Thursday, 20 December 2007

It's Chriiissstmasss!



Well, if it isn’t that time of year again, where does the time go? You know, the time when you can’t go anywhere or do anything away from your own home without being assaulted with ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ or ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ blasting from every store, pub, petrol station or shopping mall via a speaker system so poor it makes dogs whine and horses bolt. It’s enough to send you bonkers.

Why is it that artists seem to take leave of their senses when it comes to Christmas? Too many good-idea-at-the-time inspirations at the alcohol fuelled office party seem to actually get made and released despite the moderating influence of the cold light of day. Bottom of the pile would be the Pogues and that dreadfully irritating ‘Fairytale of New York, (Kirsty, what WERE you thinking?!). And let’s not go anywhere near Sir Cliff in case you have to listen to ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ or ‘Saviour’s Day’ nor Kim Wilde (ditto ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’) unless you intend spending the afternoon lying down in a darkened room.

And on top of it all is Wizzard. Funnily enough, I noted recently that the MD for some big conglomerate was called Roy Wood. You can imagine what their board meetings must be like: ‘…and moving on to item 34(c) where I have proposed that it be deemed to be Christmas Everyday…all in favour?’

The worse thing about Christmas records is that they pitch up every year without fail to torment us. At least all other dodgy tunes do the decent thing and have their 15 minutes of fame before disappearing into history never to be heard again. Isn’t there a statute of limitations on this sort of stuff?

I suppose that if I were forced to have to pick one half decent festive tune in a spirit of goodwill to all men, it would be ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by that strange mixed gender post punk band, The Waitresses. It’s the Nile Rodgers style rhythm guitar, James Jamerson bass lines and the great story-telling vocal that really sells it to me. Sadly, Patty Donahue, their vocalist, died of lung cancer in December 1996, aged just 40 but her playful irreverence where a lyric was concerned made her a unique talent and ‘Christmas Wrapping’ usually puts a smile on my face, even after the 957th hearing.

Unfortunately, there is no video of The Waitresses doing ‘Christmas Wrapping’ on YouTube, but if you do a search there are some home videos to accompany it of varying degrees of watchability. Give it a try.

I’m signing off for the holidays, so Merry Christmas everyone! See you in the New Year with more thoughts of a music obsessive.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Mid Life Crisis


As Rock ‘n’ Roll lumbers into a truculent middle age, as exemplified by the recent Led Zeppelin extravaganza, you’d expect it to start thinking about things like retirement and pensions – that’s if it’s not already dead.

It’s a bit of a tricky problem for rock stars. Obviously not for the majority who never made it, as they will have returned to the day job and will already be thinking about playing golf and looking after the grandchildren. But for the real achievers, it becomes less clear. Do they retire gracefully at a time when most of us still have their nose to the grindstone or do they continue to strut their stuff well into retirement age?

Option A is less risky in that the material that made them famous and presumably well-loved remains in the public domain (and in the shops) and cannot be tarnished by any middle-aged cavortings masquerading as new material. The artist retains a degree of integrity and lives a life of ease if not adulation. Clearly if you are dead, option A is an imperative but it doesn’t seem to have done Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain any harm.

Option B is the high-risk strategy based on the premise that the artist remains relevant throughout their working life. The drivers here are money and adulation, two of the most powerful motives for most performers. The Rolling Stones are the prime example and it is debateable whether they have harmed their own legacy by continuing for so long. But also in the category are the likes of Genesis, Iggy Pop and Blondie who, you get the feeling, are a bit marginal and then there’s Status Quo.

If there is anyone who has fallen in the public eye it is Status Quo, as evidenced by the famous refusal of Radio 1 to play their latter day singles. The irony is that for a short period in the 1970s Status Quo was a force to be reckoned with. Given their self-imposed stylistic limitations, they moulded themselves into a tight, powerful and utterly compelling unit. Listen to anything on ‘Hello’ or thereabouts and you will hear a team welded together by a common purpose, a four piece that you couldn’t squeeze a cigarette paper between musically and with an energy level that could power a small village for a whole year.

With a legacy like that, option A begins to look like a winner.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Return to Bangleonia


There are some bands that seem destined to be consistently misrepresented by their own publicity and ultimate success.

Take Californian all-girl band, The Bangles for example. You will probably know this lot for one or more of the following 1980s tunes:
'Manic Monday'
'Walk Like an Egyptian'
'Eternal Flame'

All these songs have two factors in common. First they are all, in large part, sung by Susanna Hoffs and second, they are all songs that I, as a fan, probably wouldn’t turn a hair if I never heard again – with the possible exception of 'Eternal Flame' provided it is not the Atomic Kitten version. But sadly they are basically the public face of The Bangles giving the distinct impression of a somewhat dippy lightweight west coast pop band led by Hoffs and backed up by a bunch of unknown others.

But it’s not true. Have a look at their albums, any of them, and what do we find? An endless selection of kooky ballads sung by Susanna Hoffs? No. What we find is a diversity of pop ballads, folksy 1960s psychedelia, gutsy rockers and vocal harmony tour-de-forces all written by Vicki or Debbie Peterson, Susanna Hoffs and Michael Steele in roughly equal proportion and a sprinkling of well arranged covers. The lead vocals are split democratically between all four of them and each makes a substantial case for being the lead vocalist per se whilst the others provide multi-harmony backing. My particular favourite is drummer Debbie Peterson who brings a real edge to her vocal chores.

In fact, all their 1980s albums contain a whole swathe of up-tempo rockers (usually contributed by Vicki Peterson, the senior songwriter) where jangling or spiky guitars meet Debbie’s pounding drums. My guess is that many people who bought these albums were a little taken aback, given their PR.

It is a sad fact that it was the public perception that Hoffs was the band leader (and by implication the ‘talented one’) that drove a knife through them and split them up in 1989. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Live on stage the truth becomes apparent. Live, they are one of the most enjoyable bands I have ever seen and I saw them three times during the 1980s. Check out their new DVD ‘Return to Bangleonia’ (Region 1 only, sadly) which features their reunion gig in 2000, and you will see what I mean. What this tells of is a versatile, entertaining band comprising four consummate musicians who sing and play beautifully, but who, more importantly, contribute equally to the greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts whole. Moreover, the quality of the bulk of the set transcends the ‘Hits’ and makes you begin to wonder why the buying public support the sort of kitsch that is ‘Walk like an Egyptian’.

Hmm…it seems singles have a lot to answer for.

Friday, 7 December 2007

One Today!!


Hurrah! My Book is officially one year old today (‘Happy Birthday to you…etc’). Actually, it was formally published on 13th December but it was available prior to the official date so as to catch the Christmas market (Ha!), but today is its real Birthday!

I still have no clue from the publishers as to how many I’ve sold (something to do with long sale-or-return delays) so I am undecided as to whether I should be celebrating or not (probably ‘not’) but I think I shall anyway.

A BIG THANK YOU to all of you who have bought it, even if you have since given it away or lost it down the back of the sofa. I hope you were entertained but even if you weren’t at least it will look very colourful on your shelf and will act as a good conversation piece. I have to say that my first inkling of the proposed cover design was when my wife rang me at work to say that the proof had arrived in the post and when I asked her what it looked like there was a horrible silence at the other end of the phone for what seemed like an eternity followed by a blurted, ‘It’s YELLOW…!’

Happily, I have learned to live with it so I hope you have too.

PS If you have read it and liked it, a review on Amazon.co.uk would be nice!!
PPS It is still available if you need a last minute Christmas present!

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

A Deeper Understanding


I don’t know about you, but these days I seem to be permanently connected to a computer, whether it be at work, tapping away for hours on end or at home writing this blog or exchanging emails with friends. It is an environment that just seems to have crept up on me and to not have a computer humming away within earshot would now seem untypical. But it certainly wasn’t the case back in 1989 when Kate Bush wrote ‘Deeper Understanding’, a song that ended up on the album, ‘The Sensual World’.

Listening to it recently, the song shows itself to be surprisingly prophetic now. It tells of a lonely person whose computer takes on its own personality after having been loaded with a ‘voice console’ and becomes a friend – a sort of updated version of ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’ (this will date you, ‘Sparky’ was originally recorded in 1947!)

