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Vinylist: Jimmy McKenna

Posted by Chris Larkin on

          Jimmy McKenna admits that he is old enough to know better and has been absorbed by music since 1955.

          For 15 minutes in 1977 he was ‘Big in Hartlepool’ with his then group DisGuise and still writes and records songs for a limited but discerning audience.

          His interest in other North East music has latterly led him to become involved in the VainGloriousUK youtube channel.

 

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Do You Remember The First Time?
(First vinyl bought or earliest memory of vinyl)
Cliff Richard and The Shadows - The Young Ones

 

          1961 - This seven year old is in a playground dispute, arguing the case that Cliff is better than Elvis (Cliff’s the local lad, I’ve seen him on the tele, he had better songs errr). I still believe this to be so, even if Cliff himself might disagree.

          Later pestering my Dad when hearing a radio playing in someone’s house, ‘that’s the one I want Dad’, it was ‘The Young Ones’ by Cliff and the Shadows.

          Within a week it was mine, still to my ears the perfect pop record; Hank B Marvin’s delicious twang, the urgent acoustic of Bruce Welch, Cliff’s innocent vocal, and of course the swooping strings of Norrie Paramor and his orchestra.

          Then queuing at the Odeon to see The Young Ones film, when queuing meant a complete circuit of the cinema.

          Then tragedy in 1963 - I had just obtained Cliffs latest, ‘Summer Holiday’ and took my collection of singles to my best friend’s house. Tony had a bunch of older sisters and he would play me their Little Richard 78’s which were a bit too raucous for my tender ears. After our listening session it was time to leave when I dropped the lot of them on to the cement kitchen floor. Only one was broken and a tearful prayer was offered that it would be one of the older 45’s (which I already knew by heart). But no, ‘Summer Holiday’/’Put on Your Dancing Shoes’ had gone to the great jukebox in the sky..

          1964ish – painstakingly playing and playing each record in my collection (by then augmented by Beatles and assorted beat boom groups) so I could write down the lyrics. I still have these innocent scraps of paper complete with the odd misheard lyric

 

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It's Only Rock 'n' Roll
(It might only have 3 chords but what a monumental piece of work)
The Ramones – We’re a Happy Family

 

          I managed to see The Ramones twice in 1977/78 and they remain one of my all time favourite live acts.

          They had a rare ability to be both cool and hilarious at the same time (to my ears and eyes) and although their trademark wall of sound has since been cloned to bits the originals are still the best…and of course they managed to make One Chew Tree Fah (in a New York accent) into a rallying call to the pinhead in all of us.

          Rock n Roll can be devoured with the eyes as well as the ears and the Ramones nailed their look of moptop hair (in the eyes), leather jacket, jeans ripped at the knee and baseball boots. Theirs is one of the most iconic rock logos, worn on T shirts everywhere, I suspect even by those who are not Ramones fans.

          I also loved their splendidly stupid lyrics, ‘Were a Happy Family’, from the third album ‘Rock to Russia’ is a typical example -

          "We're a happy family. Me mom and daddy Sitting here in Queens, eating refried beans, we're in all the magazines, gulpin' down thorazines. We ain't got no friends, our troubles never end, no Christmas cards to send, Daddy likes men. Daddy's telling lies, baby's eating flies, Mommy's on pills, baby's got the chills. I'm friends with the President, I'm friends with the Pope, we're all making a fortune selling Daddy's dope."

          Feel free to sing along to this live clip is from their legendary 1977 gig at the London Rainbow

 

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New(ish) Kid In Town
(A recent discovery you have no hesitation in recommending)
Morphine - Honey White

 

          My cousin Raymond left pop behind at an early age and took a perverse interest in anything that comprised tormented chords, demented time sequences, discord, dissonance and, well jazziness.

          In the teenage one-upmanship of ’I know more obscure groups than you’ stakes I came a poor second and he took great delight in inflicting Roland Kirk on me (the bloke who played several instruments at the same time).

          Anyway having a grownups mid 1990’s get together I was again presented with a selection of ensembles I had never heard of, and would be too frightened to listen to in a darkened room ………with one almighty exception.

