Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Johnny Rotten in vintage form in the studio

A transcript of a 1979 show with John Lydon, when BRMB had big audiences and let their DJs do weird stuff on air.

This is a radio story from over thirty years ago. It shows how commercial radio has changed, and it’s funny as hell. Well, I think so, because I’m part of it.

We're at the very end of the punk era. I was doing rock shows on Birmingham’s commercial station, BRMB. I was offered a John Lydon interview. Lydon was on his second band, Public Image Limited, after the dissolution of the Sex Pistols. I approached the interview idea with caution. Punk and post-punk artists famously took pride in being awkward sods on air. I had been exquisitely roasted over a slow fire by the Stranglers a few months earlier, and I wasn’t keen on playing media patsy all over again. But Lydon was too interesting to pass up, so we settled on turning the show's music over to him, as part of an extended interview. The music was great: lots of deep Roots Reggae. But predictably, it was a barbed conversation. Lydon was uncompromising, mildly truculent, and provocative. He also talked a lot of sense. In between the music, the challenges flew. I only lost my temper and swore the once…

The show itself does not survive. BRMB was terrible at archiving its output: see my UB40 post for notes on how and why. But the verbal exchanges and music details have survived, lovingly documented and transcribed by the excellent Fodderstompf, who cover all things PiL. My role here is incidental: the transcript exists because Lydon did a show and Fodderstompf documented it. Merry sniping and tetchy badinage, along with relevant links, awaits you …

You're listening to Robin Valk now through till 11. And in this hour Johnny Rotten is picking the music. John welcome to BRMB Radio. What we are going to hear, over this coming hour or so, is what you're playing at the moment, rather than any other stuff. How much of a collection have you got at the moment?
I don't buy rubbish. So it's not that huge. I suppose it escalates over the years. It's enough to humour me, but not enough really.
Have you been able to buy more recently, or has it just gone at the same rate as before? 
It's slumped lately.
A lot of things you are going to play, as you explained to me, won't exactly be current, they will have been bought from JA, because they came over in limited edition. The first track I Jah Man Levi, the first version of 'Jah Heavy Load', has got a fairly checkered history. There are two different versions. Why do you prefer this one as opposed to the re-recorded version?
Because the re-recorded version is like cocktail jazz, I don't like it. I prefer this. It's just better. I don't see why the original single was never released, officially. Like most reggae.
Do you feel that British record companies who get into reggae, as a corporate decision, are doing it in the right way? Considering the way both Island Records and Virgin Records made deliberate decisions to get into reggae in a big way, and sign up everything they could. Have they gone about it the right way…
[interrupts] It's not true they signed everything they could. There are several records in that little pile there, they could have signed up but didn't. Probably because they had too much talent. You find that, well, Virgin tend to sign up the weakest kind of reggae. The sort they hope will get in the charts and make a bit of money for them. That's the wrong attitude. You should always stick to the real stuff.

We're with Johnny Rotten tonight on BRMB, you've just heard 'Jah Heavy Load', the first version, by I Jah Man Levi. Leaving aside what you are doing at the moment, if you wanted to, would you want run a record company simply releasing music you believed in. Would you like to do that, has that ever crossed your mind?
No. Why the hell should I? It's nothing to do with me. I don't want to know about that end of it. I don't see why I should be expected to do it for them. I'm sick of that attitude.
That wasn't quite the angle I was looking at, it's just you are in a position now, where if you wanted to, you could get things done.
Am I? I think you'll find that's not strictly true.
Well, I still have to scrape and beg for tuppence off the record company. That's the usual story.
The next track Black Uhuru and 'No, No, No.'
That's someone Virgin could have signed but didn't. Sly Dunbar production. They signed Sly, they'll release the rubbish he puts out, but not the good stuff. It's the same with the Gregory Isaacs thing, they could have signed him, they could have signed Ken Boothe, they could have signed a lot of them.