Looking through the lyrics, it all becomes a bit unsettling. For example:
‘As the people here grow colder
I turn to my computer
And spend my evenings with it
Like a friend.’
Oh dear! Does she mean me?

Of course, after a brief and passionate affair, it all ends in insanity:
‘I did not eat, I did not sleep,
The intensity increasing,
'Til my family found me and intervened.’

The clever part in the writing is that when the computer ‘speaks’ it is with a beguilingly beautiful melody, backed by the Bulgarian vocal ensemble, Trio Bulgarka, whose control over those slightly grey areas between semi-tones is breathtaking, giving the ‘speech’ an aura of otherworldliness, especially to traditional western ears.

In a wider sense, it seems to me that Kate, intentionally or otherwise, hit obliquely upon a growing phenomenon – that of the virtual community. Today, with the aid of a computer and the Internet anyone can have a global community of ‘friends’ without ever meeting any of them. In the good old days such people were called pen pals but frankly, waiting 6 weeks for a reply from Outer Mongolia doesn’t really compare with the instant response available from email.

With networking sites like MySpace springing up all over the place, a lifestyle based on virtual friends is looking increasingly like a sustainable choice. A sci-fi future of isolated humans, working at home, never leaving their room and communicating only via cyberspace beckons and it’s not that far away!

I suppose the danger that ‘Deeper Understanding’ warns of is that the computer itself becomes the perceived ‘friend’ rather than the people, but we’re all well-adjusted hackers here, aren’t we?

Aren’t we?

Friday, 30 November 2007

Demonic


As a confirmed no-Sky television viewer, I never did get to see ‘Angel’s’ final Season 5 as none of the Freeview/Terrestial channels picked it up. So, tired of waiting, I bought the whole thing on DVD and watched all 22 episodes over 4 days in an orgy of suspense, awe, laughter and yes, tears (‘Angel’ does that to you) and what a fantastic watch it was.

Following the demise of ‘Buffy’, creator Joss Whedon re-took the reigns of ‘Angel’ for its final season and his signature is all over it. The emotional punch, the surprises, the sparky dialogue are all present and correct. He seems to be the only one around that understands that the emotional content of people relationships is what makes a good story and the setting is almost irrelevant. The fact that it is fantasy merely releases the bounds of possible storylines from the restraints of reality. But it is people that matter.

His writing has a very British undertone in its use of undercutting humour in dialogue, the character driven plots and the competent use of British slang when writing for English characters.

But the other facet of this season that struck me was the gobsmackingly good acting of Amy Acker, initially as Fred and then Illyria which peaks during the episode ‘The Girl in Question’ where she flips from the speech patterns and mannerisms of one character to the other with such ease that you are totally convinced that she is two separate people. It’s wonderful stuff and it is times like this that makes me mad that people look down their nose at actors in fantasy and sci-fi shows as if they were second-class citizens.

It seems to me that acting in these sorts of show is far more demanding than, say, your average soap opera where actors are basically confined to real life. In fantasy, actors are often called upon to act many parts as their characters are routinely possessed by other entities, swapped with other characters and given all manner of otherworldly situations to grapple with. This, in my view demands far more versatility than most other genres – but when was the last time you saw an actor from a fantasy genre show (especially TV) win a major acting award?

It’s a tragedy of demonic proportions.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Double Trouble



Funny how reading other people’s blogs makes you reassess your own views, isn’t it? I’ve just been having a browse through Beckysisland where there is a whole section on the band Chicago with a wonderfully considered review on each of their multitude of albums – all called ‘Chicago’ funnily enough.

I’ll admit here and now to being a fully paid up member of the Chicago fan club, at least for those albums between 1969 and 1972 (I to V), as I love the melting pot of rampant guitar rock, brassy jazz and singalong pop they invoke on those early albums. Becky comes to the conclusion that the album ‘Chicago V’ is the best - their ‘Sgt. Pepper’ - and whilst my original assessment, made some thirty years ago, is that it is very good indeed, I wasn’t sure about this, so I ditched my distorted vinyl copy, bought it on remastered CD and re-listened to it. And you know what, she could be right? It is filled with immaculate playing, inventive, varied songs and compulsive rhythms.

BUT…whilst all the above is undoubtedly true, I can’t help hankering for the sprawling unpredictability of their first three double albums where ideas were allowed to over-reach themselves in all sorts of peculiar ways. ‘Chicago V’ is, unusually for them at that time, a single album and there is an overall feeling of compression and restriction about it. In some respects this is good as it distils ideas down to a concentrated nugget, but in other respects I can’t help feeling that guitarist Terry Kath was getting more and more frustrated as the album progressed that he wasn’t allowed to rampage around with one of those endlessly liquid solos. Or that what they really needed was a string quartet interlude.

This then got me thinking about, what in the days of vinyl, we called ‘double albums’. These were a breed of musical product that were universally derided as over-indulgent (especially if they were the dreaded live recording) and often described as a good single album with padding. But somehow, this doesn’t apply to the first three Chicago albums. It is as if the rule here should be reversed and that where Chicago is concerned, they should only produce double albums lest they be derided for chickening out with a measly single. Somehow, they just need the space, after all there were seven of them. That’s not to say that ‘V’ is not a great album, because it is, but I’d put it on a par with ‘II’, my first love, where at least three of the four sides are essential.

Am I allowed two CDs on my desert island?

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

To Hit, or not to Hit?


I think I need a bit of help here, guys. It’s these infernal ‘Best Of’ compilations and I don’t know what to do about it and it’s driving me nuts!

But let’s start at the beginning. To my eternal shame, I own no albums by those purveyors of quintessential English whimsy, The Kinks, except a late 1970s vinyl copy of, oh dear, I can hardly bear to say it…20 Golden Greats on the Ronco label (now there’s a great 70s brand for you). But I’d like to replace it with a CD, and what I’ve been toying with recently is not buying a replacement ‘Best Of’ but a copy of their 1967 effort, ‘Something Else by the Kinks’ as it contains their best ever single ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and is recommended heartily by those who review it (not always a good indicator but let’s go with it for the moment).

But here’s the problem. On the one hand, whilst original albums (without those annoying ‘Bonus’ tracks), have a certain completeness about them, which means that the content works as a collective whole - a piece of art reflecting a given moment in time, they don’t have all the hits on them, do they? What they do have is a period consistency, which means that listening to them makes sense. You have an understanding of the time and place of their creation and each track has a relationship with every other. The downside is that there is bound to be a variation of quality otherwise every track would end up on a ‘Best Of’.

On the other hand, ‘Hits’ compilations do have all the hits on them but they always feel like a disjointed mess and I don’t tend to play them very often. Even if the tracks are ordered chronologically (which many aren’t) there is no sense of ‘creation’ about it. Hearing a couple of tracks from say, Sgt Pepper, jostling for position with other earlier or later works on a Beatles compilation does not give you a clear sense of 1960s psychedelia as expressed by the original album, does it? I’m sorry, I’m not expressing myself very well here, but I hope you understand what I mean?

I suppose what it comes down to is this: do I buy a hits collection or a period piece?

Really, I’d like all the hits as well as the period pieces but do not intend to buy the entire Kinks’ back catalogue to achieve it. In fact, this would not work in practice, as in the 60s singles did not always appear on albums. Which brings us back to the ‘Best Of’. Oh God! Perhaps I’ll just buy both.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

First Album Blues


The other day, I indulged in something that I haven’t done for many years. I set my record deck to revolve at 45 rpm and played some of my 12” vinyl EPs that date mainly from the late 70s and 80s. But whilst I was wallowing in a warm bath of nostalgia, I noticed two examples that show how good a band’s early work can be and how it all goes a bit pear-shaped when they make it into a grown up studio.

The first example is those breast baring reggae punks, the Slits, and the vinyl in question, the ‘Peel Session’ EP. On this disc there is a mesmerising version of ‘New Town’ which starts as a swaying paean to drug addiction and accelerates into death wish cacophony. Contrast this with the ‘proper’ version on their debut album ‘Cut’ and you can see how it all went a bit wrong. Despite the inclusion of yet-to-be-a-Banshee Budgie on drums, the reconstituted ‘New Town’ is not a patch on the Peel session take. Somehow the improved instrumental playing and polished production has knocked the stuffing out of it. And this is not the only instance I found.

