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Month July 2018

The Letter

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After playing at a music festival recently, I was chatting to some people that were in the crowd and selling some CDs when I noticed a woman watching from a distance. After the crowd had gone, I called her over and said hello. “I like your music,” she said, “and I’d like to buy a CD but I haven’t got any money with me. Can I have your address? I’ll send you a cheque and you can send me a CD.” I wrote down my address and gave it to her. I also handed her a CD copy of American Odyssey. “Send me a cheque,” I said. “You’ll trust me?” she said, surprised. “Yes!” I said, “You’ve got an honest face!”

Two days later, the cheque arrived – with a letter. A hand-written letter! In it, she thanked me for my performance, said she had enjoyed listening to the CD and told me a little of her life.

I can’t remember the last time I received a hand-written letter! In these days of rat-a-tat texts and emails it was lovely to hold in my hand a communication that had been thought-through and considered so I thought I would share it with you.

Ten Albums

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I recently participated in one of those Facebook fads/crazes where you name ten albums that either inspired you or you continue to revisit from time to time. There was no explanation needed – you just posted a photo of the album cover. Each time you posted, you nominated a friend who would do the same. It was fascinating seeing which albums meant something to people you know. Some were no-brainers; others, a complete surprise. My problem with the whole exercise was not explaining why I had made my choices. Regular visitors to this page may have come to know that I like words – I use them every day! So here for your delectation (and hopefully) delight, in no particular order, are the reasons behind my album choices:

  1. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: David Bowie

I am of that generation that saw that first appearance by David Bowie on the seminal UK music television programme of the day – Top of the Pops – singing Starman. Glam rock has already taken hold of the music scene with the likes of Marc Bolan filling our screen, so we were used to seeing people that seemed different from us. But then Bowie showed up: this was a different different. With those peculiar coloured eyes and spiky hair, he looked like what this 14-year-old imagined an alien would look like but with his arm slung casually round guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulder he looked like he would also make a good mate to hang out with.

If we had had social media back then, we would have crashed the internet but, as it was, we had to content ourselves with rushing into school the next day saying: “Did you see that?” “Who/what was that?”

At the end of that week, using the payment for last week’s newspaper delivery round, I went in to town to purchase Bowie’s long-playing record – only to find that there were four to choose from. I opted for the latest one because it contained Starman, promising myself that I would work my way back through his catalogue.

I could hardly contain my excitement. On the bus ride home, I sat and stared at the cover, reading every word – at the very bottom was written: “To be played at maximum volume.” One side of the inner sleeve contained close-up photos of Bowie and the Spiders, the other side had the lyrics to the songs.

I took the Dansette record player up to my bedroom as I didn’t want sibling interference or parental criticism. Up to this point in my short life, I had only bought 7-inch singles; this was my first album. From the opening drum beat of Five Years to the cello ending of Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, I was transfixed. Nothing would ever be the same again.

  1. Bring the Family: John Hiatt 

When I heard this album for the first time it was on an incredibly expensive stereo system – the control room of Power Plant Studios – where I was recording an album for CBS Records in 1988. After each session, producer Colin Fairley – who had worked with Hiatt through his connection with Nick Lowe (who turned up at one of our sessions one evening) – would play some music to help get the song we had been working on out of the heads of myself, guitarist Andy Williams and our rhythm section for the album – drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas, normally two-thirds of Elvis Costello’s Attractions. This evening, Colin played Bring the Family – Hiatt’s first album for UK label Demon, which features musicians Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner.

As soon as I heard the opening bars of Memphis in the Meantime I was hooked. By the time the melancholic acoustic guitar of Learning How to Love You faded out I knew I had found a new musical hero.

  1. A Hard Day’s Night: The Beatles 

My mother told me that I could sing Beatles songs before I could recite nursery rhymes. The cinema in our town was showing the first feature film by The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night and my big sister was given permission to go and see it on the condition that she took me. She reluctantly agreed but banished me to a seat away from her and her friends.