On BRMB talking with Johnny Rotten tonight. Do you recognise there's almost a two tier level of production, whereby Jamaican reggae artists release the real stuff, then the mass-market stuff. Dilute it down a bit for the white market. Do you reckon that happens?
It's not done deliberately in Jamaica. It just so happens that when the masters arrive here the companies tend to cut the bass and lower the treble, and chuck out something that sounds nothing like the original. Something similar happened to our first album. There was a confusion over the masters, I really shouldn't mention all of this, but I can prove it with matrix numbers. The production of our first album mysteriously changed in the cutting of the discs.
As a result it didn't come out the way you wanted?
Ha. It didn't come out the way they wanted. I insisted on the masters we handed in. Otherwise the record would not go out at all.
You've obviously picked up, by virtue of necessity, a fair amount of studio knowledge just to protect what you've got, and what you've done. Do you want to apply that more in the future with Public Image, whatever you wind up doing next?
What do you mean?
Well, just now you're talking about what you've done, and talking about studio techniques, watering things down, and cutting things back, altering it, softening it. And you've had to put that whole side of the business…
[interrupts] I've had to stop it. We've had to stop it. In our personal situation, it is an everyday story, it's no lonely heartbreak. It just means that you should produce your own records, and you should never have anyone tell you how you should sound. You should take your own masters to the cutting rooms. You should make your own acetates. You should deliver them to the record company and make sure that the test pressings that arrive back from the record plants are exactly the same as your acetates. It's simple. If you don't do that you'll never get what you wanted, you won't recognise it.
The next track The Normal 'TVOD'. The Normal - what do you know about them?
I know nothing [laughs]. They seem to be a very discreet bunch. Isn't it something to do with a geezer called Thomas Leer, is that right? [sic: Daniel Miller] He's made a few records, they're alright. I like that sound.

The next track is Gregory Isaacs & Christine. This is about a domestic situation, as opposed to…
[interrupts] A situation I didn't create that's for sure! [laughs] I love acting as judge and jury!
Gregory Isaacs is doing stuff nationally, as well as doing his own thing, is this is on his own label from Jamaica or what?
That's stuff that like… Gregory Isaacs is now released through Virgin, but a lot of those songs are old songs or are renditions of somebody else's. They are nowhere near as hard as they could be. And certainly stuff like that single would not normally be released through a nice establishment type record company. They don't like it, it's too heavy.
Lets assume, hypothetically for a moment, an establishment record company, one of the labels, whether it be independent or whatever, decides to issue straight undiluted, unvarnished Jamaican reggae, without cutting it or cleaning it up. Putting it out straight. Wouldn't that in itself be almost seen as a cop-out as be taking it and emasculating it?
How! Surely the reason for making any music is to get the message, that you are trying to get over, to as many people as possible, otherwise you are being a pretentious little snot.
Granted, but at the same time there's a certain tendency for records to be… well, the whole British marketing of the New Wave came about partly through 12" discs and coloured pressings, and exclusive limited editions and all that kind of garbage.
If you've got that kind of marketing mentality already installed, by the time that something that was available exclusively, simply because the guys couldn't afford to give it a bigger pressing, a bigger run, national distribution, if it does get to the mass audience then…
[interrupts] Look, look, like Virgin have opened up a chain of record supermarkets. The latest one in Oxford Street you can't even hear a record in there. You're not even given the chance, they're just in racks. You're merely shown what it is, and that's it. You either buy it or don't, you certainly can't hear the thing. That attitude is wrong. Records should be available freely, you should be able to hear them constantly. Radio's are wrong for a start. The fact that they only play the Top 30 records that are selling is pointless waste of time. I mean, if your record is selling and people are buying it, they don't want to hear what they've got day after day, after day. Surely you should be able to hear what you haven't got. And so on, and so forth.
I'm not going to disagree with you, because basically I feel that way myself.
And what are you doing about it?
I'm not playing the god damn Top 30, Jesus!
[interrupts] I never said that did I. I'm not attacking you personally. But if you want to take it that way that's fine, I'm sure you can have a very decent intellectual argument.
I doubt the BRMB listeners want to hear me intellectualising on whether I personally am doing the right thing spreading music, what I'd like to do is talk to you, rather than get into the ins and outs of my own stuff.
Well, I mean the marketing, lets go back to the marketing the records at the moment. Different coloured vinyl, all sorts of gimmicks thrown at you. I mean you can only get away with for as long as an audience tolerate it. And the problem of all those situations is the people buying the stuff. They don't complain, they seem to like it. That's why it continues.

