It’s been a long year. We hope that you, your kith and kin have managed to stay safe and sane – and, at the risk of coming across as flippant – alive. Our hearts go out to you if you’ve suffered this year.
Sandy Roberton, the Walker Roaders’ label-boss (Beverly Martel Records – with Ginger Man, our own imprint – has been our record label for a couple of years) had a dream that the Walker Roaders recorded the blues classic Smokestack Lightning. That was just too biblical a thing to ignore.
Ted and Sandy have worked together for years. Sandy manages Ted’s career as a producer. Sandy and James could have gone a long way back too. Sandy produced, in 1970, Steeleye Span’s ‘Hark! The Village Wait’. Terry Woods (middle, on the LP cover below) who joined the Pogues in 1985 was in Steeleye Span at the time. Steeleye Span broke up shortly after that. Sandy went on to produce a couple of songs by Terry and his former wife Gay (Terry and Gay Woods). So, there’s that.
That’s fairly impertinent, to take on such a song by such a singer. Rolling Stone has only ranked Howlin’ Wolf No. 54 in its list of “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. The song itself received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award – given to songs over 25 years old which have ‘qualitative or historical significance’. Howlin’ Wolf was 6’3”, weighed three-hundred pounds and someone said of him that he could not be matched for simultaneously bringing the house down and scaring its patrons out of its wits. We’re relieved – for that reason ONLY – that he’s not around.
We went about recording it – from a few angles, like dogs in a bear-baiting maybe. Ted and James talked about how the rhythm of ‘Smokestack Lightning’ – actually, how a lot of blues’ rhythms allow you to superimpose a jig time. The word ‘allow’ is going to have to do. Otherwise maybe you should say “blues’ rhythms can be made to suffer superimposing a jig time”. James took the idea home and went at it from, well, the angle he’s practised a lot of the music he’s played in his career – propulsive, whizzing 6/8 time acoustic guitar often enough. Fearful he’d never be able to pull off a performance that deserved to even stand anywhere near the shadow of a singer like Howlin’ Wolf, James took a few liberties with the harmonic structure thinking that as a band the Walker Roaders ultimately wouldn’t be able to pull off something that didn’t have a chord structure to it. Ted brought it back to the inimitable Smokestack Lighting guitar figure – one of the Ur-blues guitar figures based on the root, blue-note, root, minor seventh that sort of thing.
And, well, yes, it’s near as damn it pentatonic, so, at the danger of sounding a bit facile, it’s not much of a jump to Irish music, which is what Ted has been producing and playing for much of his career, and what James has played for pretty much all of his, and Marc who plays mandolin (and other stuff) having been the guitarist with Dropkick Murphys – well, what the fuck else are we going to do?
Ted and Marc locked into the guitar figure on banjo and acoustic guitar (mandolin later). White guys from England and Massachusetts playing a guitar riff like that? On Irish instruments? Well, traditional instruments in any case. James tried the hook on accordion, but it sounded shit. It’s a picked string figure, is what. The riff works, we think, with guitar and banjo and mandolin – as long as you don’t fuck about with its purity. Its repetition captures a feeling of copy-and-paste sample dread, even though it’s not actually copied and pasted or sampled. It’s played by Ted and Marc in a true mindless, ego-annihilating loop of which Shane MacGowan would probably approve and which forms the basis of many a Velvet Underground track.
James couldn’t NOT play accordion at some point in the song as a whole, so elsewhere in the song the accordion added ‘atmosphere’ to join in with Marc playing the instrumental bit – a melody/jam that Marc came up with, because you can’t bridle Marc Orrell when it comes to invention, neither can you bridle him when it comes to backing vocals. Listen out for them: both he and Ted let rip. Ted and Ryan Mall (Ted’s engineer/sideman for many years) stationed them both in a corridor in the studio and they….well, gave full vent is what they did.
Brad Wood’s bass is sublime, as always – spare, wounded, doughty. Bryan Head’s drum playing is like the flashes from the facets of a diamond.
