John Holt – Looking Back – The Definitive Collection
Once upon a time I was accused of disappearing into my world of books and films where darkness came too soon. Total nonsense of course. There was music too. But the suggestion was that I was missing out. Total nonsense too. Products have so much to teach us. So many stories to tell …
Aww honey that’s a fantastic present. You’re wonderful. What a great choice. I bet you saw me looking at this in the shop the other day didn’t you? That was brave of you choosing a CD for me. I know I’m impossible to buy for. But this is great. I love John Holt, but I have to confess I’ve not got a collection of his best works. Brilliant.
The funny thing about this CD honey is that it would make the perfect desert island selection. It’s almost like a collection of clues to the secrets of the late twentieth century. You remember that song kiddo? The awful Max Bygraves one, Deck of Cards, where he is up on a court martial for gambling, and he’s arguing how the cards remind him of the bible and scriptures and all that? I know I was that soldier. Well, yes I know I say the same thing about Audrey Tautou, but it is true that when I lose myself in her eyes of dark velvet I think of you. Honest honey. Well this CD is like that.
Look the original of The Tide Is High. Everyone knows the Blondie version. It was a huge hit, and still sounds brilliant on the radio. I’ve got my Blondie DVD collection somewhere which I must dig out. I seem to remember Debbie looking particularly lovely in that video. Rough as hell but lovely nevertheless. And that reminds me. It was particularly cruel of you to refuse to buy me that screen print we saw of Debbie. It would have looked great in the office. Ok so it was about eight feet tall, but …
Blimey it says here it was as long ago as 1967 that The Tide Is High first came out. He was singing with the Paragons then. One of the great Jamaican vocal trios. All those rocksteady ballads sound so good still. Incredibly sweet and spartan. You could die happily listening to nothing else ever again. Some of those songs from back then that he recorded sound so timeless and effortless. And it’s like ghostly echoes skanking down all the days, with some of these tunes being versioned again and again. Wear You To The Ball. My Best Girl. Ali Baba. Wonderful. You know them without even knowing them.
And yes! Man Next Door is on here. Or rather I’ve Got To Get Away. I love this song. It’s funny how old doo wop and early soul influenced people like John Holt and they in turn inspired some of the people I grew up with. I learned to love this song through a version by the Slits. Yeah, I know you always laugh when you hear their name. But they were so important. They broke so many taboos. They helped so many women find their voices. I guess you could argue these voices were later lost, but let’s not go there.
Yeah the Slits’ version of Man Next Door was lovely. I’ve got the single somewhere still. 1980 if I remember rightly. Must dig it out. Ari sounded really ghostly on that record. The dub version was better still. A very early Adrian Sherwood recording. I loved the way the punk generation picked up on reggae. And I guess the good thing is that it wasn’t a fleeting fad. And there’s an argument about the West London influence lingering still in things like Lily Allen. She’s a horrible spoilt little brat but Smile sounded so brilliant during this summer. And she’s meant to be an old schoolfriend of Tessa from the Slits’ daughter, which is pretty cool. All very cliquey in those circles.
I realise authenticity may not be the name of the game but I’m a big fan of reggae covers. Things like Junior Byles’ Fade Away. Some of the Slits did a great cover of that. And Mark Perry did a wonderfully excruciating cover of The Whole World’s Down On Me. Actually it was at the time. You remember Mark? There’s that famous picture of him where’s he’s holding his guitar like a machine gun. The one that was on the cover of that book I gave you. Oh yeah and he was one of the voices in Finisterre. The guy going on about Camden Market. A great man.
The funny thing about John Holt is that I bet a lot of people are put off his music because of Help Me Make It Through The Night. It was one of those universal reggae hits wasn’t it? Like Ken Boothe’s Everything I Own. The soundtrack of a million youth club discos. Along with George McCrae’s Rock Me Baby, the Hues Corporation’s Rock The Boat, and Sweet Substitute’s Sad Sweet Dreamer. Ken Boothe was one of the people that wrote The Whole World’s Down On Me, by the way.
Anyway, yeah, Help Me Make Through The Night is one of those syrupy songs that we’ve all heard so many times. I knew Kris Kristofferson wrote it. What I didn’t realise for several years was how cool he was. I just knew that song and Bobby McGee and the duets he did. The Barbara Streisand schmaltz. But all the while he was this totally cool character. I love his early songs. Sunday Morning Coming Down. Fantastic. And a great actor too. I would say Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid is just about my favourite film. It’s so poignant. Like the last stand of the old outlaws. Kristofferson is perfect as Billy. I’d have been on his side against the landowners and lawmen. What was the Dylan song? “Playing around with some sweet senorita …”. Sounds good to me.
Ha appropriately this CD’s got a version of Stagger Lee on it. The old Western mythology eh? Stagger Lee and Billy. Always makes me think of The Clash that song. The old romantic lores. Funnily enough I was terrified you were going to buy me a copy of the Joe Strummer biography. I’m sure it’s a great book. But I just couldn’t face Joe’s story again. I bet a lot of blokes in their 40s were given a copy of Redemption Song for Christmas. I’m not sure it helps to be force fed a story of an old rebel chasing dreams when you’re chained to a day job.
Mind you John Holt was a bit of a rebel in his way. He sang some classic protest songs too in his time. Up Park Camp is one of the great conscious reggae songs. Not sure if he’s ever really given enough credit for that. He even evolved into a full blown dread singing stuff like Police In Helicopter. But it’s as a suave balladeer he’s most fondly remembered.
When you saw me looking at this CD the song I was looking for was Time And The River. It wasn’t one I was familiar with, but I’d seen an old single on sale on ebay for over £100 so I was curious. I knew the song. It’s an old tin pan alley ballad. Nat King Cole type thing. It was written by a guy called Wally Gold. He was one of those music business people who seemed to turn his hand to anything. He wrote one of my mum’s favourites. Look Homeward Angel. For Johnny Ray. She loves Johnny Ray. Which I always found a bit scary what with Dexys singing in Come On Eileen about poor old Johnny Ray breaking a million hearts in mono and our mothers crying.
Now. Time And The River. Look Homeward Angel. You’ve gotta give it to old Wally. Both titles of old Thomas Wolfe books. You just don’t hear people talking about Thomas Wolfe now honey. Can’t even remember the last time I saw one of his books. And that’s wrong. Very wrong. I loved the old Wolfeian myths. All about how he woke Jack Kerouac up to the idea of America as a poem rather than just a place to work and struggle in. His books were huge. Big sprawling epics. Real doorstops and madly passionate. I don’t know why they’ve fallen out of favour.
I’d like to know more about Wally Gold too. It sounds like his could be a great story to tell. A real music industry all-rounder. He just happened to be in the right place to have a hand in songs like It’s Now Or Never and It’s My Party. He helped produced stuff like some of Gene Pitney’s early hits. Discovered prog rockers Kansas. I reckon someone could tell the story as a Wolfeian epic as an allegory for the late twentieth century. And don’t go getting any ideas. You know my views on retirement. It suits me.
Oh god I’m sorry kiddo. I’m rambling away again. Sorry honey. Honey? Are you awake? Hmm I take it you’re not. Fair enough. Sleep well my lovely.
© 2007 John Carney