Next one up is Ken Boothe and 'Got To Get Away'. The three versions that you went through, we're going to play the first one, which in a way, is almost the straightest of the three versions.
Well, I think the words in it are really quite good, and I'd like people to hear them. Ken Boothe is a man of talent.

And finally tonight, from Kraftwerk 'Showroom Dummies', the last track picked out tonight by Johnny Rotten. Kraftwerk, again, getting back to the similarities of electronic synthesisers, we touched on electronic rock earlier with The Normal, Kraftwerk are slightly more easier identifiable, Kraftwerk have changed direction quite radically over the past couple of years, certainly of the 'Showroom Dummies' track.

How do you work that out? They've always been pretty robotic.
They've got shorter and sharper and it's got crisper and…
It's 6 minutes 10 seconds long.
As opposed to 15 minutes of slightly more flowing music…
Well, you're on about very long album tracks then. They can have very short singles at the same time too.

On BRMB Radio tonight my guest Johnny Rotten, one of the topics we haven't raised yet is Johnny Rotten's present group. Can you really be worried about lack of airplay if you…
[interrupts] Yes, of course I can. I think it's essential that as many people as possible hear us. That is essential. Otherwise how is anybody gonna be able to discriminate. I mean it's too easy to condemn something without hearing it, and like, lets face it I've faced a lot of that. I get that all the time.
Are you getting tired of being a whipping boy, or has it gone on so long are immune to it?
It's very easy to make me a scapegoat now isn't it.
I mean, look at the competition there really isn't any.
Yeah, but how do you feel about it personally? It seems to happen about every other week, that you wind up in a situation, that someone is going be firing at you. You seem to half relish it and half hate it at the same time.
Well, of course I like it. That's practically what I want. At least its a reaction. I mean it's better than 'Crossroads' is it not? I don't go out of my way to shout and scream blue blooded murder, that would be pointless, I just want a bit of difference in attitude from people. I don't like the way people accept roles. Lets see, the term punk that really did make me ill. The way the whole host of morons freely accepted that tag given to them by the media. That was where that movement went wrong, and that is why I had to get away from it. I will not be put into an army for anyone. [long pause] No uniforms.
Johnny Rotten thank you kindly.


Many thanks to Johnny Rotten for the past hour of conversation, and music, and arguments…

My thanks to Fodderstompf for taking the time to transcribe the recording someone made, and to Beshara Muzic: This post is here because Beshara Muzic, inheritors of the mantle of Birmingham Reggae greats Beshara, spotted the Fodderstompf post and tipped me off. I'm really glad they did. My link with Beshara Muzic was forged as a result of working on 'Handsworth Evolution' - blog post here - a 2010 documentary I produced about Reggae in Birmingham.


Sunday, 22 January 2012

Steve Gibbons talks and plays on Radio to Go

A conversation with live music from Steve Gibbons and John Caswell
I aim to tell stories about musicians from my city on this blog. In this post, however, Steve Gibbons is telling the stories... and how. This is one of a series of programmes I recorded with local musicians last year, working with Brian Travers of UB40 on his Music Up project. 

It’s a simple notion: we get together in a studio, we talk, and the musicians play, live. It’s a conversation with music, and, of course, the programme is only as good as the music and the conversation. Steve has great music and brilliant stories, so this one’s a winner.

I now have the privilege of giving the show a first outing on Radio To Go. But if you’re working on a station that would like to air it, that’s fine too; just read on. I’ve broken it down into roughly two equal parts: part one is right here; part two, now with a Flipcam clip of part of the session, follows on.

