Comedy writer Ian Martin stumbles through our back catalogue, making random observations and proposing a toast to Ace Records’ eclectic avenue of dreams.
What’s a “guilty pleasure”? I’ll tell you what it isn’t. A guilty pleasure is NOT just a really good pop song some dickhead likes.
You know the sort. Pop-up celebrity, crowdsourced personality, cultural smartarse. “My tastes are so eclectic it almost physically hurts me…” he murmurs to himself in some frictionless Sunday supplement profile, making you want to physically hurt him. “Oh I listen to everything, from Run The Jewels to Baroque opera. From cool jazz on my beloved collection of 78s to the really impenetrable bits of Penderecki delivered directly via neural implant into my hippocampus…”
Here he will perhaps allow a coquettish smile to fall like dappled light across his facial ladygarden. “And you know what? It’s cheesy I know but I confess I have a soft spot for Tamla Motown. Especially anything by Marvin Gaye. OK sure, it’s a guilty pleasure. But sometimes you just need something sweet and frothy, right?” Shit off, you snobgoblin.
FACT: guilt is an internalised emotion, pop-pickers. The concept of musical guilty pleasures only makes sense if the person judging you, making you feel guilty, is YOU. In the privacy of your own kitchen, why would you feel guilty if nobody’s there to mock you? Because YOU’RE always there to mock you. Example: Now You loves that old ELO track. Yeah, that awful, peppy knock-off Beatles track which was so comprehensively despised by Then You. Now You distinctly remembers Then You and your Then Mates being pretty nasty about Jeff Lynne And His Mulleted Hommage. Then You sneers at Now You still. Look at him, the little bastard, with his acne and his backcombed hair and his insufferable pretension and by the way terrible clothes.
Nor should guilty pleasures be confused with musical differences. You should see my wife’s face when she returns unexpectedly to the house to find me alone in it, doing what a lot of blokes do while alone in the house - listening to the Beatles. I love them, she hates them. I suppose there is sort-of guilt. She feels sort-of guilty if I switch off the Beatles, I feel sort-of guilty if she has to listen to them. Oh, and please don’t make that citrus face at me and suggest I “use headphones” either. That’s not how 20th Century People listen to music. We like our music to gush and tumble through several cubic feet of air, painting the floating molecules with sound, thanks very much.
And on the subject of being a 20th Century Person, allow me to suggest that the “guilty pleasure” has been reinvented by 21st Century People as a shaming device. Fifty years ago it was OK for me to like blues music. Like a lot of white boys, I came to Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker and the rest via rock and roll and white boy R&B. Fleetwood Mac, all that lovely Blue Horizon stuff…
But try telling Twitter you like blues and watch the revisionists recoil in disgust, as if you’d just said you like golliwogs, segregated education and plantation minstrels. Well I’m so sorry, humourless Roundheads of New Puritania, I can’t unlike what I liked then and still like now. I won’t be guilt-tripped into discarding my musical youth as colonialism and misogyny. I’m old now but still white, and I like hip-hop too which infuriatingly may contain racial allusions and bitches and whatnot and I am bored stiff by my own argument so HERE ARE MY RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE CATALOGUE OF ACE RECORDS MY MOST FAVOURITE RECORD COMPANY EVER. Not really recommendations, actually. I don’t know what you like, do I? But this is what I like.
Blues. Ace has some utterly brilliant blues stuff on reissued vinyl. Like Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman”. I remember hearing Skip James first in the mid-60s. The first school band I was in – hilariously called Charlie Brown’s Blues Allstars – featured me on slide guitar, this hefty geezer Charlie Brown on piano (he went on to become an actuary, I think) and Lee Collinson on vocals and harmonica. Lee went on to form a band called the Wild Bunch. Everyone from school followed them around. They travelled to gigs with their gear in an old converted ambulance. Then they sacked the guitarist, got Wilko Johnson in, Lee changed his name to Brilleaux and the band’s name to Dr Feelgood and bosh. Anyway, I’ve still got the copy of Skip James’ “Greatest Of The Delta Blues Singers” on Storyville Lee lent me half a century ago. I was hung up on electric blues and Lee, like so many others, thought the “authentic” stuff had to be acoustic. James’ sweet high voice and the open-tuned guitar had an immediate impact on me, inasmuch as it turned me from an orthodox R&B electric apparatchik into a more nuanced acoustic blues fascist. God, what pricks we were. Blues piano: unacceptable. Chicago blues: acceptable with proviso there’s no “brass”. Anyway, whatever. That’s my premier rock and roll anecdote. I’ve still got Lee Brilleaux’s copy of Skip James and he’s dead now, so. Summary: Skip James is lovely. RIP Skip and Lee.
Mississippi John Hurt / Lightnin' Hopkins
Also really sweet and good is Mississippi John Hurt’s “Last Sessions” recorded in New York in 1966. His gentle voice always sounded like that of a dying man, all soft and croaky, and this beautiful collection carries the extra emotional freight of having being recorded while he was technically dying, so EXTRA AUTHENTIC. See also “Blues In My Bottle”, a great collection of Lightnin’Hopkins tracks. If you like a drop of the harder stuff, there are several John Lee Hooker LPs on Ace including the excellent “That’s My Story” and the nicely raw and noisy “Boogie With John Lee Hooker”, featuring a cover pic of the last of the great old bluesmen looking about 14 years old. Memo To Self: stop talking about death all the time, it’s depressing.
