of its author. It should therefore come as no particular surprise that this account of Mark Ellen’s decades of writing, editing and broadcasting stuff to do with poppy rocky stuff should be bluff, boisterous, bustling, tiggerishly-bouncily energetic, insightful and oft-times coached in urbanely Wodehousean rodomontade. The aforementioned ‘stuff’ began with a stint at the NME and proceeded via a long and winding road which included editing Smash Hits, fronting the Whistle Test and Live Aid and founding Q, Mojo and the much-missed Word. This latter was the best mag of its type you could get: it collapsed just two issues short of what would have been its tenth anniversary, and I miss it both as a reader and as a contributor.

All in all, not bad for a former lumpenhippie devotee of truly awful prog-rock who briefly shared a college rock band with a hog-whimperingly embarrassing Mick Jagger impersonator later better-known as Prime Minister of the UK turned megalomaniac war criminal. The book contains somewhat less about their subsequent encounters than this reader would have liked: Mark being both a diplomatic and a loyal soul, he continued to insist that his former bandmate, Tony Blair, was ‘a good man’ long after the evidence clearly suggested otherwise.

Mark considered himself too old for punk. In fact, he was only a year older than Mick Jones, two years younger than Joe Strummer, three years younger than yr correspondent and considerably the junior of anyone in The Ramones, let alone Patti Smith or Debbie Harry. Despite considering the NME posse a standoffish lot when he first arrived, he evidently felt that I hadn’t been too horrible to him because he subsequently offered me gainful employment on three of the above-mentioned magazines.

As well as being an entertaining, enlightening and anecdote-stuffed ride, Mark’s provided a sobering requiem for a majorly fun era in both music and its attendant media which is rapidly disappearing, its smoke and funk being relentlessly sucked away by the air-conditioning of harsher times.

The Mark Ellen you meet in these pages is, for all practical purposes, the Mark Ellen I first met as a freshfaced lad hanging around the NME office hustling for the chance to write a 300-word gig review. He’s almost as entertaining on the page as he is in RL.


4/5

CSM’s Choice: BB King’s Blues All Around Me: the Autobiography

Charles Shaar Murray reviews
BLUES ALL AROUND ME: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY

BB King with David Ritz
Hodder & Stoughton, 1994

Somehow, this extraordinary memoir slipped through my net on original publication, back when BB was a mere 70 years old. Indeed, when I found it on Charity Shop Row (or a single solitary squid!), I almost passed it by under the impression that I already had it. (Yep, I AM slow on the uptake sometimes: I won’t embarrass myself by revealing how long it took me to figure out why Bill Haley’s band were called The Comets.)

BB King was second only to Louis Armstrong for the ability to combine the roles of Beloved Entertainer and game-changing, globally influential virtuoso: of the ’60s-and-after Rock Guys, only Paul McCartney really came close. Since this book was published, much of his back-story was eloquently depicted in the recent biodoc Life Of Riley, but here on the page — coaxed from him via the alchemy of confidant/confessor David Ritz — the Big B’s narrative takes you further behind that genial, self-deprecating façade than most could possibly have predicted. Until this book was written, B very rarely spoke about the pain in his life: he channelled it via his voice and his guitar. Then he’d smile and thank the ladies and gentlemen.

So here it is: an upbringing (or shall we say ‘non-upbringing’? ‘Semi-upbringing’?) gruelling even by the standards of those born black and poor in the rural Mississippi Delta during the 1920s. The struggle to acquire and master his chosen craft and then turn it first into a means of making a living, and then into a career. No drugging and not that much drinking, but a near-lifelong battle with sex addiction and a massive gambling habit. A cosy-schmoozy showbiz autobiog this most certainly isn’t, but neither does it drip with self-pity or lapse into therapese. Even at his most scarifyingly self-revelatory, B retains both his dignity and his charm.

If, gentle reader, BB King’s work has any significance for you, then try and be smarter than yr correspondent. In another words, don’t leave it 18 years before you read it.


5/5