Thursday, 14 January 2010

“Turn off the lights, and light a candle” - Teddy Pendergrass (1950-2010)

If you’re of a certain age (as I am), then by now you’ll know the tiresome familiarity of turning on the TV, opening a newspaper or checking a website, to be greeted by the news that yet another significant musical figure from your youth has died. I wasn’t even halfway through the first coffee of the day when I noticed Roots drummer/bandleader Questlove posting a load of Teddy Pendergrass songs in his Twitter feed earlier this morning, so it took a few minutes before I figured out what was up.

Certain voices are probably always going to remind me of less troubled (but no less confusing) times, and Teddy Pendergrass is one of them. When If You Don’t Know Me By Now started getting played on the radio over here in 1972, anyone already attuned to the lush melancholy of increasingly popular Philadelphia vocal groups like the Stylistics would have immediately noticed what set Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes apart from the pack. Instead of the light, Kendricks-influenced falsetto of Russell Thompkins Jr., the voice of the Blue Notes came from somewhere between its owners’ boots and his gut. If nobody had told you otherwise, you might have thought you were listening to David Ruffin on steroids. As it turned out, for a while nobody did tell us, and it was widely assumed by UK audiences that Teddy was actually Harold Melvin. There are a couple of different stories about how he (originally the drummer in the Blue Notes’ rhythm section) became the band’s lead singer. According to one tale, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who’d been trying to sign The Dells to their newly founded Philadelphia International Records label, encouraged Melvin to put Teddy up front because he sounded like Dells lead singer Marvin Junior, and if they couldn’t get the actual Dells, then they were going to create one of their own. The other story - the one they’ll use in the biopic - has Teddy leaping from behind his drum kit in the middle of a Blue Notes show, and grabbing the mic to the amazement of both his band and the audience.

Arguably more than the O’Jays even, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes were the definitive act of the PIR era, largely due to Teddy’s voice, personality and charisma, and their hits rapidly began to dry up once he made the decision to go solo in 1976. From his 1977 solo debut and onwards into the 80s, he became a permanent fixture in the US r&b charts, managing to ride out the disco backlash and cementing his “Mr. Luva-Luva” persona to the extent that he could do a succession of “For Women Only” shows without alienating his male audience. There’s a great scene during one episode in Season 5 of Homicide: Life On The Street where Det. Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) is at home with his wife Barbara. Their marriage is on the outs, and as is often the case in crumbling relationships, they’re bickering over minor irritations. In this case, it’s the garish and somewhat tacky portrait of Teddy that Meldrick insists should take pride of place on the living room wall and which, it turns out, Barbara has always hated. But what’s interesting about the scene is how there’s no suggestion of anything unusual (beyond simple bad taste, that is) in a grown man hanging a picture of an r&b singer up in his front room.

Perhaps the reason for that is that Teddy personified a kind of undiluted, unapologetic, black masculinity that appealed to both genders. Women loved him, and although men may have envied his charisma, they also admired him for the classy, measured way he asserted his blackness without ever pandering to a mainstream white audience. Plus, those men were the direct beneficiaries of all Teddy's hard work on stage and on record whereas, as the man once memorably complained during an interview, he usually returned to his hotel room alone. Black comics like Eddie Murphy and Lenny Henry were able to lampoon his persona affectionately because they understood what he represented, but elsewhere that persona was reduced to cheeseball cliché and held up by many white rock critics as a shameful example of how far post-disco black pop culture had drifted from the radical ideals of the Black Panthers. All of which completely disregards Teddy’s fondness for socially conscious material throughout his career, as well as ignoring the genuinely subversive Garveyite politics that informed a significant proportion of Philadelphia International’s output during the 70s, even at the height of disco. Once it became public knowledge that his passenger on the night of the 1982 car accident that left him in a wheelchair was a transsexual nightclub performer, many felt that neither his image nor his voice would ever fully recover from the damage, but his core audience stayed characteristically loyal. Tiger Woods should be so lucky.

It’s that voice that he’ll be remembered for, of course – that rich, gritty baritone both mournful and declamatory, simultaneously pleading whilst bristling with righteous anger, able to ride the joyous rhythm of a song like The Love I Lost whilst remaining utterly convincing that he’d suffered the cruellest heartbreak. It never really regained its power after his accident, but it’s testament to the man’s spirit that he continued to record and perform for well over a decade after his 1984 comeback. His persona may have been easy meat for lazy parodists, but there was always a tenderness, warmth and likeability to Teddy that the ‘bedroom bully’ crassness of his present-day equivalents could never hope to convey. There are precious few true soul men left nowadays as it is. We ought to cherish the ones that are still around.