Example number two is Ghost Dance, a short lived late 1980s goth band formed by ex-Sister of Mercy guitarist, Gary Marx and ex-Skeletal Family, chanteuse Anne-Marie Hurst. I first discovered this lot through their single, ‘The Grip of Love’ which appeared on an Indie compilation in 1986. I saw them play live a couple of times and thought they were very good indeed.

The EP I refer to here is their ‘A Word to the Wise’ which appeared on the independent Karbon label and comprises 4 songs of compelling urgency and beauty and which corresponded exactly with the band I had seen live. Unfortunately, after releasing a few well-received vinyl singles and a mop up album, ‘Gathering Dust’, they were then snapped up by Chrysalis and produced a proper debut album (CD, no less!) ‘Stop the World’ in 1989 but it just wasn’t the same. The songs sound flat and a bit lifeless as if, in the rush to commercial success, the production has squeezed their very being to a pulp.

So what happens when a promising new band record their first album? Clearly most survive but a small percentage fall by the wayside and I can only think it is because their style is incompatible with the process and discipline of a major label product. There is obviously a fine line between nurturing a new sound and destroying it completely - however accidentally. The Slits survived, just, but Ghost Dance didn’t.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Forever Young


‘I am a child, you know’, says Harold Skimpole in Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’, and is accordingly painted as one of the most objectionable of fictional characters as a direct consequence of this trait.

Throughout history and right up to the not too distant past, children became young adults during adolescence and left behind childish things very rapidly indeed. Going to work at 14 probably had something to do with it. Childhood and everything that went with it was forgotten, never to be revisited. But today, rather than abandoning childhood like old clothes we have grown out of, we are now actively encouraged to be the children we once were as the commercial world is now completely geared up to selling your childhood back to you.

Today, it does not take very much effort to reconstruct your own childhood around you like it was yesterday. I can buy virtually every toy I ever owned in the 1960s through eBay (and probably in better condition than my originals), every comic I read (copies of 1950s/1960s Dan Dare stories are now available in hardback, as are collections of Silver Age Superhero comics from DC and Marvel), every TV programme I ever watched is available on DVD and even FriendsReunited threatens to put me in touch with all my erstwhile classmates. Specialist companies make old sweets (but not at old prices) and fashionable clothes shops can kit me out in genuine 60s gear (man).

I can even pay for school discipline, if I was that way inclined.

The question remains why? What is it that all these companies have identified that leads them to hound us with all this stuff? Perhaps they have realised that this is the Age of the Child. Unlike in Dickens’ day when to be a child was to be a pawn in an adult world, today it is virtually the reverse where the adult world fawns over the child in every aspect of life. Youth is the elixir of existence and to be young is so precious it must be preserved at all costs.

Children have rights and power. They have power over their teachers in school and their parents at home. They have social lives and mobility, purchasing power and the right to veto. All adult authority has been legislated away and anyone over 20 now stands on the sidelines rueing their own lack of youth.

Rather ironic in an age when life expectancy is increasing and the national demographic is moving upwards. Perhaps selling you your childhood is the final solution to staying within the parameters of being forever young?

Friday, 2 November 2007

What's in a Name?



Have you ever had sleepless nights worrying about what to call your brand new, state-of-the-art, cutting edge band? No, me neither, but some people obviously have.

There was a recent article in the Times, no less, claiming that new bands were having the most awful difficulty thinking up new names, moaning that all the best ones were taken. I mean, what’s the matter with them? Can’t they even come up with obvious monikers – like ‘The Electric Prunes’ or ‘Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band’? Kids today eh?

If they mean boring names like ‘Blue’ then they’re right as there must be about 10,062 bands with this label already, but I really can’t believe that the cupboard is that bare. It just needs a bit of imagination. Let’s see. How about ‘The Names’, or ‘No Name’? Hmm…unfortunately both of these have already been bagged, so perhaps it’s not so silly after all.

Of course, brand names can become quite valuable and you often see very unseemly squabbles over who really owns a band name when there is a personnel split. The spat between Messrs Waters and Gilmour over who really ‘owned’ the Pink Floyd name was a case in point. So it is clearly important to choose a memorable name, as it can become a real asset if the band is successful. And this is the nub, I think. What these potential stars of tomorrow are really saying is that all the memorable names have been taken. No one wants the ‘Warty Toads’ or ‘Yellow Sick Bowl’. (No doubt someone will now tell me that they have a band with one or other of these names and how dare I…etc.)

You would’ve thought that in our brave new green, re-cycling conscious world, bands would be looking to re-use names when they become available at the termination of employment rather than just confining them to the great musical landfill. I understand that ‘The Beatles’ is already 50% available as is ‘The Who’. I’m sure that there are many that have fallen into disuse and could be put to better employment. How about ‘The Bay City Rollers’? No, perhaps not.

The difficulty with this wheeze is that the former incumbents may suddenly re-appear, like Marley’s ghost, complaining that they haven’t quite finished with it yet so I recommend staying away from ‘The Spice Girls’ or ‘The Police’ unless you have a very good lawyer indeed.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

See Me, Hear Me


There are some musicians that I listen to and some that I watch. Equally, there are some that I can’t bear to watch even though I like their music and some that I can’t bear to listen to at all, but that’s another subject.

In category 1(a) are those people whose music I like but I just can’t stand watching them perform usually due to facial gurning (yes you, Robin Trower) and various other irritating personal mannerisms. I think I’ve inherited this gene from my father who had a whole list of people that he couldn’t stand to watch. Top of his list was Dusty Springfield – something to do with arm waving, I think. My very picky list is also quite long so I won’t dwell on it here – let’s move on.

In category 1(b) is first and foremost, Jimi Hendrix. Whilst I can listen to a CD of his music reasonably happily, I would always prefer to watch him play for the simple reason that the music takes on a higher significance when you can see the manner in which it is being produced. Hendrix was always a relaxed and playful performer, safe in the knowledge that he could do virtually anything he chose without any discernible effort. It was almost without exception, mesmerizing. The sheer audacity is still awe inspiring even today when years of technical achievement have jaded our palettes. Those old snatches of film can be watched and re-watched and he still seems to catch you out with his dazzling innovation.

Also in category 1(b) is Cyndi Lauper whose live performances are something else again – an almost life or death intensity that holds you spellbound and which doesn’t really translate to the listen-only medium of CD. I’m sure, dear reader, you can reel off a dozen more performers who fall into the ‘better live than in the studio’ club. These are the natural performers who need an audience to produce their best.

A recent addition to list 1(b) for me is Allison Crowe of whom I have already
spoken. I have recently been presented with a DVD of her ‘Tidings’ album (thanks, Adrian!), which has shown me that to appreciate her at her best you really have to watch her perform. Each song segment is little more than a fixed camera shot framing her singing and playing her grand piano but the emotion and intensity of the performance is captured perfectly. I would recommend all her albums, available from her website, but if you ever get the chance to see her live, even though here in the UK that might be a rarity, please do.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Women Rock...Again!




STOP PRESS!

Hurrah! The girls are back in town! Well, women anyway.

Those of you who read my previous post, ‘
My Heroine’ will know that one of my favourite bands is the little remembered all-girl rock quartet, Fanny, who shook the male dominated establishment between the years of 1970 and 1975 to its core. As is usual with true pioneers, they picked up little recognition at the time but those that followed, the Runaways, GoGos, Bangles and all the rest reaped the benefits of their breaking down of the gender barriers with success in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Well, the good news for fellow Fanny fans is that they now have their own official website at
http://www.fannyrocks.com/ created in conjunction with the original band members where you can find out more about them, including never-before-seen photo galleries, video clips, an authorised biography and details of all their albums as well as stuff contributed by fans. Yours truly is making a small contribution by supplying the album track descriptions and some fan stuff.

This follows an event earlier this year when Fanny were honoured by ROCKRGRL at Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA for their contribution to music and then three members of the original band, June Millington (guitar), sister Jean Millington (bass) and Alice de Buhr (drums), played a short set, the first for over 30 years (fourth member Nickey Barclay is now resident in Australia and was unable to attend). Judging by internet traffic, interest in this band has been growing ever since Rhino Handmade released a limited edition 4 CD box set comprising their first four Reprise albums plus a load of live takes, demos and rehearsal tapes a few years ago. Their new website is being masterminded by my good friend in the US of A, Byron Wilkins in association with drummer Alice de Buhr (pictured c1973), pianist Nickey Barclay and the rest of the band. (OK, so he gets to meet the band members – I’m not jealous!)