Because so much Ace stuff is from the Sixties, which is when my actual and musical puberty occurred, I can lull myself into a false confidence about what I’d like. “Nippon Girls”, for instance, a compilation of kitschy Japanese girl pop, looks great on paper. But it left me cold and bored, despite its antique quirkiness. “C’est Chic”, on the other hand, was for months on heavy rotation in our household, even though it’s a compilation of kitschy French girl pop. At the time, when the very last convulsion of the British Empire was twitching its way around the world at 45 rpm, French pop was a joke. Worse, a knock-off version of OUR pop, which had defeated the pop of Germany. This was Vichy pop, to be disdained. All that high-minded nonsense becomes meaningless of course when music’s being listened to by people who weren’t alive at the time. It’s the same with anything - psych pop, Northern Soul etc. Time may isolate a pop song from the contemporary context that once made it sound clownishly derivative. So it is with “C’est Chic”, which Then Me would have frisbeed out of the window. The first two tracks on this album accompanied practically every mealtime we had with my grandson before he started nursery. He loved it. Maybe in retrospect it was because his grandparents were being theatrically “French”. Who cares, I’m very fond of this CD.
Ty Karim / Funkadelic
I don’t specifically recall hearing Ty Karim at the time and I’m not sure that the tag “Californian sweet soul diva” would have sold it, but I do find myself putting this LP – “Wear Your Natural, Baby” - on quite a lot now the weather’s a bit nicer. For an LA woman, she’s got a really Detroit voice, and that summery soul sound reminds me of the stuff you’d hear floating high on a transistor radio’s trebly thermal on Southend beach, back in the days when you had to pretend to like the Tremeloes to get a snog off Sandra Camfield. Oh, nearly forgot Funkadelic – “Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On”. Two-LP retrospective of one of the funniest bands ever. Hot AND ironic, not easy to pull off. ‘Maggot Brain’. Whoa. I can still smell that squidgy black we used to smoke.
The real glory of Ace Records, for me, is the Weird Compilation. Ace have quite the anthology now. I mean, there’s always a rationale to each one but they can be so interestingly RANDOM. You can feel the love and mischief; tracks may be not so much a neat row of ducks as a truckload of cats who’ve never until now been formally introduced. My top three compilations have for some time been as follows…
Come Spy With Us
I love the espionage-themed one – “Come Spy With Us” – which has big hitters like Dusty’s ‘The Look of Love’, the peerless theme from Danger Man by Brian Fahey & His Orchestra, Lalo Schifrin, John Barry, all that, but also The Supremes’ ‘Dr Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine’, what?
Greatest Hits From Outer Space
“Greatest Hits From Outer Space” is terrific too. At first glance it looks more row of ducks than truckload of cats. ‘Space Oddity’, check. ‘Telstar’, check. ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, check. But then you discover it also has novelty swing (‘Two Little Men In A Flying Saucer’ by Ella Fitzgerald) hooglie boogie (‘Rocket To The Moon’ by the serendipitously named Moon Mullican) Bobby Womack’s doing-over of ‘Everyone’s Gone To The Moon’, easy listening theremin, some talking blues, some obscure trippy orchestral stuff probably written for a BBC Play For Today set on Mars in 1967 starring Glenda Jackson and a giant polystyrene spider, whatever, oh God I love this CD.
Before The Fall
Until now my absolute favourite Ace compilation has been the wonderful “Before The Fall”. This is all cat, no duck. What a laugh this CD is, I swear to God. Original versions of songs covered by Mark E. Smith which, considering The Fall have been going since the post-war Attlee government, gave the compilers a wide selection. One thing’s clear. Smith must have owned a copy of that Kenny Everett “World’s Worst Records” because three of the stupidest, funniest, most irritating tracks on this compilation – ‘Transfusion’ by Nervous Norvus, ‘The Mummy’ by Bob Mcfadden, ‘I’m Going To Spain’ by Steve Bent – were all on that original LP. Man, Everett’s Capital Radio stuff in the 70s was funny. Topline: I cannot imagine life without this CD. Endlessly surprising, the tracks have literally nothing to do with one another – Captain Beefheart, meet Pete Seeger – apart from the capricious grasp of Smith, alt-rock’s gurning supervillain. I mean, there is some serious mining here. I LOVED the Searchers, but I certainly didn’t remember ‘Popcorn Double Feature’. What a track. And ‘There’s a Ghost In My House’, obviously – didn’t that actually get the Fall into the charts for 10 minutes? R. Dean Taylor’s original still edges the Fall’s but the inclusion on this collection of the Kinks’ original ‘Victoria’ always – ALWAYS – sends me straight to the Fall’s version, which is one of the great covers of all time. Drunken, joyous, slurry magic. This whole CD makes me very happy.
Nick Cave Heard Them Here First
Lastly – I have a new favourite compilation. I mean, I’d intended to give it a shout as it’s been a pet project of Ace’s Liz Buckley, a person I greatly admire. It’s the same deal as the Fall CD – originals of covers - and the latest in that “Heard Them Here First” line Ace excels in (the Bowie, Dusty and Elvis ones are fantastic). “Nick Cave Heard Them Here First” is utterly, utterly brilliant. I can’t stop listening. As with all great albums there’s one I genuinely hate (here, ‘Mack The Knife’ – the most depressing song ever written by Brecht and Weill, the 20th Century’s grimmest songwriters) but the rest is a proper truckload of estranged cats. Look at it. Look at the track listing. I’ve had the Gene Pitney track stuck in my head for days. Blind Willie Johnson! Dylan! The Sensational Alex Harvey Band! Nina Simone! There’s even entertaining fluff here – Cooke and Moore’s ‘Bedazzled’, Birkin and Gainsbourg’s hilarious heavy breather…I am so pleased that this is excellent, as I really like Liz Buckley and really don’t much like Nick Cave and she’s all over it and he’s not on it. Win-win. Bosh.
Summary: Ace has the blues and strange cats and makes me very happy.
Ian’s TV writing credits include Veep and The Thick of It. He regularly writes for several publications, including The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/profile/ian-martin) His book The Coalition Chronicles, is published by Faber.