Rab Noakes is recalling the trip to the U.S. in 1973 that saw the Fife-born singer-songwriter recording in Nashville with a record producer, Elliot Mazer, who had just overseen one of the decade’s most popular albums, Neil Young’s Harvest, and a group of musicians whose previous experience included playing fiddle with Hank Williams and bass guitar with Aretha Franklin.
These were, agrees Noakes, heady times for a boy from Cupar. Even allowing for the fact that, by then, he had already been in and out of Stealers Wheel with his old friend Gerry Rafferty and had had his second album produced by Bob Johnson, whose client list included Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen, the making of Noakes’s third album, Red Pump Special was quite an experience.
“I was talking about this with someone the other day and there probably weren’t many – if any – Scottish musicians who had recorded in the United States at that time,” says Noakes down the line from a London hotel. “Red Pump was just ahead of the Average White Band’s great success in the U.S. and Frankie Miller went on to work a bit later with Allen Toussaint in New Orleans and with Elliot Mazer too. So I suppose I might have been a bit of a pioneer in that respect.”
For Noakes, who has just managed to reissue Red Pump Special on his own Neon label after initially hoping that it would be re-released on its thirtieth anniversary, the pleasure in hearing the album again after all this time is that it sounds as good as he remembers. He’s not one for listening to his own work. Once an album’s been completed, he’s always moved on to the next batch of songs. But working on Red Pump’s reissue required him to listen carefully and took him back figuratively to Nashville and to California, where he was afforded time to adjust to American life by Mazer and got to hang out with Neil Young who, he discovered one day, had snuck into Mazer’s apartment, was listening as Noakes ran through his song Branch and applauded when he finished.
“It wouldn’t be right to trash the way all records are made these days but there can be a lot of machines involved whereas back then, there was a virtue in having everybody playing in the same room,” he says. “I’m pleased with the way the songs on Red Pump stand up but if you look beyond the songs, it sounds good from a production viewpoint too. Great attention was paid to the quality of equipment used, where microphones were placed and all the details that go into making a sound that stands the test of time, and the thing I remember about the guys who were on my record was that they were so welcoming. There was no big time behaviour or world weariness and nothing came off the shelf, as it were. They were eager to get to work and make it as good as it could be and they always involved me. I never felt like an outsider and hearing them strike up conversations on their instruments was fascinating.”
In the liner notes he’s written to accompany the album, Noakes refers more than once to the way record companies indulged artists in the 1970s. When he signed to Warner Bros, who released Red Pump and its successor, Never Too Late, he told them how much he liked the sound of Neil Young’s Harvest and fancied making an album in Nashville. More than a snap of the fingers was required but he was, to use his own word, accommodated.
In return, record companies expected, if not a single that would make their artist a star, then a radio turntable hit that would guide listeners to the parent album. Noakes came close with the aforementioned Branch but by his own admission he had moved on and was busy recording the follow-up album when he maybe should have been promoting Branch. As a result he was released from his contract, in a most eloquently phrased letter that he’s reproduced alongside his liner notes.
He subsequently signed with Ringo Starr’s label and MCA and between working in radio and television production and maintaining a presence as a performer and recording artist he’s emerged as someone who has ridden career highs and lows without any signs of the bitterness that can result from such experiences in the music business. In his diary for this year are solo voice and guitar shows and dates with his long-time friend and fellow Fifer, Barbara Dickson, with Noakes singing Don to Dickson’s Phil – in Everly Brothers parlance – on harmonies.
“We just recorded an EP together with six songs and it’s sounding good,” says Noakes. “The thing about Barbara is that we’ve known each other so long – since before Red Pump Special certainly – and we enjoy singing together, and I think when you enjoy what you’re doing, that comes across to other people. I hope so anyway. It’s a simple formula: two voices and two guitars and a load of songs we both like.”
Red Pump Special – the Fortieth Anniversary Edition is released on Neon Records.
From The Herald, March 1, 2014.
Long-time Rab Noakes watchers will remember how, even as he was being feted by a series of major record companies as a songwriter himself in the 1970s, his live sets would include cover versions of songs that had pointed him down the songwriting and performing path.
Buddy Holly and the Crickets, particularly the Peggy Sue saga, and Bruce Phillips’ The Goodnight-Loving Trail are two examples that spring readily to mind in recalling Noakes’ onstage enthusiasm for rock ‘n’ roll and what we now call Americana.
It went deeper than that and it didn’t take any great insight to realise that the songcraft that produced Turn a Deaf Ear or Somebody Counts on Me, to name but two early Noakes songs that were picked up by other artists, had been forged through copious studies of innumerable creators of music from the previous fifty years.
CD2 and the bonus downloads that come as part of this package make this case eloquently with recordings of film soundtrack hits, affirmations of Sam Cooke, the Everlys and Elizabeth Cotten’s greatness, acknowledgements of country music and Motown’s ability to hit the popular bulls eye and proof of Noakes’ continued fascination for quality songwriting through his own contemporaries and more recent writers.