Not before time, I say. They were a great little band who deserved better than the wholesale condescension from the industry and public alike who treated them as little more than a manufactured novelty act. In fact all four members were seasoned musicians who had been playing since their early teens and were so much more than just a novelty. But that’s show business for you.

What are you waiting for? Go check them out!

Monday, 15 October 2007

Jim Shoots Again


In the early 1960s I was a passably normal sort of a child and read ‘The Eagle’ every week to see how Dan Dare was getting along like many other young boys (and girls for all I know). I loved British comics and would read as many as I could from ‘Beano’ to ‘TV Comic’ and beyond – usually at the barbers whilst waiting for a haircut in the days before appointments. Note - Why don’t barbers supply comics to read any more?

By the late 1960s I chanced to meet the elder brother of a school friend and he introduced me to American comic books, as they like to be known. He was a fan of the DC stable of acts (Superman, Batman etc) and I became addicted to them as well as they seemed terribly grown up compared to the Beano. My particular favourite was a team of teenage heroes known as the Legion of Superheroes whose escapades were printed under the banner of ‘Adventure’ comics between 1958 and 1969.

At about the time I started reading The Legion, the brilliant stories were being written by a precocious upstart, Jim Shooter who unbeknownst to DC was only 14 at the time he was sending in his scripts from home. Predictably, he rose rapidly through comicdom and eventually went on to be President of Marvel Comics. In 1969 the Legion lost their slot in ‘Adventure’ to Supergirl and languished as a back-up feature in ‘Action’ comics for about a year before they were cancelled. I gave up reading American comics at around that time.

However, a few years back, I noticed that all those comics I bought and subsequently trashed in the 1960s have been reprinted in hardback form by DC Archives and that has got me interested in buying comics again. And boy, have times changed. In fact it is a whole new world. For starters, they cost £2.25 per copy instead of 2 shillings and you can’t buy them in newsagents from those circular wire framed racks, you have to go to specialist comic shops which make you feel like even more of a nerd than you would’ve done anyway.

Also, the quality of the pages has changed out of all recognition. Today’s comics have an almost photo-like quality of block colouring on glossy paper rather than the dot matrix style colour on cheap paper of the 1960s. This makes the pages somehow darker and drabber and I’m not sure I really like it that much. I think I prefer the lighter texture of the old colour system that gives a brighter page. However the stories are quite good and I still love the comic format. Interestingly, most of my favourites titles are still going forty years later – Superman, Supergirl, Flash, Green Lantern, even the Legion has been re-booted (meaning all past continuity swept away and the story ‘re-imagined’).

Unlike the British comic industry, which with the exception of the Beano, seems to have died a death, the American comic book lives on, albeit as a specialist commodity. But what has really got me excited is that from the December 2007 issue, the Legion of Superheroes comic book is to be written again by none other than… Jim Shooter. This can’t be coincidence and sadly, I can’t wait!

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Memory: Deleted


Hands up who remembers Nirvana?

No, not that one, the other one, the UK based band that produced some typically tripped-out psychedelic singles in the mid to late 1960s? No, me neither, until I heard ‘Rainbow Chaser’ on the radio the other day and I experienced one of those ‘Oh, yes!’ moments as it unlocked a forgotten area of my memory.

In fact, now that that area of my brain is available for recall, I do remember being a wee bit obsessed by this single when it first came out in the spring of 1968 as it was one of the first to feature the heavy use of phasing, that whooshing effect that sounds like your balance is seriously upset after a night on the sherbets and it sounded weird.

Of course, some of it sounds a bit twee now with hippy lyrics and girly backing vocals, but the huge phased chorus still sounds wonderful as the melody rises over ascending chords to an apocalyptic climax. They don’t make singles like that anymore.

But the problem of forgetfulness stems from the fact that 1968 was a time when I was too young and impoverished to buy singles and the cassette recorder and illegal recording was still a few years away, so I have no hard physical reminders of this particular single, only soft memories and these, as we all know, can be overwritten as we get older.

All this makes me wonder how many other treasured moments there are locked up in my head from the distant past that I will never relive unless a catalyst brings them out. Spooky! There are probably hundreds of memories of really interesting stuff squirreled away that I will probably never remember and that is not only a bit scary but also a bit poignant.

Perhaps, someday in the future, medical science will be able to remove these hidden memories like some hard disk engineer looking for evidence of deleted files on seized computers. I’m not sure whether this is a future I like the sound of or not – a bit too Harry Potter and the Pensieve. But if it comes up with things like ‘Rainbow Chaser’ then bring it on!

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Adverts & Soundtracks


I’m a real stickler when it comes to the purist aspects of music and one of the things that sticks in my gullet is the use of pop music in adverts. Quite why this should gall me so much is perhaps due to my pernickety nature but I suppose I hate the idea that people are using others’ art to sell their own product.

This argument also applies to music videos. There is something in the way of condescension about spoon-feeding us a prearranged story so that we understand what the music is trying to say – just in case we missed it. Whatever happened to imagination? Some of my favourite music requires no visuals to tell its story – its just there – and it may not be the same story that you or anybody else ‘sees’. But does that really matter? Music becomes personal rather than generic and all the better for it.

Then there is the film industry who have cottoned on to the fact that if they stuff a movie full of great pop tunes they can sell the soundtrack to a vast audience as a separate money making exercise. And it is here that I have to admit that I’ve been had - but it’s not all bad.

In the film ‘Shrek’ (the first) there is a portion of the plot that equates to the standard ‘boy loses girl’ device and the sequence is backed by John Cale’s version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ to admittedly good effect. Anyway, I thought I’d like to track down a copy of this song and turned to YouTube.com to provide me with some examples. There were many, including an epic rendition from Cohen himself, but it was there that I discovered Allison Crowe.

Allison’s simple piano and voice rendition was by far the best and I googled her to find out a bit more about her. It transpires that she is a 25-year-old Canadian singer songwriter blessed with a voice of tremendous power and range who has been active for the last couple of years. I bought the album ‘Tidings’ directly from her
website and very good it is too. It comprises a collection of ‘Christmas’ songs, some carols, some not (like ‘Hallelujah’, ‘River’ by Joni Mitchell and ‘Let it be’) recorded in one take thus giving a very live feel. Apparently, a film of this album is shown every Christmas on Canadian television.

I’m glad that I have been introduced to Allison but I still don’t like the idea of filmmakers hijacking perfectly good pop songs for their own designs. Luddite or what?

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Why Oh Why?


OK, here’s a thing. Why do I own LPs by bands that I don’t really like? And, even worse, why did I buy them in the full knowledge that I didn’t really like them?

It must be that there are some bands in life that you just love to hate – and in my case Steely Dan is one of them. The anonymous person that reviewed my book in a local paper condemned me for calling them a ‘slick, bland, middle of the road’ act but frankly, if I have to listen to ‘Do It Again’ one more time, I swear I will commit a crime usually associated with a long prison term with no remission.

Paradoxically, I would be quite happy for ‘Ricki Don’t Lose that Number’ containing, as it does, ‘Skunk’ Baxter’s immaculate guitar solo to sit comfortably in any ‘top’ list you care to name, so how does that work? I’ve never really got to the bottom of this type of relationship. Another is Supertramp. ‘Dreamer’ really irritates me to death, yet I note that ‘Crime of the Century’ still nestles in my vinyl collection, as does ‘Breakfast in America’. For God’s sake, I even went to see Supertramp in concert when I was at Reading University in the mid 1970s and I didn’t really like them then, so why do I own these things?

Is it peer pressure, or something more sinister? If you backed me into a corner and threatened a Chinese Burn, I’d be forced to admit that there are probably two reasons and neither of them are particularly edifying.

First, there is the theory of musical relativity. This states that at any given period in rock history there is no absolute quality, only relative quality, an entirely different kettle of fish. In a period of piss-poor music, like ooh…the mid 1970s, anything that shows a glimmer of invention becomes the bee’s knees by default and my inclination is that Supertramp and Steely Dan fall into this category. I mean, where was the competition?

