'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Month: June, 2015

Great London Pubs: A mighty Oak

The Royal Oak44 Tabard Street, Borough, London SE1 4JU

Everything about the Royal Oak pub in Borough has a hand-covered-cough quality to it – from the moment you step in through its doors, you are aware of being in the presence of quiet greatness; it’s up to you if you wish to acknowledge it or not.

Understated beauty runs throughout the bar, from its dark oak to the chandeliers; there is evident pride in all its tradition, but not to the point of stuffiness. Spending a few hours here feels like getting reacquainted with an old friend: one feels at ease right away thanks to Paul and the well-trained staff (finding a London pub with staff that prides itself in their trade is as refreshing as a cool draught of lager on a balmy August afternoon). There are comfortable seats by large windows, while there is ample room to lean at the bar too. The bar is split between two rooms, which gives the Royal Oak one of its most charming features: a kind of cubbyhole, with a latch that allows a third bar. Punters in for a swift one can order and sup standing here, with the option of perusing the second-hand books for sale stacked by the walls (I picked up a Saul Bellow novel for £1.50).

The Royal Oak is owned by Harveys, so the ale (Pale, Mild, Best) is excellent and a great price for London. The food menu is impressive too – it would be hard to better the Sunday roast – and there is a discerning wine list as well. The absence of any music, TV, or cursed fruit machines is welcome and puts conversation front and centre stage in the style of many of the great Irish pubs. This place is an ideal spot for the elbow-touching chats converged over a few jars, or if you are a solo traveller, it is a happy setting to while away the day with a newspaper or book. The rocking chair set in the corner is a fitting symbol of the pub: its metronomic motion is a happy measure of time well spent; your troubles or strife will soon be set back on its heels after an hour or two here.

In the Royal Oak, you are more than happy to abandon the day to the notion. 

From its modest exterior, the Royal Oak could appear to have little going for it to the unknowing eye. But step across its threshold and you will discover a depth and delight that will have you dragging friends here time and time again.

The Royal Oak sits in the vast shadow of St George the Martyr church, and although it may bow its head in deference to its much grander neighbours, it need not have any feelings of inferiority. The pub’s well-preserved heritage and, for want of a better word, sober charm will find plenty of converts for years to come. Here is a pub to salve any soul that passes through its doors for a sup and a seat.


Andwella – Americana on an Ulster byway


The southern United States provide such a hold on the imagination of so many musicians for its sense of place and mythology, that references to the Mississippi Delta, Memphis or New Orleans are sprinkled across any songwriter’s vocabulary, whether they have visited these places or not. The ghost of Robert Johnson or the singular sounds of Stax Records have seeped into our collective subconscious to become as familiar as any folk tale or brand. The same applies to the West Coast sound of the 1960s, the psychedelic scene of ‘Swinging London’ of the same decade, or Americana: place will pin music to its true essence.

I’ve often wondered, tongue-in-cheek, to friends if we might ever have the equivalent of Americana in Irish rock music – with shout outs to the Lagan River for example, or small villages such as Cullybackey (which means ‘wood of the river bend’ from the Irish Coill na Baice. How Americana is that for a song title?).

Perhaps some day in the future we could have tunes ‘Born on the Blackwater’ or ‘The Streets of Lurgan’ as part of a new music movement in the north of Ireland… Ulsteriana anyone?

Andwella came from Belfast but they encapsulated many of the influences already mentioned, with the three albums they made in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The original trio was initially known as Andwellas Dream, made up of multi-instrumentalist Dave Lewis, Nigel Smith (bass/vocals) and Gordon Barton (drums), which recorded their heavy psychedelic debut record ‘Love and Poetry’ for CBS in London in 1968. The album is stuffed with song writing that symbolises the slowly dispersing smoke clouds from the ‘Summer of Love’; influences from Cream, The Who and Traffic can be easily found in their sound.

Befitting the time it was produced, ‘Love and Poetry’ is a purposeful album: a smorgasbord of sound, with killer riffs sitting next to flute-laden instrumentals (such as ‘Sunday’ featuring jazz musician Bob Downes) and is regarded as a rough diamond by psychedelic music lovers. It’s an infectious LP well worth burrowing for and can now be found on vinyl courtesy of Sunbeam Records. Despite having instantly catchy tracks such as ‘Man Without A Name’, ‘Felix’ and the bluesy ‘Cocaine’, the album didn’t shift many units when it was released a year later in ‘69.

