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  • Tony Harris

STRING DRIVEN THING

Updated: Jun 6, 2020


A good friend of mine and I used to share a joke that when certain songs came on the pub jukebox and you might be feeling a little more refreshed than you ought to, you would start playing the 'air mandolin'.


Like air guitar but far more dainty...


And of course, even more ridiculous.


He has just celebrated a significant birthday and asked me to provide him with an interesting playlist. Now once we had worked out that I was not under any circumstances, about to commit sacrilege and resort to some demonic streaming platform, I prepared him a list of what I considered my favourite songs for which the playing of an 'air mandolin' as accompaniment was entirely justified.


So once more I offer for your debate another Fab Five - this time of my favourite songs with quality mandolin input.


For the historians amongst you, the mandolin is a derivation from the medieval lute and started to take its more modern form from the sixteenth century onwards. It seems to follow the same tuning as a guitar and even now can be found in a flat-top design that mimics the guitar but is picked rather than strummed. Hence, it has long had a place in various folk traditions particularly in Europe and latterly in Americana.


In the late sixties when folk rock and country rock started to take off, the mandolin occupied several big moments in the spotlight. Interestingly, the harpsichord too had something of a revival around this time as a means of giving a Barque feel to some really quite inventive pop records. Retro normally refers to looking back a couple of decades not centuries, I always thought.


Periodically, the mandolin pops unto provide an interesting sound texture particularly for artists looking for an authentic rural feel such as the Black Crowes or The White Stripes and there is an excellent cover of "Pride (in The Name Of Love)" by country star Dierks Bentley that is really worth checking out. And I've only left out the wonderful "Army Dreamers" by Kate Bush because she was in my last Fab Five.


But really the best place to start is Mandolin-Gate...


In 1971, Rod Stewart released what I still consider his best album "Every Picture Tells A Story" - none of your "Great American Songbook" schmaltz here but a timeless rock album, highlighting just what an extraordinary Blues voice the former Brentford apprentice and gravedigger had. He was backed largely by his band The Faces - the original good time rock and rollers - and they were releasing albums fairly prolifically around this time both as a band and for Rod as a solo artist.


Now my preference as a mandolin choice would be "Reason To Believe" because I think it is still his best vocal performance ever but there is no footage around the time to share. There is however, this wonderfully shambolic performance on Top Of The Pops with The Faces of Rod's number one single "Maggie May" (the original B-Side of "Reason To Believe") - although they didn't all play on the actual recording.


And who is that earnestly miming the Mandolin part while all around him is chaos. None other than legendary disc jockey and champion of the obscure, the late John Peel. In his biography, it says that John was very close to The Faces and had been an early champion of them (the same is true of Black Sabbath), He reportedly said they not only were they the only band he had ever danced to, they were also the headliners of the best night out he had ever enjoyed in 1973 at the Sunderland Locarno.


I can tell you on good authority that it's a city you'd be hard pressed to have a good night ever so they must have been fantastic. Although on reflection, he hosted a late night radio show so he probably didn't get out that much.



The song had never really been rated during its genesis until the mandolin hook was added at the end of a recording session by a player called Ray Jackson. He was paid the standard £15 by the notoriously tight-fisted star for his contribution, which seemed remarkably good value when you consider it is the defining feature of the record which then went on to sell over a million in the US alone and was number one in the UK for five weeks.


Now Jackson was actually a member of Lindisfarne a #1 album band of the time who had also started to sell well with a unique blend of folk-rock (sometimes known where I came from as Geordie & Western). Showing Rod was mean not just with money but with giving out credit, Jackson's integral work was noted as "The mandolin was played by the mandolin player in Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind.".


One can only imagine how much this would have rankled over the years not least after the song's use in a commercial would have brought significant royalties. Lindisfarne by then were no longer a #1 band and hadn't been for many years. A law suit was threatened but never reached conclusion but at least Ray Jackson's contribution is more widely (and rightfully) acknowledged.