Second, there is undoubtedly a ‘critical acclaim’ influence whereby a few music hacks sitting in their isolated offices decide to have a bit of fun and agree amongst themselves what the new ‘in’ sound is going to be, publish glowing tributes for months on end and we all follow lest we be branded philistines. Guilty as charged, I’m afraid, which is why I have LPs by both the defendant bands sitting in my collection, m’lud.

In mitigation, I haven’t bought them on CD, honest!

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Flowers


Well, it had to happen one day and over the weekend it did. My Dad died after a short tussle with Cancer. I suppose that makes me an orphan? It also means that, suddenly, I’m in the front line.

But amongst the emotion and uncertainty there is one aspect that stands out in my mind and it starts in my childhood. When I was small, my Dad was a keen gardener. He tried his hand at most things; fruit, vegetables, flowers, you name it. But his passion was Chrysanthemums and he would grow them for entry at prize events at the local horticultural shows. Over the years he must have won a whole stack of prizes but all this industry meant that our garden never really looked like others. Normal gardens were awash with colourful blooms and lush foliage, but not ours.

In order to grow prize blooms you have to ensure that each plant only produces one perfect flower and this is achieved by removing all the other shoots on the plant so that it resembles a stick with leaves. Then, when the bud appears, you cover it with an inverted paper bag tied around the stem. This ensures that the bloom grows without ravage by insects and without being damaged by buffeting by other flowers or the weather. When it is ready to show you remove the bag and cut the stem.

I’m not sure my mother was impressed with our garden of swaying paper bags but if not, she kept quiet about it. When she died at age 40, we moved house and Dad lost his enthusiasm for gardening, but in his later years he returned to it and the sight of Chrysanthemums bobbing in the breeze were again a feature of his garden.

The weekend before last, he entered some of his blooms at the local village show and won not one...or two...but three first prizes. The next day he was rushed to hospital and died 6 days later.

As a final act on this earth, to win three first prizes for his flowers seems an entirely fitting epitaph.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Colour My World


Just in case you were thinking I was completely sane, here is a bit of research that will cause you to rethink your opinion. Have you ever wondered how often colours are used in song titles? No, thought not. Nevertheless, I can reveal today, for the first time in the public arena, my valuable research into this little appreciated subject and the results will amaze you…or not. I have taken as my sample, my personal music collection (just short of 10,000 songs). I have recorded every instance of a colour in a song title (Red, Blue etc) and set out the results below – in reverse order, naturally. I have not looked at those obscure colour-chart descriptions that decorators adore, like ‘autumn haze’ or ‘cowardy custard’, or the type of colours only computers like (Cyan??).

At the bottom of the scale are the likes of Orange, Pink and Purple who only managed to rack up two instances each. I guess these are far too exotic for most songwriters who wouldn’t know what to do with them unless your name is Prince.

Next comes a bunch of slightly more assertive colours, the top two being Green (19) and Red (22), followed by Brown (8), Yellow (7) and surprisingly, Grey (5). At this stage you can guess at the way this is going. Green, Red and Yellow are optimistic colours and the song titles they provide are generally up beat, but Brown and more pertinently, Grey show a slightly less optimistic frame of mind.

This unease continues into the next section which comprises Black (54) and White (26). The use of Black in song titles almost invariably denotes a sombre or fearful note. Interestingly White tends to pair up with Black in the same title (Black and White Boy – Crowded House, Eve Black/Eve White – Siouxsie & the Banshees) to give a paradoxical flavour. But it’s only heading one way.

So it comes as no surprise that by far the most used colour is Blue (120). Of course, I have included instances of ‘Blues’ in the Blue category, which accounts for its pre-eminent position but even looking at Blue without the ‘s’ the tally is very high so it seems that songwriters are a thoroughly morbid lot. It’s something that I’ve always suspected: great art comes from pain not smug well-being. Perhaps this explains the attraction of Country & Western?

Or does it reflect on me? After all this is my music collection that is seemingly riddled with morbid songs. Damn!

Friday, 7 September 2007

A Reason To Buy


When I was young (so much younger than today…) I had a voracious appetite for buying music, funds allowing. I didn’t give any thought to the ethical implications of what I was buying at all; I just did it on the basis that I liked it. This of course is all very laudable but I dare say that I have funded the debauched lifestyle of many a layabout over the years as a result.

Since those early years, my propensity to amass CDs has not really waned significantly but now in my approaching old age I am beginning to have second thoughts about some prospective purchases. In fact I am beginning to formulate a sort of ethical purchasing policy. Hmm, very rock ‘n’ roll!

In general, my new purchasing policy is that I would rather give money to those that I think deserve it and not to those that don’t really need it. I do have a get out clause which states that the music always takes preference but in general I am a little more thoughtful these days. This newfound righteousness has rather surprised me. Let me give you a couple of examples.

The first is the case of the Rolling Stones. Those of you who have read my book will know that I only own one Stones album, bought out of guilt because I didn’t have any for many years and felt that I should. However, I have made up my mind that I will not buy any more, not because I don’t like the music (up to mid 1970s only at least) but because I can’t stand the thought of contributing to the already bloated pension fund of messrs Jagger and Co. They already have money, fame, knighthoods and for what?

The second case is that of the Dixie Chicks. Before 2003, the Chicks had a burgeoning career in the Country/Pop field until one moment, which took place in Shepherd’s Bush, London at the start of a European tour, when they criticised George Bush on stage. From that moment their career imploded, their tour audiences halved, CDs were burned in the streets and they received death threats. This is in the supposedly freedom of speech embracing West.

Four years later they swept the board at the 2007 Grammy’s and sung ‘I’m Not Ready to Make Nice’ to a cheering audience. How times change. In the meantime I bought several of their CDs as a statement of support, even though I’m not mad about their music.

So it has come to this. I am now buying music that I don’t like for the right reasons rather than buying music I do like for the wrong ones. Perhaps I need to rethink this!

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Supermarionation



I have always been a Gerry Anderson fan. It goes right back to my earliest memories of visiting my grandparents in the very early 1960s and thus being able to watch the new commercial ITV channel on their television set (our home model only received the BBC). I have vague memories of ‘Twizzle’ and ‘Torchy, the Battery Boy’, but at the time, Gerry’s best offering was the futuristic ‘Supercar’ and I loved it. I loved it so much that when it was announced that we would finally get ITV at home I was ecstatic.

So it was that one evening in 1962 I sat down in a frenzy of expectation to watch ‘Supercar’ on our brand new, ITV-receiving television – only to find that it wasn’t on! Its run had ended and in its place was a new show called ‘Fireball XL5’ and I was distraught! But not for long, for as it turned out, the new show was even better with spacecraft, alien worlds, robots and the beautiful Venus to keep me amused.

For the next few years, it is a little known fact that I was secretly Steve Zodiac, my most prized possession being a plastic replica of XL5 (with detachable Fireball Junior) obtained by collecting a number of Lyons Maid ‘Zoom’ ice cream wrappers, closely followed by a vivid and slightly obsessive imagination which involved roping in my schoolmates to play ‘XL5’ in the lunch hour. Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet would follow but nothing really triggers memories of that secret childhood world like Fireball XL5. It is largely responsible for what I am today – a man with a mind still attuned to comics, cult TV and pop music. And the bad points are…um…it all costs so much.

I recently gritted my teeth and bought the entire series of Fireball on DVD and have spent many hours re-living those black and white days of the early 1960s. Some episodes I had no memory of at all but others, like my all time favourite episode, ‘XL5 to H2O’ with the fabulous smoke-firing Aquaphibian were as clear now as they were 40 years ago.

Sure, the increased clarity of DVD has highlighted all the puppet strings and other ‘imperfections’ but it has also revealed the imagination, the attention to detail and the sheer adventure inherent in these shows. It brought a kind of magic into my life which fired the imagination and left an indelible mark.

‘Ready, Venus?’
‘Ready, Steve…’

Monday, 27 August 2007

Bridging the Generation Gap


In the history of popular music, there are two distinct eras. There is the Dark Era, from inception in the 1950s to around about the mid 1980s and the Enlightened Era from thence on to the present.

