Thursday, 7 January 2010

Deal Gone Down

I first became familiar with Michael Chapman’s playing when I took a chance on an album called “Michael Chapman Lived Here” released in the early 70s on Cube Records. I’d seen it in a window of what I now take to be Cube Records in Soho. They released various compilation albums like T Rex and Procul Harum if my memory fails me correctly. The cover was excellent (I still have it upstairs amongst my vinyl records but can’t access it at the moment). The album suggested a mysterious life of bedsitters, smoking Gauloises and drinking wine whilst angsting about missed chances and long since gone ladies (they were always “ladies” in those days). But that album was a compilation of Chapman’s early days at Harvest Records (EMI’s attempt at competing with Island) and I bought “Deal Gone Down” in the hope that it would be similar. I bought it in the old Virgin Records shop opposite Tottenham Court Road tube station.

This is absolutely my favourite Chapman album. It was a much more stripped down sounding album compared to the orchestrated songs with flashy guitar players like Mick Ronson that had played on the Harvest albums. The sound of this has stayed with me for over 30 years and I still enjoy playing it – tracks from it often come on my iPod whilst I’m driving. The cover was a simple dark blue glossy sleeve with a small square picture of Chapman’s head. He’s lighting a cigarette and looking straight ahead. The photo that really sums up this time for me, though, is the one from “Michael Chapman Lived Here” which is used as the cover for a recent compilation (“Dogs Got More Sense”) which is now the only place you can get “Deal Gone Down” – iTunes notwithstanding of course. You can buy the whole compilation now called “Originals” for £7.99 from iTunes or .79p per track. Anyway, the photo is a black and white (almost sepia tinged) picture of Chapman sitting on a bed – old bedspread, no duvets in England in those days – playing a Fender Telecaster (with added humbucker in the neck position) and a cigarette stuck behind the nut. He’s looking into the mid distance as though deep in thought. I’m sure he was.

The album opens with The Rock’n’Roll Jigley – evidently they can’t say medley in Leeds, he used to joke. A solo electric guitar starts slowly and funkily with occasional cymbals and then bursts into a jig with bass and drums and a second electric guitar. We were all familiar by then with electric folk bands playing jigs and reels but this had a real funky feel to it. Indeed, somewhere upstairs I still have Charles Shaar Murray’s review from NME that suggested this album was evidence for Chapman as Britain’s J J Cale. I wouldn’t totally agree but I think I know what he means. The rhythm section was Rick Kemp and Nigel Pegrum from Steeleye Span who knew a thing or two about playing rocked-up jigs. Live, this always used to segue into the following track but here stands alone. The second track is Party Pieces. What a great world weary song this is. If you’ve ever stood at a boring party thinking I really should go now, I’m far too over-refreshed, then this is for you. A solo acoustic guitar starts the song off in an Open D tuning. A second acoustic joins in with some violining from an electric guitar setting a very woozy atmosphere. The opening lines – the first words heard on the album – “Well, I guess I’ve stayed a little too long . . . and had too much to drink” sets the tone. With solid support from the Steeleye rhythm section, two electrics join in the chorus: “I’m face-to-face with the door, feeling my feet on the floor, my lover don’t need me no more” – a reminder of all the awful parties I endured as a teenager. Actually, all the parties I’ve ever endured. As the song fades you can hear him say buried deep in the mix, “I have been known to take a drink . . . or two”. Me too.

Another Season Song follows, two acoustic guitars double-tracked and another very world weary lyric. Lovely double-tracked lead guitar, too. I have always seen this album as being two distinct halves. The first side – I’m talking vinyl here – was mostly Chapman solo with some bass and drum backing. He double-tracks most of his guitars but the voice remains solo. The other thing that has always stayed with me is the feeling that this album somehow seems redolent of Herman Hesse’s “Narziss and Goldmund”. The wanderer out discovering the World and telling of the adventures he finds. Many of the lyrics on this album echo that feeling for me. The following track, Stranger Passing By is probably the track that really summons up that link. Chapman sings to a solo acoustic guitar accompaniment. Used To Be reminds me of the opening "Jigley" in feel. Its humorous lyrics, however, are very telling – “I used to be a teacher but I couldn’t get it right” – Chapman had started as a teacher (well, lecturer in photography) but it also seems to strike home because of my chosen profession. Simple electric guitar is joined by drums and bass with a cheeky little guitar solo. He also mentions being a “wanderer in the night”. This is the last track on side one. As I said earlier, I see this album as being two distinct halves.