Which leads me to probably the best disc featuring a mandolin and Ray Jackson is responsible for that too on the mystical, ethereal "Lady Eleanor" based on an Edgar Allan Poe story. The mandolin part here drives the other-worldly atmosphere and creates a 45 that though redolent of its time has a depth and resonance that comes from its immense sense of layered craft. The song featured on their first album "Nicely Out Of Tune" but only became a hit single in the light of the success of their second album, "Fog On The Tyne".


Rod may not be keen to credit Ray Jackson but I will... twice.


My love of The Stones should have been more than adequately documented with all of you (and if not, I assume you are a passing reader in which case "Welcome"). However, I have always blown a little hot and cold over their more experimental period in the mid-60s and this is often down to Brian Jones and his ability to master all sorts of different instruments and try them out in the course of their work.


His sitar on "Paint It Black" and marimba on "Under My Thumb" are undoubtedly what helps to raise them into brooding classics. There are some critics who really like his use of the dulcimer on "Lady Jane" but I've never much cared for the Stones dabbling in baroque pop, myself. By the time "Between The Buttons" (still my least favourite album of theirs) with its inexplicable kazoo solo on "Cool Calm & Collected", emerged, I am really not sure that such a level of experimentation really suited their Blues roots.


Strangely, their experimentation with Mandolin came not during this period nor was it played by Brian Jones, who was by now fading into musical incoherence.


In 1968, in the aftermath of all the drug busts and critical ambivalence to their work, the Stones returned with a bluesier and gutsier sound. Mick and Keith had been on holiday to Argentina and sat on a verandah composing and playing on their guitars. One of their go-tos was Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain" an old blues standard that they then decided to record with a more complex country feel.


This gave them the opportunity to bring in one of the session musicians they were most keen to work with - Ry Cooder, who then produced an exquisite mandolin line that beautifully augmented the authentic feel of the track, handled as it was by real students of the Blues.


Cooder would also show Keith his signature open G guitar tuning which he adopted wholesale and so changed their sound forever. Apparently, he is still a little touchy on the subject.



For all of their hard rocking, Led Zeppelin have always had a very strong folk strain in their work - you can hear it in the bucolic strains of songs such as "Gallows Pole", "Tangerine" or "The Rain Song"." Led Zeppelin IV" is widely regarded as their finest album and still sells by the truckload (or whatever a digital truck equivalent is) even today almost fifty years later. It is littered with mandolin.


"The Battle Of Evermore" is an exceptionally accomplished piece that apparently was written in one sitting. Jimmy Page was playing around with John Paul Jones's mandolin and wrote the melody while Robert Plant returned to his Tolkien references and created a ballad in the epic style.


And to add testament to their folk leanings, they brought in Fairport Convention's Sandy Denny to give counterpoint to the song as they turned it into a duet. It remains much-loved by all the participants and was a mainstay of what used to be called 'The Acoustic Set' on Led Zeppelin's tours in the late 70s. This version is from the 90s when Page and Plant re-recorded some of their work in an unplugged style - they called it Un-Ledded. Such wags.



Which brings us too the last offering and if you've been with me this far you'll have worked out the classic mandolin song that's missing...


The wonderful "Losing My Religion" by REM. Like "Battle Of Evermore", composed entirely on the mandolin - this time by Peter Buck


I first remember seeing it in a hypnotic performance on an MTV Unplugged in 1991 but it also had one of the most stunning promo films of all time. Flmed by Tarsem it has a triptych of art tableaux around which we see the now-trademark dancing of Michael Stipe. He persuaded the director that it would be a good idea and then proceeded to execute what he termed an impersonation of Sinead O' Connor. I think you would be hard pressed to find a promo film that is so visually stunning.


By the by, the song is nothing to do with religion but actually is about unrequited love - hinted at by the opening shot of a withdrawn hand. The phrase is an antiquated one about something being so challenging that you could 'lose your religion'. Everyday a school day.


Most of you will know it as the song that really launched REM into the stratosphere with their equally enjoyable "Out Of Time" album after 7 odd years of building to that moment of breakthrough. For me, it is the alpha and the omega of air mandolin. This is the song that brought this entrire concept to life.



So if you ever now see me in a bar looking like I m picking bits of lint off one of my top shirt buttons, you know I am not having some sort of seizure.


Ramble on, my folkie friends.


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