In the Dark Era, music belonged to the young and there was a marked generation gap. This was especially noticeable at school, where pop music was a complete unknown when it came to music lessons. All music teachers were blinkered classical nuts of the first order and all teaching was based around putting Beethoven’s fifth on the record player and staring out of the window for about half an hour. Instruments available for tuition did not involve anything with a stack of Marshall amps. Any mention of the Beatles or Led Zeppelin or even Simon & Garfunkel was a heresy punishable by death (well, perhaps not death but the school equivalent).

This was certainly the norm when I was at school, with the exception of one almost unbelievable moment that took place at the end of summer term in 1970. Our music master allowed, in a moment of madness for reasons best known to himself, a rendition of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ during school hours – a previously unheard of precedent. He, himself sight read the piano part from sheet music (in retrospect, this in itself is a belated tribute to his ability as a pianist – the accompaniment is not easy) and a member of our class, Simon Trott as I remember, an ex-choirboy, sang as if still in church doing Handel’s ‘Messiah’. A more unique occurrence you could not imagine and one that will stay with me probably forever. It was one of those moments that make pop music the life enhancing force that it always has the propensity to be, almost in spite of the circumstances.

Latterly, we have moved into the Enlightened Era, where every schoolteacher likes to drone on and on about the Kaiser Chiefs in an effort to ingratiate themselves with their charges. I had a look at my old school website recently only to find that what used to pass as the music room in my day, a spartan area with battered upright piano and grey metal music stands now resembles a state-of-the-art recording studio with mixing desk, arrays of guitars, drum kits and keyboards all on tap.

It makes me extremely envious to think of all this opportunity affordable to today’s youngsters. But then, will they ever experience that sublime moment, a mixture of rebellion and amazement, that comes from hearing a previously banned piece of music performed in front of you by opposing generations in an unspoken war?

Probably not.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Back Street Luv


I’ll let you into a little secret if you promise not to tell. In the very early 1970s, when I was about 15 or thereabouts, I was terribly in love with Sonja Kristina, vocalist with progrock band, Curved Air (voice from the back: ‘Yeah! You and 10,000 others!’).

In those days, rock bands were a male preserve and they generally didn’t have female singers. Exceptions I can think of were Jenny Haan (Babe Ruth), Maggie Bell (Stone the Crows) and Annie Haslam (Renaissance)…plus Elkie Brooks (Vinegar Joe)…Oh! And Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane)…OK, so there were a few! But not that many. The female led band didn’t really get going until the late 1970s when the configuration mushroomed immeasurably. But for a few years it was a bit of a novelty and in this environment Sonja ruled.

But there was more – Curved Air was a highly innovative band, which included 2 Royal College of Music inmates who used electric violin and synthesizers to augment the classic guitar based set up in general use. In these circumstances Sonja was really ‘one of the boys’ and early videos of the band confirm this feeling as she demurs to the band members for much of the time as their instrumental prowess overshadowed and at times sidelined her vocal talents.

It was only later; when the original line-up had disintegrated that she took control of the franchise, dressed herself up in evermore outlandish costumes and became a star in her own right, but by then the configuration of female led male band was in the ascendancy. Nevertheless, by the mid 1970s, audiences were calling for her the moment the band set foot on stage. Just to tease them, the band would often start with an instrumental piece whilst Sonja remained off stage! Presumably she was still struggling into those costumes.

In truth, the later reincarnations of the band were not much cop and musically, Curved Air’s finest moments are contained on their first three albums with the original line-up (Air Conditioning, Second Album and Phantasmagoria) plus ‘Air Cut’ with a revised line-up. These remain the ones worth investigating, but you never forget first love, do you? (For more about the effect of Curved Air on my life see 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive')

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Time For a Change


Does anyone have a time travel machine about them? I though not - you never seem to see them on eBay so they’re obviously incredibly rare. You see, the thing is, I seem to have managed it all on my own. Time travel, that is. It’s called ‘Going on holiday to the Isle of Wight’.

For those of you resident outside the UK, The Isle of Wight is a small chalky island of about 150 square miles located off the south coast of Britain and when you arrive there by ferry from the mainland, it’s suddenly about 1957. For the duration of your visit, the sky remains azure blue with those unfeasibly fluffy white clouds you only see in books and it never rains. And you wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were muffins for tea.

Not only that but everything is like you remember it from your childhood (if you’re old enough). Farmland – there is no industry - is divided into small fallow fields with proper ragged hedgerows and water troughs and odd trees where they ought not to be i.e. in the middle of the field. Tractors with hay-balers produce old-fashioned brick like straw bales that build into haystacks and livestock mooches around out of doors – whatever next? It’s a bit like stepping into an infant school Janet and John book.

‘Look, John! Look!’

There are no major multi-lane highways to drive along, only narrow, hedge-lined roads that wind and twist between hedgerows and snake through picture postcard villages. There’s hardly any traffic even in the rush hours. There’s even a steam train that runs between Wootton and Smallbrook Junction.

If you want some retail therapy the High Streets contain few multiple stores, only independent businesses with unfamiliar names and disconcertingly welcoming staff. In fact there are names on signs that I thought had vanished decades ago, like Regent petrol and Lloyds chemists. Unfortunately, due to some malfunction with my time machine all prices seem to be set at 2007 levels.

The whole experience is very disorientating, so about a week is generally enough otherwise you tend to get sucked into a way of life that is only a distant memory to most people. But don’t worry, on the return journey you can get back to 2007 and feel much more at home stuttering along on gridlocked motorways that cut a swathe through huge barren fields and identikit towns…in the rain.

It’s good to be back.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Aaah......Freak Out!


I don’t know whether you have ever been forced to live out your worst nightmare but it’s not something I would generally volunteer for. Yet inexplicably, I found myself watching a 90-minute retrospective on the Disco phenomenon of the 1970s/1980s on TV recently, a genre of music that I avoided at all costs when it first appeared.

It felt like someone at the BBC had raided my younger sister’s (12 inch) singles collection and played the whole lot, one after the other in an unending battery of chink-a-chink rhythm guitar and thumping bass lines. We won’t even mention the clothes…or hair.

Chic, Sylvester, Dan Hartman, KC & the Sunshine Band, Kool and the Gang - the list went on and on. But let’s try and be positive. What can we learn from this lot, using as our guide the academically approved tool of hindsight?

Well, first off it seems pretty clear that the disco template belongs to Chic. Nile Rogers developed the chink-a-chink guitar style and the late Bernard Edwards was the master of the hum-a-long bass line. Between them they set up the formula for the genre and they did it best. Some of the rest did a reasonable impersonation and the rest were Disco by numbers. Worse, most didn’t know when to stop (and to think that old prog-rockers got pilloried for this). Interestingly, the Bee Gees didn’t really stick to the approved template – perhaps that’s why they are considered the Disco kings?

Secondly, it is surprising how bare the music now seems without drum machines and computers filling in every nano-second with machine gun precise, mind numbing polyrhythms. With just a real live drummer and bass player the rhythm sections of these 30-year-old recordings sound stark and well, human. I reckon that the first wave of ‘band based’ Disco came a cropper at about the time that drum machines and sequencers appeared – about the mid eighties and by, say, 1988 when the Rave culture took hold, Disco was dead.

Would I like it back? Well, no. But on the other hand, it was instructive to hear ‘Groovejet’ by Spiller, released in about 2000 well after the demise of 1970s Disco, included at the end of the programme and guess what? Chink-a-chink rhythm guitar and hum-a-long bass lines!

At least it made a change from the sort of technology-produced ‘dance’ music we are now subjected to. Perhaps I’ve gone into nostalgia mode over real drummers. Now, where did I put that silver jumpsuit?

Monday, 23 July 2007

Losing My Religion


You know how something only becomes apparent years later in retrospect? Usually, these sorts of moments occur long after the event and it takes a catalytic jerk to slot all the pieces together in your brain.

It happened to me recently when I was forced into thinking about my school years following a meeting with an old schoolfriend – someone I hadn’t seen for over 30 years. This meeting was the catalyst that suddenly jolted me into the realisation that I had actually witnessed the end of the hippy dream, in real time, as it were.