The film starts with that distinctive opening chord of the song which gives the film its title, to a scene where the Fab Four are being chased into a London railway station by hordes of screaming fans. It was very exciting!

But it was the next scene where the band are seen performing I Should Have Known Better in a train carriage that affected me the most. I didn’t realise at the time what an influential moment in my life that was but everything about that song – the acoustic strumming, the jangly electric guitar, the hook, the harmonies, the switch from major to minor for the middle eight section – are ingredients for a Tony James Shevlin recording. I may have only been five years of age but I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

  1. The Stranger: Billy Joel 

If you had come to visit me in my tiny room in a shitty house in a shitty area of South London in 1978 and rifled through my record collection you would have found vinyl LPs by the likes of The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Stranglers and The Clash. What you would not have found was Billy Joel’s The Stranger – for that was my guilty pleasure, hidden away when my fellow punk friends came to call. I had heard the saccharine-drenched single Just the Way You Are and had dismissed the New Yorker as a lounge singer. Then I heard Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) and immediately loved the scatter-gun metre of lyrics such as “Sgt O’Leary is walking the beat, at night he becomes a bartender, he works at Mr Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan Street, across from the medical centre”. At a dinner at an ex-landlady’s house I heard the whole album. Songs such as Only the Good Die Young and the sublime Scenes From an Italian Restaurant blew me away. And they still do. It’s just that these days, I don’t have to hide the album on top of the wardrobe.

  1. Arc of a Diver: Steve Winwood 

I had loved Steve Winwood’s work with Spencer Davis, Traffic and his contribution to the one-off supergroup Blind faith. He had been quiet for a number of years and resurfaced (excuse the pun) as a solo artist with Arc of a Diver in 1980. It was a new departure for the Birmingham-born singer-songwriter and featured layers of synthesizers. I was never into the synth bands of that decade but quite frankly, Steve Winwood singing to the accompaniment of a cement mixer would do it for me. Not only did Winwood write the songs (with Will Jennings, except for the title track which was co-written with Vivian Stanshall) but he played all the instruments, sang all the vocals, engineered and produced the record. The songs were quite beautiful with moving melodies. The record came out just after I had my heart broken (my one and only time – as a songwriter, I have been mining this event ever since!) and three tracks got me through the heartache – While you See a Chance, Slowdown Sundown and Dust. Thank you, Stevie.

  1. Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen 

I was quite late in coming to the Bruce party. As Springsteen was tearing up London’s Hammersmith Odeon, I was more interested in steeping myself in classic English singer-songwriters like Ray Davies and John Lennon, Squeeze’s Difford and Tilbrook, and was enjoying the new breed of punk/new wave writers like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson too much to take much notice of the New Jersey rocker. A girlfriend had tried to turn me onto The Boss but I don’t think starting me off with the dour and melancholic Nebraska was the right way to go. A couple of years later, and despite its homage to small town America, Born in the USA resonated with me. Not so much the bombastic title track but songs such as Glory Days, No Surrender and My Home Town all struck a chord.

Later that summer, I saw Bruce at Wembley Stadium. It was an amazing performance. Bruce and I are still together; the girlfriend and I have long since parted.

  1. Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs: Marty Robbins 

My dad introduced me to country music, or country & western as it was termed back in the early 1970s. I loved the stories that songs sung by the likes of Johnny Cash and Charlie Pride told. One album stood out from all the others, though. It was Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins. The trail songs were okay but it was the gunfighter ballads that fired my imagination. When Robbins sang these, he painted visual images that took the listener into the tales being told. My favourite was the opening track Big Iron, which tells the story of a showdown between a nameless Arizona Ranger and an outlaw called Texas Red. As a burgeoning songwriter (I had just been bought my first guitar) I loved the rhythm of the words (I wouldn’t learn the term metre for another five years!). I still get annoyed when I hear songs on the radio that don’t adhere to a pattern or sound clumsy. I somehow understood instinctively that the line “It was twenty past eleven when they walked out in the street” couldn’t have been ‘quarter past ten’ or ‘ten past twelve’: it just wouldn’t work.