In one way, ‘Love and Poetry’ is a useful marking post for where psychedelic rock was at the time: stood at a fork in the road, one path leading to prog rock (Pink Floyd, King Crimson et al) and the other, folk rock (Pentangle, Fairport Convention etc).

The young Belfast group had to choose which way to go: Dave McDougall joined on guitar and vocals, they shortened their name to Andwella and they went a completely different road – one that may as well have been sign posted Woodstock.

‘Music from Big Pink’ released by The Band in 1968 was a tectonic shift in the rock world: musicians influenced by psychedelica were adding more and more layers to their sound, while ratcheting up the volume.

Through ‘Big Pink’ and their eponymous follow-up album a year later, The Band pulled the plug and stripped everything back.

Critics called it Americana, even though it was four Canadians with an Arkansan singing drummer inspiring the rudimentary ideas. But that did not lessen its impact. Consequently, Andwella’s sound jumped completely for their next albums ‘World’s End’ (1970) and ‘People’s People’ (1971), as they discarded their psychedelic attire.

Sophomore effort ‘World’s End’ has some excellent tracks such as the horn-drenched ‘Lady Love’, the elegiac ‘Back On the Road’ and plenty of ambition and invention with the grand, soaring instrumentation of ‘World’s End’ (parts 1 & 2) and ‘Shadow of the Night’. It’s a fine rock record.

Andwella’s next album ‘People’s People’ has a cover photo of the group that is pure homage to The Band’s eponymous 1970 album and songs such as ‘Mississippi Water’ and ‘Saint Bartholomew’ could easily sit beside ‘Look Out Cleveland’ and ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’.

However it still stands on its own merits and has plenty of fine moments from Andwella’s creative force and main songwriter Dave Lewis. One example is the poignant ‘Behind The Painted Screen’ – a song referencing the purifying qualities and nostalgia created from a trip to Lough Erne (Someone should send Rod Stewart a copy, if he’s looking for new cover material). Despite moving inroads again to a more mainstream sound, yet again Andwella didn’t see much of a return on album sales and called it a day in 1972.

They deserved better back then. In the setting of Irish rock music, Andwella’s sun should not have gone down so easily or quickly. It’s time to put them in their rightful place. Go buy their albums.

*This article originally appeared in ‘The Irish News’ newspaper.


Belfast’s forgotten troubadour – Ernie Graham

In the 1960s he befriended Jimi Hendrix and worked with him in the studio, toured with Pink Floyd, and played Glastonbury Festival in 1971. That same year he produced a sublime debut solo album, which remains something of a hidden gem, even in the easily-accessible treasure chest of today’s digital music.

You might think this sounds like a charmed CV for a lad born in Belfast, but for Ernie Graham, the phrase ‘the luck of the Irish’ was probably a bittersweet one during his lifetime – he always seemed an outstretched, despairing arm away from catching the bus to fame.

Ernie passed away in London on April 27 2001, aged only 54. Having spent the latter years of his life working for British Rail and on the Orient Express, he had long left the music scene behind him after the frustration of never seeing his train come in. However, his sole eponymous LP should ensure his legacy as one of Ulster’s finest rock ‘n’ roll sons; his fleeting moment in the sun offers us a glimpse of his brilliant musical instinct.

Luckily, a friend tipped me off about the album a couple of years ago. Knowing how much I loved Little Feat and The Band, he said I should check out Ernie Graham, a guy who was in ’60s Belfast psychedelic-blues group Eire Apparent. I duly went digging but found original copies of the album hard to find – and if you did manage to track one down, they were in the region of £100. Frustrated, I checked that great liberator of music, YouTube, and found a playlist of the entire LP. The album’s easy going spirit and laid-back grooves struck a note with me right away; Ernie was from Belfast but he wore his folk and Americana influences happily on his sleeve; delivering vocals with a lazy grace and reminding me that great music can sometimes be the simplest.

What’s more important is that this fine album is now available on CD from Hux records in London (with a couple of bonus tracks, including the Phil Lynott-penned ‘Romeo and the Lonely Girl’ and detailed liner notes). The price is soft on the wallet too.