Steve Gibbons is one of the most loved musicians in Birmingham. He’s been his highly individual, poetic and articulate self, for nigh on fifty years. If you don’t know Steve, you should. Here’s the Wikipedia page, and here's a fan site.

This show was originally meant for a first broadcast airing on Birmingham Internet station Rhubarb Radio, but since that station fell over late last year, I’d rather not let it gather dust. So, accidentally, but not unpleasantly, this was an exclusive on this blog. However, we agreed at the start of working this series that shows would be free for rebroadcast on any station that would like to have the programme. So, if you’re such a station, email me through this blog (link below) and I’ll get a copy to you.  WCRfm, a community station in Wolverhampton, was the first station to take delivery of this programme for rebroadcast. It aired in February. 

My thanks for to Steve and John, Brian and the team at Music Up in Coventry. And the photo right here? Thank you, Steve Ajao.

There may be more to come in this series. Feedback is very welcome in the meantime. And I am open to suggestions...

Finally, here's a FlipCam shot of part of the session, shot by Brian Travers.

Also in the In The Studio series
360 at Elephant House
Steve Ajao

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Destroyers cross the PledgeMusic finish line

How one band found online fan funding to support their CD. It wasn't easy...

Louis Robinson in make-up for the video shoot
On January 12th 2012, around lunchtime, the Destroyers hit their target on PledgeMusic.com.

This allowed them to fund the release of their second album. I am delighted for them. I’m not alone: check the Destroyers' Facebook page to read messages of congratulations from all over.

By the way, this here is Louis Robinson with a lot of scary make-up being applied. The Destroyers were shooting a video yesterday for their next single. More on this later.

I’m a big fan. I’d love to see the band grow and prosper.  I’ve been watching the online pledge process closely from the moment they got it underway. It seems to me that the Destroyers played this one just right. But setting up a worthwhile project on one of the many pledge sites is one thing; taking it to fruition is quite another. 

Fan-funded music releases aren’t new. Ten years ago, veteran Scottish pomp-rockers Marillion demonstrated the power of marketing themselves directly to a loyal Europe-wide fan base with spectacular success, when the record industry had long since written them off. Buffalo singer-songwriter Anni DiFranco has put out releases yearly for 18 years on her own label, maintaining and managing direct links to her growing following.

And it’s becoming a much more significant part of the music landscape. I went to PledgeMusic  to look at the successes. On the Funded - that is, successful – page today, the Destroyers are up there, front and centre, one of the most recent projects to cross the finish line. Following on are a string of happily completed projects from around the world. You won’t know most of them, because they all successfully work to their home areas. But if you jump back to the PledgeMusic home page you’ll see some surprisingly big names, not all of whom have been successful. Many are: there’s Reef, and Killing Joke, who have both wildly exceeded their targets, and in so doing, sidestepped the conventional record industry to great effect. But look – here’s Ian McCullough, a name to conjure with from the 70s and 80s, who has yet to hit the 100% mark. I think he probably will – he’s three quarters of the way there and he still has another two months to gather the remaining pledges of support.

Pledge sites work by inviting fans to contribute towards a total sum. This funds a CD, or a DVD, or a film, or an EP, or an artistic activity. There are dozens of such sites covering all sorts or artistic activities, but they tend to work in much the same way: your pledges are only redeemed if the entire project hits its target. So there is a risk of failure. And of course, if you fail, your failure is both public and extremely disappointing for the band and fans.

When the Destroyers kicked their campaign off late last year, they rapidly hit the 30% pledge mark,  offering a range of goodies to pledge for from straight downloads to signed items, and even attendance at a rehearsal followed by dinner with the band at a mere £140. This is a bargain: you have to fork out 500 Australian dollars for dinner with The Murphy Brothers, a three piece from Western Australia. After that encouraging start, things slowed down a little bit. Then, alarmingly, things slowed down quite a lot. The percentage total, loping gently but steadily upwards, started to crawl. And after Christmas, for obvious reasons, things got sticky. With a week to go, they were still some 20% off their target. However, recent days saw an explosion of online activity to raise awareness. Band members, friends, fans, family and fellow musicians, tweeted, posted and nagged. The band kept up a steady stream of posts, offering video clips and extra treats for those who had already pledged. I wasn't sure anyone eventually came in for Louis Robinson’s framed beard, though - a snip at £69. 