It was about 1970 and I was sitting at my school desk paying my usual non-attention in a class designed to impart religious instruction. Following a prolonged bout of window gazing, I had tuned in just long enough to hear the teacher say, “I just don’t know about John Lennon any more…once it was ‘All You Need is Love’, but now…”

And she trailed off into a sort of melancholic reverie for a few moments during which there was total silence in the class. I think we all realised that this was a moment of discovery for her, but it is only now that I can appreciate what it was. It was the catastrophic awakening to the fact that hippydom had failed and the real world had re-invaded our consciousness.

1970 was certainly a defining year. It marked the end of those years with a ‘6’ in them, the Beatles were no more and suddenly reality was as grim as it had ever been. The Vietnam war raged, the UK began its slide into industrial unrest with strikes and the three day week only years away. For my teacher, who clearly saw the future in that far off instant, it must have been a crushing blow after the naïve optimism of the late 60s.

Funnily enough, John Lennon and religion always seem to be linked. I once swapped my copy of ‘Imagine’ for the Who’s ‘Who’s Next’ with a member of the God Squad at University. Clearly he thought that Lennon was more likely to redeem his soul than Pete Townshend. And who’s to say he was not wrong. After all, Lennon had once claimed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus so perhaps he had a point.

But Lennon alone was not enough to save the world from the 1970s and by the middle of the decade, not only was the UK in turmoil but pop music was on its knees waiting for the deathblow of punk to re-start the circle of raw development that had originally occurred in the 1950s. Nevertheless, I didn’t really expect to witness the end of an era in last period before break.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Corporate Rock Rules OK


You know how it is; there are just some things that start to niggle away at you. Not so long ago, there were two such incidents that started the red lights flashing in my consciousness.
A) Amber warning – the debut of a new musical based on the classical Shakespearean story of Romeo and Juliet, set to the music of Boney M (no, I’m not joking).
B) Red warning – a business corporate event was to be held whereby clients would be entertained at a Madonna concert.

The growing implication here is that the world of rock ‘n’ roll, once the preserve of the young, is now firmly in the grip of the establishment. In the first example, a well known story is dumbed down by the addition of music produced by one of the most cringeworthy bands of all time and in the second, a pop event is hijacked by people who are less interested in pop music and more interested in furthering their own business interests. Let’s leave aside Madonna’s credentials as corporate entertainment for the moment, especially after the monstrosity that was Live Earth.

The effect of such events is to raise entry prices by increasing demand backed by corporate expense accounts, at the cost of the true fan, who is priced out of the market.

Of course, this sort of thing has been going on in the field of sport for years. In the 1980s, I attended the Formula 1 British Grand Prix at Silverstone only to find that whilst I was squashed in to a small area with countless others, there was a large area of the trackside roped off for corporate entertainment. The enclosure was empty as all the invitees were drinking themselves stupid in a tent some distance from the track.

But to find this sort of thing happening to rock music is somehow profoundly depressing. I look forward to a time when great swathes of auditoriums worldwide are permanently vacant whilst us true fans fight for a view of our heroes from the ‘restricted view’ areas. And all for a month’s pay per ticket. My feeling is that it won’t be long.

Somehow, I can’t imagine watching the Who circa 1966 or the Clash circa 1977 under these conditions and it just seems to underline how the insidious creep of corporatisation has affected the music industry without anybody really noticing.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Glasto - The Awards!


Whew! I’ve just completed the marathon task of watching all 12 hours or so of recorded Glastonbury highlights (thanks BBC) and have to say that, as usual, what a thoroughly enjoyable experience it was. The more so that I didn’t actually have to be there!

So. After much deliberation, five minutes at least, I am now ready to give out my awards to the best three acts – bearing in mind the limitations of only having seen those that were televised – in the customary reverse order.

In third place are the Killers, who I thought looked like a genuinely capable headline band this year, unlike the Arctic Monkeys, whom I really don’t get and the Who, who are just too familiar. Sounding a touch U2ish at times the Las Vegas outfit were melodic and dramatic in the best stadium rock tradition. Fabulous. Just as well I’m not an Elk lover!

In second place are the bizarre Brazilians, CSS who were thoroughly entertaining and bonkers in equal order. Who’d have thought that lycra catsuits were back in fashion? Oh…they’re not. In a strange way, this lot put me in mind of The Fall with their relentlessly patchworked rhythms and scattergun vocals – I’d like them to do a cover of Slang King or Pat Trip Dispenser just to test this assertion. I dare say I’ll get a load of comments from grim northerners telling me they’re nothing like them now. So moving swiftly on…

And in first place is the truly mesmerising duo of Rodrigo Y Gabriela, the Flamenco Heavy Metal guitarists. Until you have seen these two you just cannot conceive of how two acoustic guitars can produce the dynamics and gut wrenching excitement of Thrash Metal. And not a Marshall stack in sight. A bit of a cheek to get the audience to sing ‘Wish you were here’ all by themselves – how do they remember the words, do you have to learn them beforehand on the off chance or do you get handed a lyric sheet at the gate? Anyway, amazing stuff from the Irish Mexicans and I shall be investigating their CDs in the not too distant future.

Of the rest, Bjork was her usual fascinating self (loved the horn section) and the Pigeon Detectives kept me amused for at least a couple of songs – a rarity these days. Lily Allen was sweet and John Fogerty reminded us all how to write songs. Babyshambles were just that and I found Iggy Pop a shade disappointing. Is it me getting old or can’t new bands write melodies anymore? OK, it’s me. But really – they can’t. I can’t stand Paul Weller, but his set was bursting with great melodies, yet most other bright young things were monotone in the extreme (Killers excepted). Come on guys!

But frankly there’s nothing quite like live, as opposed to recorded, music. The highs are higher and the lows cannot be disguised by an MTV makeover. Who’s on next year?

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Wham! It's the Other One!


You know, it could have been so different. With the undoubted benefit of hindsight, it is all too obvious where I went wrong in the 1980s. It has nothing to do with not wearing power suits or big hair, although this may have helped. Nor has it to do with not being a stockbroker or investment banker. I should have been a Silent Partner.

Think about it. One of the more popular configurations for the 80s pop star was the duo as essayed by the likes of Yazoo, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Eurythmics, Tears for Fears, Soft Cell and the rest, including, of course, Wham! What all these duos had in common was that they comprised a seemingly talented front man/woman who hogged the limelight and generally beguiled the public into thinking that they were the driving force and general trouser-wearing half of the partnership… and the Other One. But together they succeeded where one might not have.

And it is the post of Other One that should have attracted me as it seemed that the job basically entailed skulking around in the background playing two-finger keyboards or strumming a guitar and scowling, something that I reckon I could handle, whilst picking up a huge pay-packet at regular intervals.

But I then the downside kicks in, because anybody with half a brain would twig that the Other One in both Yazoo and Erasure was one Vince Clark. And in Eurythmics it was Dave Stewart and so on and what all these people have in common is that they are darn good songwriters. Damn! This Other One job looks harder than I thought.

Until you look at Wham! Surely the Andrew Ridgeley role would be more suitable? You know, lounging around hotel swimming pools and crashing racing cars. But even then, there’s that nagging suspicion that perhaps all is not as it seems. Careful investigation of George Michael’s post Wham! Career reveals a worryingly downward trend when it comes to quality of product and a veritable wealth of personal trouble to boot.

Perhaps the Other One’s role here was more catalytic than first imagined. In any event, it looks like there may have been a lack of Other One vacancies available at the requisite time as it clearly required a certain aptitude.

Oh well. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea after all. Sigh!

Monday, 11 June 2007

The Brave, the Bold...and Kirsty MacColl


To diversify or not to diversify, that is the question. It is a question that haunts not just successful businesses, but successful pop stars as well. Once a winning formula has been found there is always the temptation to repeat it ad infinitum until your adoring public has had enough and skulks off to do something else.

There are those that discover that elusive formula quite early on and make a whole career out of it, like Oasis or, dare I mention them, Status Quo but the reason for such doggedness is generally a large financial return so who’s arguing? Then there are those that get bored with the formula and try something else. These are the risk takers; the ones that seek to gain not only monetary reward but also that most elusive attribute: artistic recognition. Of course, as with all risky ventures, you tend to win some and lose others – Tin Machine, anyone?