When it came to the lyrics and how Howlin’ Wolf’s voice inhabits them – well, when he was ten, James was a choirboy, so that kind of training was always going to make covering such a song a bit an uphill journey. (And the white thing too.) The agony of Howlin’ Wolf’s ….we can’t call it ‘performance’….‘rendition’ would be a better word, in the sense that it’s rending, one of the sources of such rending being the Black experience in America.
James would be the first to confess that he’s not a primally screaming sort of guy. Not just that, but he was privileged to work for thirty years on and off – mostly on – with one of the greatest story-telling lyricists there ever was. (Shane was also a gifted primal screamer too, as listeners can witness on such Pogues songs as Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go – though those outpourings were wordless.)
So, James had a look round to see where the words might have come from and came across lyrics of a song by the Mississippi Sheiks recorded in the 30s called ‘Stop and Listen Blues’, which has the line ‘Smokestack lightning, that bell shine just like gold’, like Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightning’.
Howlin’ Wolf was likely playing ‘Smokestack Lightning’ as early as the thirties, around the same time that the Mississippi Sheiks recorded ‘Stop and Listen Blues’, which isn’t to say that Howlin’ Wolf nicked it from them. Music has immemorially been the steamer trunk you take your culture, your story, to different places in – you open it up…. and then. Look at Shane MacGowan’s songs. Not just his.
So, taking the words for ‘Stop and Listen Blues’ and, knowing that, as a singer, accordion player, white guy, European, one of the Pogues – well, James was going to want a story. What came in his steamer trunk can’t express itself in the free vocal primal release of suffering and desire and loss the way Howlin’ Wolf is going to be able to express himself. It’s got to go in a story.
So, the words the song ended up with, were both a matter of watching steam trains and all that they meant to James as a boy (not the same as they would have meant for Howlin’ Wolf), but it wasn’t too much of a stretch, really, to wheel the words and imagery of ‘Stop and Listen Blues’ round, to point at the death and cremation of his mum who died in 1991 – the cooling floor standing in for the incinerator, the smokestack standing in for the crematorium chimney. You have to make these things your own. You have to pay respect to yourself at the same time as pay respect to those to whom the song belonged before The Walker Roaders came to have a go at it, if that makes sense. It’s what – we hope – Howlin’ Wolf would have wanted and not just because he’s bigger than us and could pound us all into pulp.
Here’s a link to a collection of streaming platforms. (Sorry, no cd or lp.)
Here’s a link to watch the video.
The vinyl edition of the Walker Roaders’ 12” LP was released on the 7th February – almost a year ago now. There’s a limited number of these LPs in circulation, so, if anyone wants a copy, the sooner you order it, the better. We’ve just noticed that Target in the USA has already sold out (though, you have to ask, how many would they have ordered in the first place?).
People writing in have been asking about signed copies. The only place where signed copies could be expected to be found would be at gigs (unless we keep a few back and maybe come up with a competition, and then send signed copies to the winners – we’ll study on a plan with that).
We’ve heard from members of the Walker Roaders’ community in various countries (Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) that copies of the LP have been successfully ordered and delivery expected in a matter of days (how many, not sure). We would say at this point that the best-served countries would be the United States and Canada.