Years later, when I was on tour in the US I paid homage to Marty Robbins and visited the town of Aqua Fria where the story of the song is set (it has been subsumed in to Santa Fe). Much to the amusement of the locals, I got my guitar out, sat down in the main street and performed Big Iron. When I finished, I put my six-string away, got back in my car and drove off into the sunset.

  1. A Touch of the Blarney: Noel Murphy 

It was sometime in the late 1960s. I was shopping with my mum in one of those new fangled ‘supermarkets’ – where, instead of waiting to be served by the shopkeeper, you wandered around with a basket, getting your own groceries (“This will never catch on,” said my mother).

As we queued up to pay, my mum noticed a rack of albums (or LPs as we called them back then). She picked up one by Noel Murphy – an artist that I had not heard of (and haven’t since!) titled A Touch of the Blarney. “Your dad will like this” She may have got it wrong about future shopping habits but she was dead on when it came to this record. He didn’t just like it – he loved it more than any other record in the house. For many years, no party in the Shevlin household could finish without this platter being given a spin. And every time it was played, it was like he was hearing it for the first time. He would laugh uproariously at the antics of a cheeky Irish greyhound on Master McGrath, and furrow his brow on songs about the 1916 rebellion like The Foggy Dew.

This album was my introduction to Irish folk music. In fact, it was my introduction to Irish history, too, for these songs are historical documents. Someone once asked me why Irish folk songs are often so maudlin. My answer is that if you had been through just a fraction of what the Irish people have had to endure, you’d write some bloody sad songs, too.  And yet, every time I hear the song Patriot Games, I think of the old fella and smile.

  1. Quadrophenia: The Who 

I don’t like Tommy that much. There, I’ve said it! I find it overblown and a bit pompous. I much prefer Quadrophenia – Townsend’s tale of the life of a mod in the 1960s (told with hindsight from the 1970s). There is no fat on the bones of this album. Townshend is at the pinnacle of his creative powers and his band mates all bring their A game to the sessions.

I missed the album on its release in 1973 – I was too into the glam scene of Bowie and Bolan to notice it. It came to my attention during the brief ‘Mod revival’ period of the late 1970s which gave us bands like The Chords, Secret Affair and of course, The Jam. In an effort to promote the recently-released Quadrophenia movie starring Phil Daniels, The Who were even playing songs from the album in their live set. I saw them playing at Wembley Stadium in 1980 (on the bill were AC/DC, the Stranglers and Nils Lofgren) and I’ll never forget the power of John Entwhistle’s bass on my favourite track from the album – 5.15.

Some bands struggle to fill a conventional album without having one or two weak songs in the running order; Townshend manages to fill a double-album with great songs, telling a story about a disaffected youth while incorporating the personalities of all four members of the band. An absolute triumph.

  1. Trio: Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris 

Of all the albums in this list, this is probably the only one that hasn’t influenced me – I just love it to bits! It’s a joy from beginning to end. When this album came out in 1987, I was well aware of the career trajectories of all three women involved. I wasn’t particularly a fan of Parton who was well in to her pop/country crossover phase (9 to 5, Islands in the Stream, etc.) whereas I loved the work of Harris – both her solo output and her seminal work with Gram Parsons. I had been following the work of Ronstadt ever since hearing her version of The Rolling Stones’ Tumbling Dice in the late 1970s. I loved the sound of her voice, no matter what genre of music she sang (I am also a big fan of her Big Band albums with Nelson Riddle) but I think that country music is her natural home.

I first heard  their combined voices when I was browsing in a record shop and the opening track The Pains of Loving You came over the sound system. After enquiring who the recording was by, I purchased it on vinyl (I had yet to make the move to CDs) and, 21 years on, I’m still enjoying it! Along with Bring the Family, it is probably the most played of the ten albums listed above.

According to the record’s producer George Massenburg, there were never any egos on show and I think the love and respect that these three artists have for each other just shines through every song.