Sorry we lost you, Teddy.


This is a teaser trailer for David Simon’s new series for HBO, Treme, set in the New Orleans district of the same name, the traditional home of the city’s muso community. It doesn’t tell you an awful lot about the story, but according to Simon, the show is centred on the local music scene and also deals with a number of themes familiar to fans of The Wire (political corruption, the criminal justice system), as well as the post-Katrina attempts at regenerating the city. It debuts in the US on April 11. No idea who’s picking it up for broadcast over here, but if it goes to form with HBO shows in the UK, then FX should get first dibs.

Wire geeks will doubtless be delighted that Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters are teaming up once more, although I’m not expecting any “Lester and the Bunk”-type comedy this time out. It’ll be interesting to see how Simon et al tackle the oft-documented ambiguities of the city, particularly since it's said to be one of the most racist yet racially inclusive cities in America. Likewise how they’ll deal with the popular perception of New Orleans as a city in perpetual recovery from Katrina. Given how long Liverpool struggled to leave behind the 1980s post-riots/Thatcherite whipping-boy image it had in the eyes of British dramatists (Jimmy McGovern included, if we’re being completely honest), it's probably wise of Simon to rope in local writers Tom Piazza and Lolis Eric Elie alongside George Pelecanos, so there’s less cause for concern than there might be otherwise.

A few more reasons to hope it reaches our screens sooner rather than later; the excellent Melissa Leo (a veteran of Simon’s Homicide: Life On The Street) is in it, as is Khandi Alexander (The Corner) and, reportedly, John Goodman. Fittingly for a show about musicians, Simon has found room in the cast for Steve Earle, although from what I can gather he’ll be playing a supplementary role similar to that of Walon, his character in The Wire. I understand Wynton Marsalis is also involved on the music side, which doesn’t exactly thrill me. Brilliant musician he may be, but his "guardian of the artform" approach to jazz gets on my pip most of the time. That said, when you’re after the specific kind of accuracy that a project like Treme calls for, then I suppose Wynton is the go-to guy, or at least as good a go-to guy as anyone else. And, to tell the truth, I can almost forgive him his tedious, fusty, academic purism when he sticks to things like this.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

While You Were Sleeping...*

Just as the first decade of the 21st century was limping to a close, and perhaps in an attempt to disprove the maxim that nothing decent is ever released during December, three new tunes quietly surfaced with comparatively little fuss last month. Personally, I thought all three were better than just about anything else released in the whole of 2009 and, while it's more or less certain that at least one of them will reach a mass audience in 2010, they all deserve more attention than they received during that dismal month when half the country was pretending to like Rage Against The Machine.

The track most likely to find its way onto Radio 2's A-list (Radio 1 wouldn't dream of A-listing anyone so old...) is Sade's Soldier Of Love, the title track from her forthcoming album. Not so much a capital-S single as an exercise in mood and atmospherics, I'd be fascinated to hear a dubstep treatment of it (a Mala rework would be amazing, if anyone from Sony happens to be reading). Sade clearly has no interest in trying to compete with what's on the radio right now, whether that happens to be Michael Buble, Paolo Nutini, the Saturdays or Chipmunk – the song is six minutes long, after all - so the absence of a clear, strong hook isn't that important. On American r&b radio, where she's still worshipped as a goddess, they'll play it regardless, and the fact that it doesn't sound formatted to fuck and back won't make a blind bit of difference. It isn't just the grown-and-sexy crowd who'll get behind this, either. Within days of the song being premiered on her official site, rappers were falling over one another to be the first to spit a hot sixteen over its meandering groove and get an unofficial remix of some sort circulating around the net.

Characteristically, Soldier Of Love sounds as if it's been built from the groove upwards, the voice and lyrics seeming no more than another component of the song's atmosphere rather than the centre of it, as might be the case with another singer. Like Pearls or I Never Thought I'd See The Day, the vocal sounds as if it came from within the music rather than something that was worked up elsewhere and added at a later date. All the separate elements - the martial drum motif, the combat metaphors, the stuttering guitar near the end that sounds like gunfire - all sound as if they're vibing off everything else in the track and everything sounds exactly where it's supposed to be. It's tremendous stuff, but whether it'll be enough to prevent lazy hacks trotting out a succession of cliches about 80s wine bars when the time comes to review the album remains to be seen. Despite being in the game for almost exactly the same length of time (as well as being around the same age), Sade's never shown any inclination to mimic Madonna's eagerness to be seen to be on top of whatever the cutting-edge sound is. In fact, much like Portishead (who we'll come to in a moment), she continues to strike me as someone who knows precisely what she's aiming for every time and is prepared to shut herself away for as long as it takes, in complete defiance of passing trends, until she gets what she wants. And again, much like Portishead, the finished article will sound as if it couldn't possibly have been made by anyone else.

