A theme song for Poisonville

On this day in 1929, Alfred A Knopf published Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest”, which had been serialised in the pulp magazine Black Mask in the previous year. It became the template for the hard-boiled detective novel. Its hero is the nameless Continental Op (he’s an operative of The Continental Detective Agency) who is called to Personville by the local Press Baron. Personville is known as “Poisonville” by the locals, and the plot turns on police corruption and gang warfare, and Red Harvest refers to the staggering amount of bloodshed that ensues, caused (mostly deliberately) by the Continental Op. It inspired Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which in turn influenced Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name in the Dollars trilogy. The Coen brothers’ film Blood Simple takes its title from a line in Red Harvest, and In the early 1970s, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci considered filming an adaptation of the novel with Jack Nicholson or Clint Eastwood in the lead, but it never happened. I took the name Poisonville to use on a project with Mark Pringle and my daughter, Jordan, a decade ago, where we recorded skewed versions of songs from the 60s. Here’s a song called “Hammett” which uses cut-up loops and samples welded onto a narration of a dream sequence from the 21st chapter of ”Red Harvest”, which we recorded as a kind of theme song for the project. It features a sonorous cello part by Mark, as well as a guitar solo that, to this day, is one of the greatest I’ve ever heard. Read the book — it’s a cracker.

“If you just smile…”

For fun, a slow-burn version of “Smile”, written by Charlie Chaplin, and based on the instrumental theme that he’d composed for his 1936 film, Modern Times. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s use of strings and pedal steel on his Sinatra album, Shadows in the Night, I’ve incorporated those elements, along with the usual curdled guitars.

“I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night…”

On an interesting episode the other day [May 28 2021] of Desert Island Discs, Alexei Sayle [another ex-Chelsea School of Art-er] chose “Joe Hill” as one of his eight discs, recalling that it was performed at his mother’s funeral. I first heard “Joe Hill” on the Woodstock soundtrack, sung by Joan Baez. Never a lover of her precise and pure voice, I nevertheless loved the song. I next heard it in the 1971 Bo Widerberg film biopic, for which guitarist Stefan Grossman did the score. When I listen to it sung, usually as a folk ballad, I always think it’s too sweet — and the version by Baez played on DID was a Nashville studio recording, with a prominent and syrupy pedal steel part. I recorded it a few years ago with the aim of making an angry industrial version, piston-driven and distorted. At one point I felt it needed a rap section and cast around for someone that may fit the bill. My friend Mark put me in touch with painter and wordsmith Nathan Detroit, who, with no real brief from me, came up with something he calls Cyborging — an abstract and impressionistic flow of words. Sounded great to me, so one afternoon we recorded it. Here it is. Play it Loud.

Song Suggestions

Blake Mills, “If I’m Unworthy”. He’s a monstrous guitarist, but this is a great song and an impassioned but minimal performance. It would work just as well with a band in a more “Southern Soul ballad” style.

Bob Dylan “I’ll Remember You”. Long-forgotten song from a very flat bit of Bob’s career, a little like an earlier version of “To Make You Feel My Love”. Don’t think he really does justice to the melody that could be found with a little more focus, but it’s a great song.

Robbie Robertson “Straight Down the Line”. A little Rock n Roll history set to a cool beat…

Van Morrison “I’ll be Your Lover, too”. An under-appreciated Van song, with  great tune, great lyric. I first heard it used over the end credits of a Russell Crowe/Meg Ryan kidnap film in the 90s.

Dan Penn “Zero Willpower”. Less well known than his “Dark End of the Street” or “Do Right Woman” but up there with them.

Suzie Vinnick, “The Danger Zone” written by Percy Mayfield for Ray Charles, here done as a solo bass number.

Robbie Fulks, “As Sweet as Sweet Comes”. Lovely, indeed sweet, song:
“Baby I’m coming as fast as the law will let me
If it wasn’t for the money I’d never leave you alone
Being close by you just lifts the whole world from me
Your arms are my home sweet home…”

Here’s the mp3 as I can’t find it on YouTube:


A bit left-field! Paul Buchanan “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. From David Bowie’s Blackstar, here sung in a completely different arrangement at the BBC Bowie Prom…

Here’s the mp3 as I can’t find it on YouTube:


Kenny Edwards, “Will You Still”.


Hot House, “Take This Pain”. And lastly, cheekily, one I co-wrote, with due acknowledgement to Shakespeare, and sung by Heather Small.



Martin vs Music: Sealed With a Kiss


Recently heard on the soundtrack to an episode of Mad Men, my continuing project of finding songs to cover leads to an attempt on Brian Hyland’s 1962 puppy-love pop classic (#3 on both US and UK charts). It has a naggingly dark/slightly hysterical melody that stuck in my head for days after watching the programme. I thought that a kind of moody, dragged-out beat would suit, and ended up close to an Angelo Badalamenti mugginess. Having roughed it out thus, Mark added his tensile guitar to it at the end of a day when we’d been playing “Next!” – a game where I play Mark tracks in various states of completion and he either responds to them, or doesn’t (and hence “Next!”). He has no knowledge of what I’m going to serve up, and sometimes it hooks him in enough to play multiple takes and work a part out. Sometimes it’s just one or two takes. He played, I think, three passes on this song.

