Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Great music TV moments #2: Letterman In London (May 1995)

When the king of late night paid a visit to the UK in 1995 the shows were perhaps not vintage Letterman but they possibly contained the greatest entrance to a stage by anyone as Peter O'Toole rode in on a camel. Blowing cigarette smoke from his nostrils, the slyest of grins on his face, he dismounts and gives his "noble steed" a can of beer which it necks in one and then throws away.

David's chat show often was the place to see exciting and unique live music performances - think Dylan & The Plugz ripping through 'Don't Start Me Talking' & 'Jokerman', The Beastie Boys emerging from the subway, strutting down the street performing 'Ch-Ch-Check It Out' ending up on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre, Bjork kicking 'Hyperballad' into the stratosphere, that whole Warren Zevon episode and frankly any time Tom Waits showed up or Darlene Love showed up to sing at Christmas.

So in when in London he had three musical performances that were  in turns unique, baffling, confrontational and great TV. And two by Elton John and Mary Chapin Carpenter that made no impression on my whatever)

Elvis Costello had been a regular visitor chez Letterman since 1982 and in the future would actually host the show when Dave was ill. This probably gave him a taste for presenting which led to the 'Spectacle' chat show and it's awesome musical guest roster.
Sitting in the house band on 16th May 1995 was one Richard Penniman aka Little Richard (as well as Chuck Berry). Elvis had just released his long delayed covers album 'Kojak Variety' which had been taped by an all star sessions line-up in 1990 at the height of "the beard years". The song he was performing on the show was Little Richard's 'Bama Lama Bama Loo' with its author sitting in front of him, just off 6ft to his right. A ballsy move I'm sure you'd agree.

Elvis gives it full throttle , backed by the reformed Attractions, Marc Ribot and other Elvis' sideman, James Burton who are doing he heavy lifting whilst EC, legs splayed like on the cover of his first album just howls the song. Ribot gives a blistering solo early on but Burton is effortlessly on the money when its his turn to shine. Steve hammers away at the keys, safely hidden from the Richard gaze at the back and under Emo Phillips style barnet. Bruce and Pete just keep things tight but loose. It easily surpasses the tepid studio version and Elvis is visibly giddy with delight at the songs end - putting his head on Letterman's chest. Dave's remark that "this isn't the first time you've played the guitar is it?" shows that he clearly wasn't paying attention to who was doing what but EC quickly gives credit where it's due.

As I said, Elvis had just released a new \ old album and was to perform selections from it with the same band as a worldwide radio broadcast. from the Shepherds Bush Empire. Unfortunately his enthusiasm whilst rehearsing and playing in front of Little Richard had got the better of him. The resulting concert featured the same rough vocals of his 1991 MTV Unplugged session and was dubbed 'The King Hoarse Show' by fans. While he was onstage, just up the road at the BBC studio things were getting weird.

Now we all know that Van Morrison can be an odd fella, enough to freak out Spike Milligan on one infamous occasion. The prospect of him singing one of his most well known tunes (raised in the general public's consciousness by a Rod Stewart cover) with Sinead O'Connor and The Chieftains - Irish music royalty must have been music to the producers ears. Didn't quite work out that way.

Now I would suggest he's either had a few liquid liveners backstage or is just being a bit of a sod. Sinead is clearly nervous, clutching onto her in ear monitor for dear life. The waving at the band during the instrumental section as if telling them to stop, the overbearing scatting, the 'blah-blah-blah' etc. The Chieftains are used to continuing in the face of anything but gunfire. When it ends with a comedy bump into the mic and O'Connor doubling up with laughter we see that rarest of sights - a broad grin across the face of Van Morrison. He's clearly been having a right old lark up there.
The astonishing thing is that the performance later appeared on a CD of music highlights from the show so all were clearly happy with how it went. And despite it all - it remains one of my favourite live music performances because its so bizarrely unique

The third and final performance may fascinate and annoy in equal measure but I love Annie Lennox. She's always been about the performance, the moment and a strong visual sense. Just think of that Sweet Dreams promo video, how alien that looked in the early 80s - a woman playing with gender, empowerment and above all that incredible voice. She performed her biggest solo hit 'No More I Love You's' on the last show from London and is such a perfect fit hat it was years before I discovered it was a cover of 'A Lover Speaks' song.

It's such a beautifully controlled performance, the grand entrance with crystal cut falsetto swooping into soulful prayer, the tight camera shots showing the joy, as she silkily sways like a diamante Minnie Mouse as her male backing singers similarly be-eared mime that distinctive vocal refrain. The spoken word \ acting bit may raise hackles and put teeth on edge but I'm just reminded of similarly barking bits like in Bowie's 'All The Madmen' and am of the opinion that here is no song that cannot be improved by a spoken interlude. Everything about this is what pop music should be - weird, celebratory, soulful and fun. She also attempts to stop Dave doing his usual 'shaking hands with the artist whilst looking anywhere else but AT them' shtick .

So there we are - a trio of unique music TV moments that YouTube need not preserve ecause they were burnt into my memory in 1995.

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