The opening track ‘Sebastian’ sounds like it could have come from some lost Dylan bootleg, whereas ‘For A Little While’ could easily be the kid brother of ‘The Man In Me’ from the Minnesota song-smith’s 1970 LP ‘New Morning’. Right across ‘Ernie Graham’ there are influences from The Band (check the sloping vibes of ‘So Lonely’ and ‘Don’t Want Me Around’) to Grateful Dead (the harmonies on ‘The Girl That Turned The Lever’ could have come from their ‘American Beauty/Workingman’s Dead’ era). On one track Ernie even adopts a kind of Captain Beefheart-lite vocal on the R&B shuffler ‘Blues to Snowy’.

The entire LP has such a relaxed, low-slung loveliness to it, which may have had plenty to do with Ernie’s way of working in the studio.

He liked a drink, as Stiff Records producer Larry Wallis remembered: “A wonderful chap… (His attitude was) ‘Hey, we’re recording! Right what do we need? Guitar, plectrum, two bottles of whiskey, some Coca-Cola!’ Ernie had his bar; there he was out by the vocal mic, loosening up. One time, when the level had dropped in the bottle, he decided to sit down to record the vocal and unfortunately he chose a high stool. Well he went off that twice! It’s pretty disconcerting to be sat at a mixing desk and to look up and see hovering in mid-air a glass of whiskey and Coke and no Ernie!”

Ernie found potency in this album: listening to it does conjure up ideas of sipping glasses of chilled rum and Coke with good friends on a lazy summer evening: the music is tinged with a warm haze. One track that sits slightly incongruously on the album is the one penned for his hometown, ‘Belfast’. With its fiddle, Celtic-tinged rock and angry lyrics, it juts out from the overall spirit of the LP. On first listen the tune makes one cringe slightly from its earnestness, but it grows on you. After a visit home for Christmas in 1970, Ernie probably felt the need to reference what was happening to the place. The Troubles gripping it by the throat; it’s a lament for a torn town.

The standout tracks are ‘For A Little While’, the feelgood ‘The Girl That Turned the Lever’ with its flourish of accordion melody throughout, and the haunting, otherworldly melancholy of ‘Sea Fever’. Ernie wrote the latter song while suffering from depression: ‘I was going through a very low period to be honest. I read somewhere that drowning was a pleasant way to die. It’s something to do with the water shutting off the air to the brain and as a result the brain gets incredibly high.’

But the album doesn’t sink the heart, it lifts it: open-road rhythms, sing-along choruses, and the joy of the ‘la la las’ sprinkled throughout.

What will make the album stand up for years to come, I think, is it’s beautiful paradox of free spirited music matched with introverted and, in true Belfast style, straight-talking lyrics. For Ernie sings about lost and unrequited love, getting burned, regrets, rejection, looking back down the road, separation, emotional detachment and so on. Yet the music never strays into Leonard Cohen lugubriousness and a lot of credit for this must go to the players (Brinsley Schwarz) that backed him when they cut the album rather quickly in ‘71.

Anyone with music in their heart will find joy and comfort in this album. Because here is a guy who is playing his soul out just for you – and if you are up or down, Ernie has a tune to sort you out.

The LP is like meeting up with an old friend in one of the finer Belfast pubs: you’re sure to feel better after the company. Music journalist Phil McMullen has an interesting take on the album: ‘I never met Ernie Graham, yet I felt I knew him. His music wove itself into the tapestry of my life; I’d fall in love, lose a friend or encounter some life-changing experience. And each time, the Ernie Graham LP would be found at the front of the record pile beside the stereo. I even came to believe the way the album faced guided my providence, the front cover (Ernie smoking) suggesting a period of reflection and the smiling face on the back encouraging me to shake off the demons and have a good time. It wasn’t as mysterious as that though; the record popped up so much because it is such a fine one.’

When I went back to the LP recently, I could not stop playing ‘For A Little While’ over and over again: a song about the crazy possibilities of romance: encountering a fleeting love, which disappears in front of your eyes before it has even started. I had a similar experience recently and was a bit annoyed and disappointed by it. But when those ‘la la las’ came in, all I could do was sing along, for I knew exactly what Ernie was saying. Life can sometimes frustrate, women will come and go, but the music will always remain. Just like Ernie Graham.

*This article originally appeared in ‘The Irish News’ newspaper.


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