An idea had occurred to me, a while before, to hire a bona-fide musician (Mark’s one, but he works with me for lunch and wine). And I thought of horns on this, so I emailed the wonderful Paul Taylor, who I’d seen with improv outfit the Horseless Headmen. I trepidatiously waited for a reply to my request that he write horn charts for a couple of songs, and was hugely thrilled when he said yes. Paul’s a great musician and a wonderful chap to spend a day with. We discussed a ridiculous range of music, from trad to bebop, from The Bureau via Improv to Trombone Poetry. Having tuned up the part of my brain needed to cope with engineering a live trombone session – we set to. Paul methodically and with great precision overdubbed the trombones that you hear here. It was only at the end that I played him Mark’s guitar part, and it was interesting to find how well the parts meshed. So here it is, folk fans: Sealed With a Kiss.



True fact: Hyland’s In a State of Bayou album found him working with the late and most certainly great Allen Toussaint. Who knew?

Note: The photograph above was taken in Uppsala during a performance of silent movies accompanied by live piano. It’s the cinema where Ingmar Bergman watched films as a child and the theatre hasn’t been updated since. Before the performance there was a selection of eccentric music videos from the late 30s, all accordions and gypsy guitar and very flimsy story lines, as witnessed above.

Credits: Lead guitar by Mark Pringle, Trombones arranged and played by Paul Taylor, Rhythm guitars and vibes played by Martin Colyer, who also arranged the song and sang it. There is no bass.

For Sam

I woke up at 5am on the day we were to go to Uppsala to meet Annie, who was going to read some of Sam’s poetry at an evening performance at the English Bookshop, during Uppsala’s yearly Culture Night. Annie had asked me to say something about collaborating with Sam on a book of poems and photographs that we had published near the end of his life.

I awoke with thoughts going around my head of what I would say, and decided to get up and write them down, as I’d either not get back to sleep if I didn’t, or remember them if I did. So in the apartment that we had spent such memorable times, I wrote as swiftly as I could.




I always looked up to Sam – as a young boy, in a physical sense – he was a towering figure dressed in Levis’ 501s, Bass loafers with cream socks, a light blue shirt, with a v-neck dark blue pullover, a canvas-coloured London Fog raincoat.

As a teenager, it was less Sam’s physical presence as much as his intellectual one – it was about the expanding of horizons. I can see him now, padding around my parents’ Charing Cross Road flat, a suitcase full of books and notes and records – always open – that spoke of exotic places, exotic thoughts, exotic music.

In 1968, we were sent three plane tickets – Pan Am, London to New York – to visit with the Charters. So for three weeks we soaked up America with Ann and Sam as our guides. My dad Bill was sent on his first visit to New Orleans, to hang out in the places – and with the people – that his brother Ken had written about so vividly in 1952 when he jumped ship to play with his heroes. We, meanwhile, headed to the Newport Folk Festival to stay in a spookily empty school dormitory and watch Arlo Guthrie and Janis Joplin and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Sam was Buddy and Junior’s record producer, and he took me backstage to their trailer where Buddy let me hold his guitar. That was an education right there.


When Sam came through London in 1970, en route to a new life in Sweden (he’d felt that staying in the States at that point would mean joining the Weathermen), he left with me some of his favourite albums. There was God Bless Tiny Tim; there was I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die by Country Joe and the Fish (produced by Sam); more indelibly, Music From Big Pink was there, and I remember Sam saying that Richard Manuel’s “In a Station” was his favourite track.

Around this time (I was about fifteen) there was an open invitation to visit whatever project Sam was currently working on, so after school most days and weeks that he was in town, I would make my way over to Sound Techniques, a recording studio housed in an old dairy building off the King’s Road in Chelsea. I’d sit on the couch at the back of the control room as Sam produced American protest singers, English folksters, blues guitarists and Ragtime Orchestras, always with the same good humour, but also with an intense desire to bring out the core of whichever artist he was working with.

I saw his rapport with them, his subtle direction of them, and his real love for what they did. I experienced at first hand the camaraderie of musicians, the application of their gifts, their ability to come together and coax magic from thin air. These things have always stayed with me.


Sam had a really sophisticated knowledge of music and its history and such a wide-ranging love of song. He’d gone with Ann on voyages of discovery that, for some, equaled Stanley’s trek to find Livingstone or Vespucci, America – voyages that took them back into the struggles and art of an earlier America. Yet he wore his knowledge lightly and often worked with music rooted in apparent simplicity, always coming back – in some way – to the blues, a music that had spoken across states and racial boundaries and decades of time to him. And although he often wrote of the past, it was always the future for Sam: there was the next project, just around the bend, to find and illuminate another neglected or wrongly understood strand of music. It’s no coincidence that one of his final journeys was to tell the little-known story behind the creation of the songbook Slave Songs of the United States, and the woman who made it happen, Lucy McKim Garrison.

