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Sunday, 20 April 2008

Written in granite: Ordinary Man

We'd better deal with the worst thing about Christy Moore's Ordinary Man first: the sleeve is utterly dreadful, as though done by sticking some Letraset onto a cheap chocolate box. I actually often like sleeves using black with very simple wording or motifs, you can do something very effective without spending a fortune on printing - look at Unknown Pleasures. But this just looks tacky. However, having got that one major gripe out of the way, the album within is absolutely fantastic and simply oozes class. I first heard it at the time of its release, about 1986, I should think. It opens with one of the most wonderful things I'd ever heard, Sweet Music Roll On. Listening to it now you can't help giving thanks that they didn't put any drums on it because, as this was 1986, someone would've insisted on that one Linn snare sound that's on almost every record made around that time. Fortunately the only sounds on the record which have dated very slightly are some of the synth sounds, but they mostly stick to fairly standard synth sounds so they've aged fairly well, and the real pipes blend in and make them sound more organic. There's some percussion on a few songs, but no Linn anywhere, thank goodness. The acoustic guitars are among the most beautifully recorded I've ever heard, and Christy's voice sounds fantastic throughout the album. Sweet Music is a wonderfully atmospheric narrative about a sailor's dalliance with a girl met in a bar and it just has that indefinable something that sends shivers up and down my spine. I bought the CD version in one of two double packs I bought direct from Christy's website perhaps 2-3 years ago, having not heard the album for around 15 years. You know what it's like, especially with albums made in the eighties, you're always worried in case they've dated appallingly, if sounds that sounded all shiny new and adventurous have turned out to have been a horrible mistake. So it was with some trepidation that I hit "play" and allowed the sweet music to roll on. I needn't have worried, if anything it sounded even more beautiful than I remembered and I actually found that the rest of the album was much better than I'd remembered.

For a start it is very well paced, with a few shorter, funnier pieces such as Delirium Tremens, which features some topical Irish political references some of which are now lost on me (most probably would've been even at the time, as I must confess I've never kept an especially close eye on Irish domestic politics). The main highlights – for me, at least – are the other narrative ballads, The Diamondtina Drover, The Blantyre Explosion, the closing Quiet Desperation, but there isn't really a weak track here as even things like DT serve a purpose, giving the album light and shade and, as I say, it is beautifully arranged and recorded.

Ordinary Man is by far my favourite Christy Moore album and I have around a dozen CDs. Like the other greatest storytelling singers, unless you check the credits it's impossible to tell which songs he's written himself and which are by other people, he has that knack of making a song his own. This is a particularly difficult feat to pull off in any form of music with a long tradition, such as folk, where some of the other songs in your repertoire may be 100 years or more (indeed, possibly a lot more) old and Christy pulls it off with consummate mastery, whether he's performing a traditional song, one written 40-50 years earlier, written recently but by someone else or by himself. As I've already hinted, this is a prodigious feat at any time, but records made from the mid to late eighties which pull it off can be counted on the nails of one finger. i.e. I can't actually think of another one. It took Dylan until 1989 to make his first great record of the eighties (Oh Mercy), Neil Young decided not to release his best of that period (Times Square), Joni Mitchell's Geffen albums, whilst no disgrace by anyone else's standards, are the weakest in an otherwise extraordinary body of work... Van Morrison managed a couple of fairly fine albums, but even they are marred slightly by the sheen of the production. Of course, Christy stands out from that kind of company in that he's not a worldwide (super)star. Nor is he primarily a writer of his own material like the artists I've just mentioned. Indeed, the only artist of that generation and stature I can think of to have produced no mediocre albums and indeed some of his finest work during the nineteen eighties is Leonard Cohen and first of all at the time he wasn't really commercially in that company, he's been elevated to a higher plane of stardom bizarrely by dint of staying out of music mostly and allowing celebrity fans to do it for him, and secondly Cohen only actually made two albums in the 80s, one just before Linn-mania really took hold (1984's Various Positions, which personally I love, but not everyone does) and 1989's I'm Your Man, a record on which it was no longer possible to miss the fact that he had a sense of humour, particularly as he was pictured clutching "a happy banana" on the sleeve.

Anyone wanting an introduction and overview to Moore's work should consider investing in The Box Set 1964-2004 or, as Christy engagingly referred to it at the time on his website, "the Box Set Me Bollix". This is one of those boxed sets you can buy without worrying that either it'll be full of stuff that you'll end up duplicating if you get into the artist (i.e. a kind of bigger greatest hits with a few rarities to make hardcore fans shell out) or alternatively that it'll be full of stuff that remained unreleased for years for a very good reason. I think pretty much everything on the six CDs is otherwise unreleased at least in this form, there are lots of live recordings, demos, outtakes, collaborations but it makes a wonderful set. Moore seems to share Dylan's work ethic in that he has regularly released albums, toured, written songs, interpreted other people's songs, new and old, without prejudice, and generally continued with the life of the working folk singer. Certainly in my estimation he belongs in the august company I mentioned in the paragraph above. Most of his work remains available and not just in Ireland. There are career retrospective compilations but Moore's is not really an oeuvre which lends itself to this. The BSMB works because it's been carefully put together, with the six discs programmed thematically (and helpfully colour-coded). I really must get more of the man's albums, for instance I don't have any of the Planxty or Moving Hearts stuff.

One of the other things I've noticed as being key to most of the greatest artists in most fields, and particularly those whose stock-in-trade involves words, is a sense of knowing where you've come from. I'd always take the Beatles over the Stones because while the Liverpool band were certainly heavily influenced by American music, they were always very British, whereas the Stones, although they made some great records at times, particularly singles, were – and are – essentially fakes. Their best records are the ones where they stop trying to ape the blues. This is why I've no real time for the work of the likes of Eric Clapton – apart from the man's obvious hypocrisy in taking his entire musical identity from black musicians and then claiming that Enoch Powell was right – remarks for which he has never apologised. Having said that, I rate the Kinks higher than any of the above, because the sense of place in the songs of Ray Davies is tangible. We'll look at the Kinks soon as they fit rather well into this series. Christy Moore is another great example: he sings in his own accent and from his own Irish perspective. He is, at the end of the day, a living, working folk singer, and I have no higher praise.

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