I met with the band at their video shoot (in a backstreet boozer a stone's throw from the Birmingham markets area) to talk over their campaign.Louis  was more than happy with Pledgemusic: 
“They get involved. You talk to them at least once a week, and it’s always the same person, so you develop a relationship. They’ll tell you about other campaigns on their site, and suggest you try this or that.”

It looked at one time that you weren’t going to hit your target. Do you think you were realistic in setting your financial goal?

“Yes. We weren’t asking for a huge amount – enough to press up a few thousand CDs, cover some mixing costs and bits and pieces. The bigger your following, the more you can aim for. But Pledgemusic are also pretty good at suggesting a realistic target. And they check you out before letting you sign up – they look at your site, see how many Facebook likes you have see, listen to your music, read the reviews…”

Louis, you still have your beard. Didn’t anyone pledge for it?

“Oh, they did. There will be a ceremonial presentation. There may be video footage in due course...."
Isn't there the awful risk that you might actually fail in your attempt to raise funds? I saw an awful lof of low percentage pledges on PledgeMusic...
"Yes, there is that risk, and we were well aware of it as we approached the deadline day. But PledgeMusic, like I said, were, extremely helpful in suggesting strategies."

Paul Murphy and Sam Wooster (trumpet) talked about the dog days of the campaign.

Sam: “When we got to about 60% of our target, with two weeks to go, I was a bit worried. But then it all came together. We got everyone working their own social networks - lovers, families, friends...”

Maybe your timing could have been better? You hit the slow stage right after Christmas, when everyone was flat broke. It was a bit touch and go there for a while...

Paul: “Robin, we really didn’t have a lot of choice. In planning the album release, tours for this coming year, a first single (Hole In The Universe), and everything else, this was how it had to be. But so many people came onboard with our last minute campaign, by posting and tweeting about us, it spread the word further. And we were able to offer a few exclusive goodies to our pledgers – so that helped.”

And with that, it was back to the video shoot. They were running late, of course. Here's the result:

Lessons learned?
Think it through. Design a campaign. Get your project up. And then sell it, hard, repeatedly, and shamelessly. Find angles. Enlist support. Get the project to go viral if you can. As with so much of today’s music industry, the onus comes back down to the artist. Your fans may love you to pieces, but your job is to convince them to part with money online. To many, that’s a contradiction in terms. And remember that you are in competition with dozens of equally deserving projects, some of whom will be by people you know. The day I went down to meet with the band, two more fan-funded appeals landed in my email inbox. I suggest you take a look at the freshly launched appeal project on WeFund.com from the wonderful Wes Finch. (Update: this project has now hit is funding target too)

By the way, if you’re nosing around Balsall Heath, and you just happen to spot a very battered and tarnished Tuba, Mark Davis would like it back, please. He only put it down for a second, went back inside, and came back to find it gone. Maybe the scrap metal boys came down his street while his back was turned. Now, it may only have cost £20 and a bit of elbow grease to convert it back to from its function as a plant pot; it may not have a perfectly brilliant tone. But it’s the Destroyers’ tuba, dammit, and they want it back.

My congratulations go to the whole band. Now, where’s my CD download?

See also
Scoring big national airplay: how two local bands did this

Friday, 6 January 2012

Ruby Turner tears it up like never before

Full force Gospel! Ruby steps up to the plate and knocks it out of the park. Always knew she would.

We’re 6 days into the New Year as I write. Above is a clip of the song I’ve been playing on repeat since it got its first Youtube outing on the 2nd. You should play it, too, right now. Play it loud.

It’s from the BBC Jools Holland New Year’s Eve special. This was the number that took the show up to midnight: Ruby Turner with the Jools Holland Rythm and Blues Orchestra laying down 'Get Away Jordan', and destroying the studio audience. 

