Rain Dogs revisited

Tom Waits's 1985 album is re-imagined at the Barbican.

Rain Dogs was Tom Waits's ninth album, released on Island Records in 1985. Its 19 tracks brought a wide range of instruments together, from congas to accordians, to give an intimate portrayal of the New York slums. Waits wrote most of the album in a basement room at the corner of Washington and Horatio Streets in Manhattan. It was, Waits has said, "kind of a rough area, Lower Manhattan between Canal and 14th street, just about a block from the river."

Tonight at the Barbican, 26 years on from its first release, the album will be re-imagined. Multi-instrumentalist David Coulter is directing Rain Dogs Revisited in which a range of singers, from Swiss American soul-rock singer Erika Stucky to The Tiger Lillies (an eccentric British trio whose drum-kit is entirely made of silverware and spatulas), will be performing their own interpretations of the album.

The evening also features Irish cabaret singer, Camille O'Sullivan, who has starred in the Olivier award-winning La Clique and has long included in her solo performances dramatic interpretations not only of Waits's work, but also of music by Radiohead, Nick Cave and David Bowie. Talking ahead of the concert, O'Sullivan commented on Waits's "great variety within his albums... you could do three or four Tom Waits songs side by side and you wouldn't know they were by the same person." She is a long-term fan of Waits - drawn to the drama and darkness within his music, as well as his gravelly voice: "I think he's enigmatic and an amazing writer. He's got a real understanding of getting into an emotion - either in a mad zany way, or by writing some of the most beautiful love songs."

O'Sullivan herself is known for her charged performances and the way she immerses herself in the story of a song. Waits provides the perfect material: "He creates wonderful song monologues... Not being a songwriter myself, that's all you can latch on to - that there's a narrative in there." But she also acknowledges that she has to make the tales her own. The worst tribute to an artist is to mimic their distinct style. As a devoted fan, O'Sullivan has seen Waits in concert many times: "He's wonderful to watch perform - he's almost like a mime artist."

Rain Dogs Revisited is performed at the Barbican tonight (13 July), with tickets priced at £15-25

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution