TOP TEN: June 2014

A personal chart of current listening, reading, viewing and thinking

1 • The Beatles 50th

It is 50 years since The Beatles played in New Zealand, and nothing has ever given me such a palpable sense of what half a century feels like. Though no one would have considered letting me go to the show (after all, I was five) I still recall vividly my intense awareness that The Beatles were, at that moment, somewhere magically close. Instead, I had to content myself with my prized 45s – A Hard Day’s Night, Twist and Shout, Can’t Buy Me Love - which I continued to spin endlessly on my grandfather’s suitcase record player. To mark this auspicious anniversary, Radio New Zealand National let me assemble a panel of top New Zealand songwriters, spanning several generations – Lawrence Arabia, Princess Chelsea and Tim Finn – who talked about the effect the Beatles have had on them and their work. You can listen to it here:

2 • Professor Longhair’s House

A nice appreciation of the New Orleans piano tradition by Cam Bell (a.k.a Cam Patterson), one of a small group of Robert Christgau acolytes who started this good website, which for some reason they named after a Raincoats album. Lots of other good stuff to read at this site too. (Professor Longhair house pictured, right).

3 • The Church of St. Coltrane

“I always wanted to be a minister. I never wanted anything else. Except maybe a dentist… or a blues singer”. So says Reverend Bishop Franzo King, admirably eccentric founder of Saint John Coltrane’s African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, in The Church of St. Coltrane, Gayle Gilman and Jeff Swimmer’s 1996 documentary, which you can see here.And the church, which was founded 43 years ago, has its own website here. Worth a visit.

4 • Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy on religion

… and while on a spiritual theme, here's a thought from Will Oldham a.k.a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy: “What is normally called religion is what I would tend to call music — participating in music, listening to music, making records and singing. I think records and music are more appropriate and more respectful of the human soul than the churches are. And more respectful of the needs of humans to communicate with the aspects of themselves that are neglected by language.”

5 • The Monkey Speaks His Mind

This 1957 Dave Bartholemew rap, set against a singular New Orleans cross-rhythm, remains the fonkiest piece of social commentary ever put on disc. And the great Bartholemew – who produced all Fats Domino’s hits in addition to masterpieces like this – is still with us at age 93. Here he is performing it again in 2010. (They couldn't achieve quite the same groove - it's more than 50 years later, after all - but it's pretty good.) And here he is backed by Allen Toussaint.

6 • Had Elvis sung ‘Walk On The Wild Side’…

Published in 2009, Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography is the first-person, oral-history-style telling of the story of Jerry Leiber (who died in 2011) and Mike Stoller. Together they wrote some of the greatest songs in rock’n’roll, and beyond. The cartoonish, black (in every sense) comedies of their Coasters records are without peer, but they are equally brilliant in other genres, like the cabaret/art songs they wrote for Peggy Lee’s magnificent Mirrors album. And that’s without mentioning the hits they gave to Elvis or the inspiration they gave to Lennon-McCartney. They are forthright and funny the book is full of good stories. Theirs is the type of humour you end up with when Jewish boys hang out for long enough with African-Americans. And I learned things that set my imagination running – for instance the fact that Leiber and Stoller pitched Nelson Algren’s novel Walk On The Wild Side to Elvis’s ‘people’ as a film idea in late 50s. Colonel Parker demurred, and there the story ends. But it reminded me: wasn’t Lou Reed briefly employed, a decade or so later, to write songs based on the same book? Isn’t that where his famous song of same title came from? Imagine if Leiber and Stoller had written ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ instead? Or, Elvis sung it…?

7 • The Road to Whakarae

A great Maori country song, a fine piece of film and a fascinating story. Performed by Tuhoe kaumatua Beam Titoko and directed by Tim Worrall. Watch it here:

8 • Withered Hand

I wrote about this guy in a recent issue of the Listener: the Edinburgh-based artist Dan Willson, who records as Withered Hand. With distinctive melodies, a singular point of view and custom-made set of neuroses, he is a few notches above your typical singer-strummer. You can watch just about the whole of this informal in-store performance on YouTube. 

9 • The musician as critic

Musicians don’t necessarily make the best music critics, but they certainly have a way of describing what they hear that differs from your typical rock blogger. Here’s sometime Arcade Fire and Mountain Goats collaborator Owen Pallett explaining how a few of his favourite current pop songs work.

10 • The Reykjavik Confessions

Like Scandinavian thrillers? Here’s a real one, and a beautiful piece of online magazine journalism from BBC News.

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