The second side is Chapman in what seems like more of an electric band setting. This side opens with the title track. A solo electric guitar with a ragtime beat starts off. I understand from Marc Higgins’ essay on the reissue that Chapman used a piece of sponge behind the bridge to get that “sproingy” sound – almost rubber band-like. The Steeleyes join in with bass and drums and we then get the first backing vocals on the album. Maddy Prior (also from Steeleye Span) and Bridget St John do the honours here. There’s a lovely fuzz-toned guitar solo (double-tracked) too. This is followed by The Banjo Song with its double-tracked overdriven, raunchy electric guitars – both Chapman – all on the edge of feedback. The tune was re-used later live for Shuffleboat River Farewell on the live album “Pleasures of the Street”. The 70s trio Prelude provide backing vocals here. Lyrically, this song tells of Chapman sitting against a tree playing a “banjo borrowed from a friend” (Derek Brimstone, I believe). The slothful tale suggests a hazy summer day after a glass or two of wine. The banjo breaks – “does anybody know who does repairs? Do you know anyone who even cares?” This is a full sounding bluesy shuffle with some great guitar work. The solo has two guitars playing off each other and must have been fun recording. The beat is insistent with a huge sound towards the end as guitars and backing singers all wail away. The song fades. The wonderfully circuitously titled Theme From The Movie With The Same Name follows. It’s a brief instrumental with two acoustic guitars and a third guitar that is put through a strange effects pedal. Marc Higgins informs us that it’s a “Green Machine” bought from a New York guitar shop on a whim. It has an underwater feel to it – all wobbly and “squonky”. At times, it reminds me of the opening track – perhaps there’s a slight theme, a motif possibly. Beautiful tight but fluid fingerpicking. Then the second boogie starts up. Again, a solo electric guitar all overdrive and funk starts us off, to be joined by Kemp and Pegrum kicking in Goodbye Sunny Sky. A slide guitar joins in – not overpowering, always serving the song. A tale of lost love, Chapman says goodbye to a lady known as “Sunny Sky”. I suggest any interested parties track down Chapman’s autobiography “Firewater Dreams” for background on some of these songs. The last forty seconds of the song steps up a gear with the massed voices of Michael Chapman singing the title refrain. The last song on this short album is Journeyman – again, suggestive of Hesse. A solo electric guitar with the sponge in place and a familiar ragtime rhythm leads us into a true tale telling of Chapman’s travels as he heads home after a wearisome tour. Kemp’s bass joins in with volume swells and a violining effect which adds to the atmosphere. Prior and St John join in too. Chapman’s vocals are slightly slurred here which suggests his weariness. The last two minutes of this, the longest song on the album at 5 minutes, begins to fade with lovely electric guitar filigrees dancing around the melody.

And that’s it.

A solo album with some excellent support from Kemp’s rich, resonant bass and Pegrum’s solid drumming with plenty of splashes of cymbals. Chapman’s lyrics feature many references to nature – birds singing, trees, sea and sky whilst telling of love lost and time passing. His guitar playing on this album is perfect. This isn’t a flash million-notes a second, jazzy guitar hero we’re talking about here. It’s a journeyman player who supports the songs. Acoustic guitars in D tunings, overdriven Fenders and solos only when they’re needed. Masterful. This is old analogue recording – Fender guitars and amps. The acoustic is probably an old Gibson as this was the days before Chapman started using Fylde guitars (more of in an upcoming posting). This album is all wood and wires. This album has genuine tone. It’s a fantastic mix of acoustics and electrics. Lyrically, it’s spot-on. No secrets of the world, no mysticism, just honesty. Honesty and regret.

And why does it matter? Well, possibly to others it doesn’t, but this album with its stripped down feel is still one of the best ones to put on late at night with a glass of Talisker in hand. Pure reflection.


johnc said...

thanks very much for a very lucid review -it certainly sets the standard far above the fan worship set out in the reviews on amazon

Dave Leeke said...

Thank you JohnC, I rather hope that my "re-views" - more to come - of some classic but forgotten albums are a bit beyond just fan reviews. I have written a few reviews on Amazon - Argus, Tea for the Tillerman and Ry Cooder's "My Name is Buddy" amongst others. I get very fed up with very poorly written ones myself, too.

Albums I write about tend to be ones that have lived with me for years.

Anonymous said...

Great review, i've come to michael chapman late but am busy catching up. Thanks for filling in the deatil in such an informed and interesting way

Dave Leeke said...

Thank you Anon. There's a lot of good stuff out there, MC seems to have become quite prolific over recent years. I do tend to prefer the older stuff but I guess that's because it informed my younger self.

I love "The Man Who Hated Mornings" too, especially "Northern Lights".