No apologies whatsoever for taking this performance completely away from its New Year’s Eve 11.56pm broadcast context. This song deserves to be heard entirely on its own merits. Why? It's Ruby Turner, for decades one of the UK’s finest, taking it to church like I’ve never heard her before.

Take a good look at the video. Watch it a couple of times. There’s some great editing work. Lots of celebs to pick out. You can see Cyndi Lauper up there. And there’s Imelda May having a time for herself. And who’s that lady in black and silver, up on her feet doing the call and response? Well, I’ll tell you… that’s  Betty ‘Clean Up Woman’ Wright.

So, a masterful performance. Ruby took it up up though the gears from smooth and controlled to full-force hurricane. It brought the house down, and it gave me, and I am sure, thousands of others, huge pleasure to see Ruby hit that sweet spot, like we knew she always would.

We met up for a chat. I’d been waiting to see Ruby do something like this… for decades. Now she has, I wanted to know the how and why. Top of the agenda was Gospel. There was a lovely album, ‘I’m Travelling On’, that Ruby put together two years back at Bob Lamb’s old studios, now reborn as Highbury Studio in King’s Heath, Birmingham, which was Ruby’s first full-on step into Gospel. That led to experiments and developments with a very receptive and supportive Jools Holland, and the evolution of the full-on wailing big band treatment showcased on the video clip.

This has still taken its time to emerge, right? 

“It’s always been there… but Jools just gave me the platform.The thing with Gospel music, for me – I don’t know if it’s the same for Jools, it may well be – is that when it calls you, then you have to do it. It will find it’s way. It’s like water. Gospel music will find its channel.”

But you’ve always sung Gospel, Ruby… 

“I was singing it, but here I am in an industry that’s all about the commercial side, it’s all about the selling, it’s all about being popular. You and I know that Gospel music is an insular thing. People view it as a religious thing, and so barriers go up… But all you need to do it to listen to it, you don’t have to have any faith as such. On a spiritual or personal level, it can take you there… and you make of it what you wish.”

So does this represent a risk for you – and Jools? 

“If I can say so… Jools and I are singing from the same hymn sheet. He gets it, yes".

"But I guess, for many years, the (music) industry would get it too, but they wouldn’t take a chance on it… because it doesn’t sell. But (what I’m doing with Jools)… it works. It’s been working for ten years. We are still fascinated… we are excited by the music."

"We had to do work on a song. He was just on piano, and he asked me to sing a particular song, an old gospel song that he’d heard. He started to find his way round the piano, and of course I knew it, from church, back in the day in Handsworth. As I started singing, suddenly I  heard a tone – it’s almost like a ringing tone, that you can’t touch – and I had to stop. We just went… right…it’s deep. It’s too deep!”

And one thing led to another. What we saw on Hootenanny was a song they have been working on and touring with for the best part of a year. It’s road-tested, tuned to perfection. That’s why it hits like a sledgehammer. That’s why the audience in the BBC studio didn’t stand a chance. That’s how Ruby and Jools got to that place.

And there it is, yet again. Another example of musicians taking their own path because it feels right. Another reason to be proud of the creativity of our musicians. You know what I want to hear now? More. Deep soul, gospel, torch. It’s all there. I can’t wait.

Good God almighty :-)

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Jim Cleary: 40 years on from Big Ears

Jim Cleary, a pioneering 70s Birmingham singer-songwriter and promoter, passed away on the 10th April 2012.  This post covers the day, in late 2011, that Jim came back to town, and found a room full of love.

This video clip is from a concert/gathering /celebration in October 2011. I've been messing around with the clip to set up this blog for a couple of days, and now I can't stop singing the song.  If you are of a certain vintage, or familiar with some of the great Birmingham players who emerged in the 70s, this will all make sense immediately; you’ll recognise the faces and some of the names. If not, I’d love you to read on. It’s a great story.