When I was eighteen, about to go to art school, Sam was in town, working. He had the record company, who he’d just written a liner note for, make the cheque for his payment of £60 out to me. A week before, I had seen an advert for a Leitz enlarger, a photographic printer that allowed you to turn a bathroom into a darkroom. With Sam’s cheque I bought it and began my practical journey into photography. I didn’t become a photographer – music and design were what I became mixed up in – but it gave me an appreciation of the commitment photographers, like musicians, need to make their work happen.


Sam and Annie have been a constant and wonderful presence in the life of my family and 14 months ago, when Sam asked if a package had arrived in London ahead of our trip to Stockholm, I had no idea that he was asking me to collaborate on a project with him, designing and adding photos to a collection of his London poems. I was touched and thrilled to do it, worried about my rusty photographic skills, but up for the challenge. I remembered the day in 1973 when we trekked around the city finding poems in boxes at the locations that had inspired them, before meeting up with Sam in a pub in Hampstead where he put a cover on our sheets and stapled them together into a book. Batting the design of the new book, back and forth across the internet, was among the best experiences of my working life…

And when I think of Sam now, as I often do, I mostly think of him laughing, as he talked of the absurdities of life, of the footwork of Zlatan Ibrahimović, of finding rare sheet music in the Canary Islands, of the value and import of friendship, love and art. He taught me to pay it forward; to work with collaborators that you liked; to encourage other people’s talent. He was an inspiration to me, as he was to many others, and he showed me not only how to be enthusiastic but – more importantly – how best to use that enthusiasm.


Here’s “Must be Some Way to Repay You”, a song that I wrote for Sam using words from various sources edited together:  Richard Manuel’s “In a Station”, Country Joe’s “Here I Go Again” and Elmore James’ “The Sky is Crying”.

The Bridge: Photographs by Robert Gumpert

A home for the music inspired by this project, an exhibition co-curated by Michele Colyer and photographer Bob Gumpert, of Bob’s extreme close-ups of the fabric of the neglected Westbourne Bridge in Paddington. A brochure for the project can be found here.


The tracks are

Retract Larch: Are We Alive?

Inspired by finding a clipping of this fascinating New York Times Magazine article (from its regular feature on words, Lexicon), a song. Mr Mark Pringle on one-take Strat. Now if only I could get a decent singer, say Karen O, to actually deliver it.


Code Name: Retract Larch
If the government’s system for labeling its billions of secret documents seems utterly incomprehensible, then it’s working exactly as planned. By WILLIAM M. ARKIN

No one knows exactly how many secrets the United States government maintains, but by some estimates its safes and secure rooms contain tens of billions of pages of classified documents. In addition to being marked either Top Secret, Secret or Confidential, many of these pages are assigned a “compartment,” a unique code word for whatever surveillance effort, covert operation, special-access program, classified research initiative, military exercise or development effort the document refers to.
Some of these compartments are as old as the cold war: Restricted Data, for instance, was established by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 for information about nuclear weapons design. The euphemism Special Arabic was long used for interceptions of Israeli communications, lest our ally get wise that we were listening in. Some of the newer code names, like ECI and H, are so secret that national security experts outside government don’t know what they stand for.
These compartment names may look like English, but they are in fact a language unto themselves, highly specialized and, by design, almost perfectly impenetrable. Consider the following sampling — and see if you can connect the secret designation with the program that it is used to signify.

1. Inspired Venture
2. Talent Keyhole Byeman
3. Diagonal Glance
4. Noble Shirley/Juniper Falconry
5. Parcae
6. Log Tree
7. Wheelhouse
8. Friar/Desperado
9. Scathe View
10. Classic Owl
11. Credible Wolf
12. Dragon Lightning
13. Iron Hare
14. Classic Trump
15. Coronet Nighthawk
16. Bulwark Bronze
17. Dragon Fury
18. Gypsy Wagon
19. Lincoln Gold
20. Tractor Hike
21. Chalk Poinsettia
22. Retract Larch
23. Cloud Gap
24. Dial Flinty
25. Indigo Desert
26. Keens World

A. Air Force classified system.
B. Imagery-satellite operations data.
C. Israel-U.S. exercise.
D. Classified Middle East exercise.
E. Targeting of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
F. Classified Pacific Ocean exercise.
G. Caribbean counternarcotics deployments.
H. Technical exploitation of a stolen foreign nuclear weapon.
I. Clearance for military-deception information.
J. Air Combat Command nuclear-accident exercise.
K. Navy classified weapons-development program.
L. Operation to retrieve a lost or stolen nuclear warhead.
M. Presidential survival exercise.
N. Classified Middle East special operations exercise.
O. Navy counter-narcotics intelligence collection.
P. Air Force reconnaissance in areas of humanitarian disaster.
Q. Ocean surveillance satellite.
R. V.I.P. communications network.
S. Army classified weapons-development program.
T. Navy submarine computer warfare.
U. Army computer-security alert.
V. Classified South American exercise.
W. Nuclear-war exercise.
X. Computer-warfare demonstration.
Y. Marine Corps intelligence collection system.
Z. Navy special-access program.