The distributors have been working on getting the record to stores. Here’s the list we have so far:
Electric Fetus, 2000 S 4th Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55404
Near Detroit, MI
Dearborn Music, 22501 Michigan Ave, Dearborn, MI 48124
Shuga Records, 1272 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60622
Los Angeles, CA
Gimme Gimme Records, 5810 N Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90042
Amoeba Records, 6400 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028
San Jose, CA
Streetlight Records, 980 South Bascom Avenue, San Jose, CA 95128
Santa Cruz, CA
Streetlight Records, 939 Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Salzer’s, 5777 Valentine Road Ventura, CA 93003
Colorado Springs, CO
Independent Records, 3030 East Platte Avenue, Colorado Springs, CO 80909
Independent Records, 420 West 4th Street, Pueblo, CO 81003
Las Vegas, NV
Zia Records Rainbow, 1216 S. Rainbow Blvd Las Vegas, NV 89146
Zia Records Eastern, 4225 S. Eastern Avenue Las Vegas, NV 89119
Roswell, GA (24 miles from Atlanta)
Mojo, 1058 Alpharetta Hwy, Roswell, GA 30075
Second Avenue Records, 400 SW 2nd Ave, Portland, OR 97204
Plan 9 Records, 3017 W. Cary Street, Richmond, VA 23221
Plan 9 Records, 339 Hillsdale Dr., Charlottesville, VA 22901
More will hopefully be added. As and when we find out which stores and where, we’ll let you know. Please keep checking in here (we’ll also send out information to the mailing list – if you haven’t signed up to the mailing list, please do here).
As far as on-line outlets go, here’s a list in alphabetical order, with links to the services:
Discrepancy Records near Melbourne (costs a whopping AU $56.99 on import – or make 4 interest-free payments of AU $14.25 fortnightly)
Alternatively, you can collect from the store for AU $10 less:
Discrepancy Records & Gallery, 2A Milne Rd, Mont Albert North VIC 3129, Australia (From Melbourne take State Route 32/45 to State Route 29, get onto Eastern Freeway/M3, get off at Elgar Road and then ask someone.)
JPC (It’ll take a couple of weeks, the website says.)
Dispatched from and sold by roundMediaUK.
Juno (But “out of stock” at the minute. You can “add to wishlist” though.)
We had an email from Walker Roaders fan Pjotr Rentinck in the Netherlands:
“Ordered the lp by clicking the Amazon US link and it says “ships to the Netherlands” ; )”
United States of America
Target and Best Buy too (can’t be bothered putting up the links to them).
THE WALKER ROADERERS
The mailing list stands at nine hundred odd, just now, from these countries:
Australia (8), Belgium (4), Brazil (1), Canada (30), Denmark (1), France (2), Germany (26), Ireland (7), Italy (4), Japan (4), Mexico (2), The Netherlands (11), New Zealand (1), Norway (6), Poland (3), Romania (1), Russia (1), Spain (1), Sweden (5), Switzerland (6), United Kingdom (70), United States (263).
There has been a fairly steady flow of responses to the form to sign up to the mailing list on the website, and where people can suggest which cities, towns, etc., the Walker Roaders should play. We were going to list them all – James actually put together a Google map – but, well, there are better things to do with the suggestions, one of which is to figure out how to get to play at as many of the places as possible.
The form on walkerroaders.com sends an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and also slots the correspondent into the mailchimp mailing list. Correspondents should expect James to get in touch, either way, but most likely through the email address, within the month.
You can also get in touch through Facebook and Twitter, etc., but many messages languish unread for months at a time on those platforms. Don’t know why that should be.
Links to all the social media are….somewhere on the walkerroaders.com website. Good luck.
Back to the mailing list….
The cities with the most Walker Roaderers in them just now are (in alphabetical order):
- Amsterdam, the Netherlands
- Atlanta, Georgia
- Austin, Texas
- Boston, Massachusetts
- Burlington, Vermont
- Chicago, Illinois
- Cleveland, Ohio
- Denver, Colorado
- Gothenburg, Sweden
- Hamburg, Germany
- London, Great Britain
- Los Angeles, California
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Minneapolis, Minnesota
- New York and Brooklyn, New York
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Phoenix, Arizona
- Portland, Oregon
- Sacramento, California
- San Francisco, California
- Seattle, Washington
- Toronto, Canada
- Washington, DC
One day, we’ll get to all of the above cities, and more. It’s slow-going at the minute. The force of the thrust we’re providing will, at some point, exceed the drag, so to speak, create a lift force greater than our weight, getting us aloft. Wheels up before too long, is our hope.