I love almost all music. If you look hard enough you can usually find something redeeming about pretty much any song or tune, classical or pop, whether it comes from Leicester, Latvia or Lesotho; after all, it’s still music.
There are a few exceptions I’ll make, though, where the sacred space which music occupies in our lives seems to have been cruelly abused. Recently, a chap from hospital radio asked me to identify the single track I’d most like to place in Room 101. I could cite most of Phil Collins work, quite happily, but a sticking a whole artist in there seems petty and there’s always You Can’t Hurry Love which I still adore. He’s also a phenomenal drummer. Naturally, I then turned to The Lighthouse Family, but it’s hard to pick between Ocean Drive and Lifted, songs which both sound like they were recorded in their entirety in Kenneth William’s nasal passage.
But if it’s a single buttock clench of a song you’re looking for, one that I’ve hated since the first moment I heard the first bar, then I’m going to have to plump for 1987 hit Live It Up by Australian cruise ship rockers Mental As Anything.
It turns out you can even buy a FIVE ALBUM set of Mental As Anything if you have recently had a lobotomy or are a C.I.A. agent who wants to extract information from suspects without leaving visible external scarring.
The song itself is the kind of sun-inned, jaunty late 80’s production which made sulky teenage me pray to Morrissey for acid rain, under a lyric which implies that the cure for heartbreak is simply to go home with a the first man in a bow tie that you meet in order to ‘live it up’. The fact that the object of the song is clearly already on a dance floor would suggest that whatever heartache she has endured, she’s already constructing and boarding her own survival raft of palliative good times, possibly among friends, and certainly in a safe public arena. To suggest that her best course of action would then be to leave this healing space to join the protagonist in what will probably be a bedsit (‘come up to my place’) where she would ‘live it up’ (activities unspecified) to a greater degree than on the supervised dance floor where she currently finds herself, seems like a risky roll of the dice to say the least. It’s a creepy message in the extreme. And that’s before you meet the band.
I’m sure they were only doing what their management told them to by wearing those suits and bow ties, but the one message that it doesn’t convey is that these boys are ‘Mental’. I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about Mental Illness here. I’m talking about doing what it takes to achieve the unique mindset or perspective which some musicians adopt to give their work a truly distinctive and fresh edge. David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Marilyn Manson, Nick Cave. All of these could probably have been said to flirt with and sometimes fully immerse themselves in mentally altered states to tell us something new and fresh about our shared journey through life. Seeing Australian men with bow ties jig about to squelchy synth pop while insisting that they are stretching perception itself by singing the most banal retread of a presumptuous song of dubious courtship you’ll ever hear….well, I think you get my drift. I’m not a fan.
Let’s turn 180 degrees and jump back another 20 years to take a look at what makes the music I really love. Place yourself in the shoes of The Byrds in 1967. If you’re not familiar with The Byrds, then check out their illustrious family tree:
As you can see, they form the spine of some the great country rock, folk and psychedelic pop acts of the sixties. They had massive hits with Bob Dylan covers alongside their own genre-moulding material, and changed their line-up like sensible people change their electricity suppliers. In 1967 they were ready for another shake up, and drafted in Country rock legend Gram Parsons from the International Submarine Band. Gram suggested their next move should be to go full country. The boys had tinkered with some country songs before on their albums, but they were a bit like Act Naturally on the Beatles’ Help album – a toe in the water rather than a proper statement of intent.
Gram, though, was all-or-nothing serious about country music. In 1967 country and pop were two different camps which didn’t mix. Squares versus Heads. Farm versus City. A whole album of country from one of the biggest pop bands of the past half decade wasn’t just a change of direction, it was a flipping manifesto. Sweetheart of the Rodeo truly was Mental As Anything, paving a new path, eschewing commercial success in search of a deeper truth, and using the tried and tested technique of genre cross-breeding to bring out a new way to make people’s hearts sing along to their tune.
Result? It worked! In its time, a massive commercial flop. The album alienated the pop fans The Byrds had built up over the last five years, and failed to win over a country audience who still had trouble with the idea of long hair on a man, despite that being a natural consequence of not cutting it, just like for ladies. The Byrds survived a whirlwind of a concert at country music’s temple, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, from which they were lucky to emerge unscathed. However, time has changed everything. The album has now been reappraised to become a classic, and a cornerstone for country fans who like their rock to have dirt on its boots, and their country to be Transcendental As Anything. For alt-country artists like Uncle Tupelo, Ryan Adams and Wilco, Sweetheart is like scripture, and they all probably make my favourite kind of music, country which doesn’t always try to answer its own questions.
Gram was instrumental in this sea-change for the Byrds. But he wasn’t as Instrumental As Anything. I’d say as much of an influence on Sweetheart of The Rodeo were the two (here we go people! We’re coming to the point!) virtuosi pedal steel guitar players who grace the album. One of these is our old friend Lloyd Green (Steelgrimages passim). He takes the lion share of the duties. He’s on the opening track and only genuine single, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowehere and then pops up on around half the other cuts. He’s as brilliant as ever.
Then there’s Jaydee Maness, (surname to almost rhyme with ‘painless’).
He’s one of the first Pedal Steel players whose name I ever knew. He plays on You’re Still on My Mind, You Don’t Miss Your Water and 100 Years From Now. At least I think it’s him on those tracks, and there may be more. Despite the internet being able to tell me every item of clothing Kim Kardashian has worn since her birth, I can’t seem to get reliable, personnel track listings for one of the most influential albums of all time. The good news is that I won’t have to wait much longer to find out. Because Jay Dee Maness is the guest performer at the Irish Pedal Steel Guitar Festival which is taking place next month. When I found this out I sent a long, grovelly email to Jay Dee’s website begging for a meeting when he was over. He sent this short but nevertheless epic reply:
‘Thanks for asking.’
Thanking me for asking him to make time for me.
Interviews I’ve heard with Jay Dee make it clear, as does this email, that he is a gentleman. A softly-spoken Californian, who seems to have as many friends as he does colleagues, his discography ranges from Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven to legendary years of service in Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and his own staggering solo work. He’s Lloyd Green’s best friend. And now he’s said he’d be happy to meet with me and chat about his own sixty year-long steelgrimage.
I should be so lucky.
I’ve just thought of a song I dislike even more!