Jim Cleary was the man in the middle. The event was his tribute night. As guest of honour, he had a string of different and stellar musicians perform his songs, before taking to the stage to close the event out. The evening was organised by friends and colleagues, of whom more later. It took place at a tiny venue: The Tower Of Song, in King’s Norton, Birmingham. What’s really important was the how and why of it all.

Let’s roll back 40 years. In 1972, the role of the singer-songwriter was becoming restricted. After that rush of amazing late 60s talent (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Sandy Denny, Harvey Andrews, Clifford T Ward, Pete Atkin, Arlo Guthrie… I could go on) the record companies gorged themselves by signing up anyone and everyone they thought they could market. Hey, why stop at James Taylor when you could sign his three brothers and his sister as well? This led to a glut of, frankly, substandard albums that didn’t do anyone any favours. Of course, the record companies, having messed things up, backed off as usual, focussing instead on other, mainly rock-based, areas, and leaving a lot of dashed hopes behind in their wake. 

It’s fascinating to look back at this period from our 21st century viewpoint: so much has changed. The record companies’ influence has shrunk, and we have seen a much wider acceptance of varied performance styles. This is both creative and healthy. Back then, though, artists like Jim Cleary, passed over by the mainstream record industry, faced a closing of the ranks on the folk scene as well. There was a distinctly chilly view in many folk circles about anyone who stepped outside the boundaries. Folk-Rock was completely beyond the pale.

Jim was a singer-songwriter. Back then, a lot of new music was emerging in town, not least from Jim himself, but it didn’t fit any of the fashionable niches. It wasn’t noisy enough for rock, nor acceptable to purist ears at the major folk clubs. His solution was to start a new venue, Big Ears, based at the Fighting Cocks in Moseley, where those musicians who were shut out from mainstream rock and folk could perform.

Big Ears punched above its weight. It was a pioneering venue, and it gave a broad platform to a host of fine bands and great musicians. Jim reeled out some fantastic material during that time. He recorded, with a range of different musicians; deals were signed; but sadly, nothing emerged. Big Ears ran for about five years – I remember talking up Big Ears gigs in my early days as a radio jock – before Jim moved on for work and personal reasons.

Now let’s come back up to last year.  Vo Fletcher and Catherine Howe run a regular night at the Tower of Song. In attendance, one late 2011 summer evening were Andrew Morton, of Slender Loris fame, and John Mostyn from Highbury Studio. All of them had worked and performed with Jim. Between them, they hatched up the plan to bring their much missed colleague back up to Birmingham from Kent for a closed-doors evening to celebrate his music. Old pals signed up immediately, and once word got out, the night sold out at speed. Plans to record and video the event were added; an  excerpt from these activities is the video clip at the top of this post.  If you watch the full video, and take in the banter and affection as well as some sterling performances, you’ll get an idea of how much it meant to everybody who attended.

It’s about recognition and approbation. So much creative work echoes out into the void, and we have no idea if it strikes a chord. But, and this is the central point to this post, it seems to me that if an idea strikes a spark somewhere, that spark can live on, for decades... for a lifetime. Almost daily, I find myself thinking of some of the amazing music I’ve been privileged to experience down the years, and my thoughts often turn to those musicians whose work changed my life. That’s still going on now, I am glad to say. But I wonder how often those wonderful musicians of my youth get to be recognised and celebrated in the way Jim Cleary was, last October? This was a fantastic, princely gesture from a group of musicians and music professionals, made to a much respected and loved colleague.

One of the most important parts of the music-making process is the relationship between the performer and his audience. Everything else revolves around that. Promoters deal with that reality, DJs and journalists feed off it, the radio industry feverishly tries to research it down to the nth degree, and completely misses the point by slicing and dicing far too precisely. But this event understood and respected that precious relationship. Congratulations are due to all concerned. 

There had been plans, now, sadly, shelved, to repeat the exercise in the spring. 

Copies of the CD and DVD of the evening can be had from John Mostyn at john.mostyn@gmail.com.
Kris Halpin engineered the night. Here are his thoughts.

Other blog posts on people we have lost here 


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