          The Massachusetts three piece Morphine had a very unusual ‘lo fi’ sound; imagine slowed down Nirvana songs fronted by Scott Walker in a smoky cellar. This sensuous universe was achieved with drums, baritone sax and a two string bass played with a bottle neck, and dominated by the laconically humorous vocals of songwriter Mark Sandman. Their career was halted with his tragic death (on stage in Italy) leaving an altogether brief but rewarding legacy.

 

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Last Night A DJ Saved My Life
(The game changer. Hugely influential in some way, shape or form)
Van Der Graaf Generator - Darkness

 

          Fast forward to 1970 and this 14 year old is now a veteran watcher of Top of the Pops and the hippest pop groups, many of whose music had evolved into something a bit errrrr more important, interesting, harder to play, and of course pretentious.

          For a few months I was a dedicated Deep Purple fan having discovered with many of my friends the ‘In Rock’ album, which I remember was on very flimsy, bendy vinyl whose fragile groove our old Radiogram (a lovely piece of furniture) had great difficulty in traversing.

          My paper round enabled me delve into the DP back catalogue ‘In Concert’, ‘DP/DP’, ‘Book of Taliesyn’ and ‘Shades of’ L.P.s and I still have a soft for that pop rock classical earnestness. Then one weekend this good son volunteered for a major decorating task, the painting of the front room ceiling. Don’t laugh but I painted it dark brown, taking a good three coats, and somehow it worked – well it was the 70’s.

          Anyway to assist me in my creativity a cool school friend Geoff Brown loaned me three current L.P.s. On to the reluctant Radiogram went Spooky Tooth’s ‘Spooky Two’ followed by Mott the Hoople’s self named album (the one with the Lizard on it). Errrrrr so far so ok in the current hot group department I suppose.

 

          Then on goes the third L.P………. which opened with sounds of wind and rain, then low mysterious ‘monkish’ (and scary) vocal aaaahs, followed by a one note riff………then the opening lyric ’day dawns dark, it now numbers infinity’, sung in a very precise English voice (no American drawl here)…..

          This is how the song ‘Darkness’ opens the album which subsequently dominated the Radiogram and terrified the neighbours for the rest of the weekend. It was love at first listen for Van Der Graaf Generator’s ‘The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other’, the six ‘songs’ comprising choirboy delicate vocals and sweet melodies which would then veer into end of the world tettraschizoid warbling and the scariest of riffs (check out the outro of ‘White Hammer’. All this with lyrics which were light years beyond anything that I had previously heard and which captured my imagination completely.

          The one truly progressive group (they were never merely ‘prog’) and the band that subsequently lost me a few potential girlfriends throughout my teenage years. I have followed the music and career of VDGG and the immense body of work produced by singer and songwriter Peter Hammill to this day (averaging an album every year since 1968). I remember first hearing the Sex Pistols and thinking at last a rock n roll group was being fronted by a singer with the passion of Hammill, and later discovering that John Lydon was indeed a fan himself.

 

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Only Me
(The best track by a band that nobody else seems to have heard of)
T2 - No More White Horses

 

          In the summer of 1970 this 14 year old was camping with friends; well when I say camping, I mean our tent was in a field about five minutes from home so tea time was no problem.

          Over two consecutive nights, deep within our sleeping bags and lubricated by some elicit brown ale we listened to Radio Luxembourg as it presented a new group who were about to become big; and we discovered them first!.

          The three piece rock group T2 featured a drummer who sang lead vocals and a 17 year old guitar player who could widdle for England (when widdling really meant something!).

          By the end of that summer all my friends had T2’s ‘It’ll All Work Out in Boomland’ on the Decca label, fully expecting it to conquer the LP charts. Except it didn’t, and by 1971 the group disbanded and its members disappeared off the planet.

          In fact it is very difficult to find any information of the subsequent activities of T2’s members which is most odd in these ‘tinternet days). Maybe I dreamed it all…….except I still love every note of the album, which also includes subtle (non soppy) use of strings and brass as the four epic (one being all side two) songs build to their climaxes.

          The song ‘No More White Horses’ also features my all time favourite guitar solo on it, beginning at 4:12, just after the first chorus!. It starts in a slow restrained almost hesitant way and builds up to a widdled frenzy in the course of a mere 53 blissful seconds

 

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My Brother Jake
(The best discovery through a family member or friend)
Little Richard - Bama Lama Lou

 

          It was my six year old son’s enthusiasm for Shaking Steven records that prompted me to delve back into the early Rock n Roll years in order to provide my offspring with a grounding in the originals that Shaky was then recreating.