Within a few days of Soldier Of Love reaching the web, Portishead marked International Human Rights Day by slipping the leash on a new song, Chase The Tear, making it available for download exclusively via 7Digital and donating all profits to Amnesty International. Given that the band usually works at the sort of pace that would make a Tarkovsky flick seem to zip along like Usain Bolt or something, it came as quite a shock that some new material should surface within 18 months of the magnificent Third. Perhaps less surprising is that the wintry analog spookiness of Third’s best track, The Rip, seems to have led them toward something that sounds a little like Can remixed by Giorgio Moroder. Let’s just look at that again, shall we? New Portishead music without the customary years-long wait, and if that wasn’t enough, it’s probably the closest they’ve ever got to a dance record. Oh, no - nothing interesting ever gets released in December…

As sure as night follows day, anything Portishead do will either be described as “moody”, or will be greeted with a chorus of grouchy demands that Beth Gibbons cheer up and try working in a call centre if she wants something to be miserable about. Funny thing is - and I may as well go for the world record on Things You Never Thought You’d Write About Portishead here - Chase The Tear really does sound like a group of musicians having fun again. It’s driven by a surging motorik judder that manages to sound exhilarating and claustrophobic at the same time, and while it isn’t exactly Music Sounds Better With You, it’s still quite a way from what Portishead seemed to have become between their last two albums; a band apparently so repulsed by the idea of their music soundtracking chi-chi dinner parties and “edgy” TV dramas that they were paralysed with fear at the thought of making a record people might actually, y'know, like. Well, I’m quite pleased I was wrong about that, and if 2010 sees the release of a fourth Portishead album, that’ll be another nice surprise.

Not as nice a surprise, however, as a tangible physical release by the most intriguing rapper to emerge in the latter half of the decade would be. Yes, Jay Electronica's handle is an unwieldy one – a little corny, even – but as anyone who’s been following this New Orleans-born emcee for the last few years will tell you, once you hear him, you'll know it really wouldn’t matter a tuppenny fuck if he called himself The Reverend Kenny Carl Jackson-Jones Dominguez IV or Barack Hussein Obama. Web buzz can be a fickle thing in the hip-hop world, as Papoose and Charles Hamilton can probably testify, but Jay Elec has avoided the established path of mixtape after mixtape and more guest verses than Busta and Jadakiss combined. Instead he’s gone for a steady drip-drip of internet-only releases (often an indication that your status most assuredly ain’t hood, although not in this case) punctuated by the odd thing you can buy at iTunes, the most recent being Exhibit C.

Built on an incredible, neck-snapping beat by Just Blaze (one of JE’s earliest champions) crafted from a few diced-and-sliced chunks of Billy Stewart’s gorgeous 1967 soul ballad Cross My Heart, Exhibit C is one of those songs you don’t - can't - listen to just the once. If it had been released back in the days of analog mixtapes, I guarantee you that kids would have been hitting the rewind button again and again on this, trying to catch every last, dazzling syllable of verses that – honestly, it's this good – are almost the equal of vintage Rakim or Illmatic-era Nas in terms of imagination, audacity and self-assurance. "Swagger", I think the kids are calling it now. Just listen to that last verse. I mean, fucking hell. It’s one of those all-too-rare tunes that unites the backpackers and the how-about-some-hardcore types, simply because it deals directly with the fundamentals of rap music – beats and rhymes – and does so with such purpose, intelligence and unwavering, I-don’t-mean-to-brag-I-don’t-mean-to-boast self-confidence that time-served rap fans have described it as “like hearing hip-hop for the first time”. Just Blaze himself orchestrated a Twitter campaign that pushed the song into the top 10 of the US iTunes Hip-Hop chart in the third week of December. Yeah, imagine that, eh? People buying music they like in the hope of livening up the charts at Christmas. I wonder if it’ll catch on? Put it this way; if you like rap, then you can’t not like this.

(* - yeah, like I can talk...)