Noakes the songwriter/composer with big ears and an open heart comes roaring out of the dozen originals that make up CD1 with equal force, however. Bare lines remembered from a film or documentary resurface with whole suits of clothes stitched poetically around them in the title track and Believing is Seeing, the sense of space in the latter’s arrangement matching the American west’s endless plains from which its inspiration sprang.
The blues, the Band and Buddy Holly feed into Slippin’ Away and Out of Your Sight and while one lost friend, Gerry Rafferty, is remembered in No More Time, another – Michael Marra, who is present in song on CD2 – looms for this listener in One Dog Barks. The Chinese proverb that Noakes profits from artistically here is exactly the sort of line that Marra would have pounced on as songwriting gold.
I’m Walkin’ Here doesn’t have the polished Nashville production that Noakes enjoyed on his Red Pump Special album, which was reissued in time to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2014. Therein, though, lies its charm and strength of personality. This is Noakes, the musician who picked up on skiffle’s immediacy and vibrancy, and also the sophistication that lingered below its home-made façade, singing like he means it (and he always means it) with a band that exudes the warmth and camaraderie of the Basement Tapes.
If the entirety of these thirty-three tracks (there really should be 33 and 1/3 in a collection that’s so redolent of the vinyl age and yet still so current) conveys the extended reach of Noakes’ musical appetite and admiration, from the harrowing traditional ballad The Two Sisters to the buoyant pop of (Don’t Say) Money Doesn’t Matter, then one track captures his essence as a musical enthusiast: Where Dead Voices Gather.
In three minutes and five seconds we get a picture that draws together country twang, New Orleans medicine shows and the roots of Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, and Bob Dylan as Noakes delivers a raw, emphatic subterranean homage blues to 1920s minstrel Emmett Miller.
Rab Noakes, Demos & Rarities Vol 2 (Neon)
Some demos and rarities stay in the vaults for good reasons. Others, like these nineteen tracks, make you wonder why they have, in most cases, been hidden away for so long. The opening track will be familiar to those who bought Gerry Rafferty’s first solo album, Can I Have My Money Back, and the closing gem comes from the concert that Rafferty’s friend Rab Noakes directed for Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival in honour of Rafferty’s life and music.
In between, there are items that were either given a general release before being lost or come singing back from memories of seeing Noakes in his 1970s pomp. Mostly, though, these are new discoveries of the sort that caused mass movement of men and digging equipment to California in the 1840s.
The UK pop scene of the time must have been rich indeed if it couldn’t find an excuse to share Lonely Boy Tonight or Same Old Place with a mass radio audience and while much of this music celebrates the friendship that Noakes forged with Rafferty after meeting him in Billy Connolly’s dad’s house in Partick, Glasgow, in 1969, there’s evidence here that, while Rafferty was riding a wave of success with his – it seemed – effortlessly companionable hits, his pal might only have been a Baker Street-style saxophone hook or two away from following suit.
Noakes and Rafferty bonded over their love for the same songs. The impression is that they’d both got under the bonnets of 1950s rock’n’roll classics and the Beatles’ and possibly the Beach Boys’ catalogues like autophiles exploring car engines to see how they work. Shine a Light certainly suggests that John Lennon had quite an effect on Noakes, although his piano playing, which has been largely kept in the background during his career, has a certain Brian Wilson quality in the left hand.
Although Rafferty is present too, the robust finger-picking style that carries Noakes’ vocal on Restless is the classic Noakes that those seeing his seemingly ever-present name in Melody Maker’s what’s on guide during the 1970s would have heard had they turned up to one of the advertised gigs. There’s a similar experience later as Noakes and Rafferty, captured in 2001, relive one of Noakes’s staples from his folk club days, John Sebastian’s (Sittin’ Here) Lovin’ You with the enthusiasm of fans but the quality of seasoned pros.
Another item from the Rab & Gerry sections, All Away, highlights Noakes’ confiding, personal singing style and his ability to develop songs in often surprising but always engaging ways while Rafferty’s guitar playing confirms that the melodic sensibility he brought to his own songwriting flowed in an accompanying role too.
Noakes the rock’n’roller roars out of It’ll Be Me and the almost menacing, low-voiced delivery he brings to See Me Again, by this time in the assured, creative company of guitarists Richard Brunton and Steve Whalley and Rafferty’s masterful session drummer Liam Genockey, hints at a previously unsuspected liking for Kevin Ayers’ crooning or perhaps the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ E E Lawson.
The one performance that Noakes will wish hadn’t had to happen is Moonlight & Gold, which he sang solo in tribute to Rafferty and which closes the set. Conveying, at once, pride in his friend’s talent and the emotion of the occasion without missing a beat, it’s a golden moment that celebrates great songwriting ability and equally great interpretive talent and for anyone who was present it will take them right back to Glasgow Royal Concert Hall that evening in January 2012.