          So to the local library for a quick borrow in order to assemble a best of tape, Flamin Nora!, not only had I not appreciated just how good some of this early Rock n Roll was but also how much good stuff I had not even heard.

          Elvis the Pelvis may have had the popular vote (and sex appeal) but to my ears Little Richard was the authentic voice, Chuck Berry was the poet, Buddy Holly the songsmith, oh wait I’ve missed out Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, and Larry Williams (who had the most songs covered on early Beatles records).

          Anyway I also discovered some Little Richard songs that I think are even better than the more well known ones. The song ‘Bama Lama Lou’ must be the definite Little Richard vocal performance. Although it’s basically a rewrite of Tutti Frutti, its as though Tutti had been a rough run through and he finally got it right with Bama. Also it benefits from punchier production and more prominent guitars (including a solo). This gem has since been covered by Elvis Costello (on his Kojak Variety album), Tom Jones (on the What’s New Pussycat album) and live by Bruce Springsteen.

 

Louis Jordan - Fire

 

          Reading biographies of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, a common influence on their music was Louis Jordan (with and without his Tympani Five).

          I had always known songs such as ‘Is You Is or Is You Aint My Baby’ and ‘There Aint Nobody Here But us Chickens’ (as sung to me by my Dad) and for me Louis Jordan is the missing link between the swing era and Rock Roll.

          His repertoire was immense including a number of re recordings over the course of a career which began in the very early days of recording (one microphone carefully placed in a corner recorded directly on to disc). Some of his best recorded performances were made as the 50’s became the 60’s while younger upstarts were taking the glory.

          A great example is the LP Rock Doc (trying to cash in on that new Rock n Roll fad!) which was produced by a young chap called Quincy Jones (who would go on to later success) These recordings also benefit from some hot guitar work which complement the brass phrases.

 

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Big In Royston Vasey
(They’re a local group and I love them)
The Rye - Dizzy (with Emotion)

 

          As a keen follower of local music I have always been aware that the North East has produced many fine singers, songwriters and groups but only a relative few have found the acclaim and success that they may have deserved.

          One example is 90’s group The Rye who were from the Peterlee area. There were three incarnations of the group which were always fronted by charismatic singer Billy Nicholson who has warm brogue of a voice, and violin virtuoso Emma Fisk.

          The Rye had an edgy, passionate sound, full of dynamics wrapped around some quality song writing and they recorded four splendid CD’s which sold well locally as they built a loyal local fan base with live performances which deserved wider acclaim.

          This clip is from a performance filmed in Hartlepool for Tyne Tees Television of the song ‘Dizzy (with Emotion)’ which was a crowd favourite.

 

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Bob Dylan Done Proper
(A track that is radically different to the original or more well known version)
Manfred Mann's Earth Band - Joybringer

 

          After being astounded by the 1968 film ‘2001 a Space Odyssey’ this 12 year old just had to find the jaw dropping music that it opened with.

          So on to the local record shop, and being too embarrassed to ask the assistant I had a serious peruse of the classical section and finally found an LP called the Planets Suite composed by a bloke called Gustav Holst.

          Having checked it out in the listening booth (while vainly trying to look intellectual) I bought it even though I did not hear the tune I was after. I soon grew to love my accidental purchase, every bit of tune and riff in the seven musical Planets, especially Jupiter with its heavy riff which I could play on the piano. My Aunty May later bought the single ‘Up Spake Zarathustra’ as used in the film for my 13th birthday so I was well pleased.

Fast forward to 1973 and former pop group Manfred Mann have metamorphosed into the rocky prog type Manfred Manns Earthband and the hot news in the Melody Maker is that have been granted permission by Gustav Holt’s granddaughter to reinterpret part of Jupiter into a pop song.

          This is notable in that previously a Tomita synthesizer version and Frank Zappa surreal orchestral comedy approach had been refused such permission.

          Anyway I soon had the single in my possession, which was a top ten hit and is a splendid reworking of the principal tunes with suitably earnest lyrics.

 

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