The reason why I am ruminating on the subject of diversity is that I have just bought a CD of the best of Kirsty MacColl and the first thing that strikes you about its contents is the sheer range of styles on display. In a career spanning some twenty odd years before her tragically early death in 2000, we are treated to songs in virtually every style imaginable. Pop, country and western, folk, dance and latin are all covered with varying degrees of success. She is also extremely adept at covering others’ material as her reinterpretations of Billy Bragg’s ‘New England’ and the Kinks’ ‘Days’ attest. It is always the sign of a strong character that artists can make others’ songs their own.

But a propensity to diversity is an unpredictable trait and although her biting wit is apparent in virtually every song, there is definitely a hit-or-miss quality to the collection. In other words, some work brilliantly and others are average at best and dire at worst.

But I can live with all this because the highs are very high indeed and the remainder justifies the reason why ipod playlists were invented. There is something heroic about those that go out on a limb and try a different style in the face of potential public desertion that deserves our support. True, not everything works to plan but there is always the chance that a gleaming nugget will emerge to brighten our world. Funnily enough, many of my most cherished albums are not ones that are consistently good all the way through, but have a reasonable number of real crackers of tracks amongst the also-rans. In the days of vinyl, these were difficult albums to play but in the age of the skip button, they have made a comeback.

I never imagined that I would welcome Latin American into popular music but then I’d never heard ‘In These Shoes’. It is the brave and the bold that show us what might be. Rest in peace, Kirsty.

Monday, 28 May 2007

My Heroine




A not very well kept secret, at least amongst my acquaintances (Hi, you two!), is that my heroine is Jean Millington. Ok, ok, wait a second and I’ll explain. Jean is a bass player of exceptional talent and used to play in a pioneering but largely forgotten band; Fanny, during those oh-god-did-I-really-wear-those years of the early 1970s and indeed still plays today under the banner of the Slammin Babes.

A little background. Jean was born in Manila, Philippines and moved to California, USA with older sister, June and the rest of the Millington clan in 1961. By the time the sisters were teenagers they were both guitar veterans, had together formed a band and were already fighting over who would play lead guitar. As is customary in family disputes of this type, age wins out and June bagged the guitar spot, relegating Jean to that forgotten outpost that nobody wants – bass. In fact, this is the best thing that could’ve happened as it turned out because Jean took to the instrument like the proverbial duck.

As luck would have it, this was also a time when I was becoming fascinated with bass players and bass playing generally. Chris Squire, Peter Cetera, Jack Bruce and their ilk were my gods and guitars were for wimps. Why is bass always assumed to be the least talent-requiring occupation in a band? Phil Collins famously said that the best gig in a band is drumming. But he’s wrong – It’s bass playing.

By the time Fanny had convened in 1969 comprising, in addition, sister June, ace drummer Alice deBuhr and keyboards wizard Nickey Barclay, Jean had mastered bass playing to a quite eye-popping degree. Basing her style on a cross between Paul McCartney’s pugnacious melodies and James Jameson’s skittering harmony, she had it nailed. And all this before her 20th birthday.

Assuming you have your copy of Fanny’s long deleted ‘Charity Ball’ with you, just have a listen to Jean’s playing on ‘Place in the Country’ especially during sister June’s solo. The melodic structure of her bass line just builds and builds using chromatic runs and octave skips to fabulous effect. But don’t stop there, have a listen to the play out of ‘Lady’s Choice’, the whole of ‘Cat Fever’….I could go on.

But that’s not all – she is also possessed of a fine singing voice capable of handling the whole gamut from the soulful pop of her own ‘Wonderful Feeling’ to the murderously tough R&B of Ike & Tina Turner’s ‘Young and Dumb’. There are more than enough attributes here to fulfil ‘heroine’ status, so she’s mine.

Postscript: Fanny were recently honoured by ROCKRGRL at Berklee College of Music in Boston and played a short set, the first for over 30 years. I should have been there, if only to hear that bass playing once more.

Congratulations Jean, June, Alice and Nickey – you deserve it.
To find out more, visit their website at www.fannyrocks.com

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

At the Forefront of Cool?


If ever there was a band that defied pigeonholing it was the Seekers. In mid-1960s swinging London, Carnaby Street fashion was king and style was everything. The Beatles were pushing the boundaries of popular music into uncharted territory and summer of love psychedelia was just over the horizon. Yet amongst all this hipness were a bunch of Australian folk singers who seemed completely oblivious to the cultural revolution raging around them. In their unconscious isolation, they are forever represented by George, Martin Clunes’s work colleague in ‘Men Behaving Badly’ with his traditionally staid middle class, middle-aged demeanour and comfy cardigans, constantly playing Seekers’ songs on a portable cassette player.

Recently, I had a peek at their performance of ‘The Carnival is Over’ from a 1965 edition of the UK’s Top of the Pops on YouTube.com and marvelled at their oddness. OK, even the Beatles wore suits, but to see band member, Athol Guy sporting, as well as the suit, thick framed National Health glasses and a stand up double bass amongst the hip young things in the audience is nothing short of bizarre.

Then there is Judith Durham, an established traditional jazz singer slumming it in popular music looking like the ultimate girl next door dressed like your mother in a strangely unflattering cocktail dress. She never moves but appears superglued to her mark, toes pointing, arms by her side during the whole performance. No dance routine, no backing troupe, nothing.

Everything points to disaster. And yet…and yet, it is riveting. Written by Tom Springfield, Dusty’s brother, the song has a sort of military bearing, all stiff upper lip in the face of adversity and wartime Vera Lynn overtones but it suits their traditional no-nonsense style perfectly. But ultimately it is that voice that saves the day. It’s the sort of delivery that cuts through mixes like a knife and gives even the most weak-kneed production a toughened edge. Whilst the boys beaver away with complex harmonies, it is Judith’s pure soprano that rises from the mayhem like a phoenix to grab your attention. Agnetha Fältskog did the same job for Abba and saved them from unbearable tweeness. There is an inherent toughness about these voices that defies you not to take them seriously.

Whatever you think of the Seekers and I’m still on the fence, there is no doubt that ‘The Carnival is Over’ is a triumph for non-conformity and in the hip fashion conscious mid-1960s, how brave was that?

Monday, 7 May 2007

And Speaking of Aliens...



Doncha just love science fiction? Especially when there’s an element of time travel. And it’s got Joanna Lumley in it.

Back around 1980, that’s exactly what we had with the once broadcast and never repeated TV series, Sapphire and Steel. The thing about Sapphire and Steel was that it never really felt like it had to explain itself, so no spoon fed back story, no real explanation of the plots, just great mystery scripts brilliantly acted by the main protagonists, Steel, played by David McCallum and Sapphire, played by Joanna Lumley.

As with most UK TV productions the budget was paper-thin and most of the action took place on a single set, a bit like a stage play. But it was sensational and it was sensational for two reasons.

1) The writing (by P J Hammond) was exceptional, creating tense and in many ways coldly callous drama using minimal effects (this is sci-fi remember). Few happy endings and many unexplained happenings only added to the appeal of this show.
2) The acting of David McCallum as the logical, impatient and thoroughly ruthless Steel and Joanna Lumley as the more empathetic but still alien Sapphire.

This, in my view was Joanna’s finest hour. Forget the irritating Patsy from Ad-Fab and Purdy from the New Avengers, Joanna was born to play the alien, but outwardly human Sapphire. She uses her model catwalk training to glide around the set, straight backed and head held high in an almost otherworldly way. Her diction and staring blue eyes add to the strangeness she manages to invoke. Make no mistake, McCallum is equally good as the petulant Steel but Lumley was an inspirational bit of casting.

Luckily the entire series (only 6 ‘assignments’ ever made) are out on DVD. I recommend assignment 2 as the must watch story, you’ll never look at railway stations in the same way again.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Who's the Alien now?


Once upon a time, when Top of the Pops was a weekly must-watch programme on UK television, that is, during most of its forty-year reign, it fell to the nation’s parents to rubbish all pop stars who dared to be different. Whilst this could translate to be different in attitude, musical ability or singing prowess, it generally meant different in appearance. Think Arthur Brown, Roy Wood, Toyah or Boy George. Let’s face it, what was great fun to us kids was the subject of stern disapproval from our elders.


But hindsight is a funny thing and here’s an example of why this is so. Remember watching David Bowie doing ‘Starman’ in 1972? Don’t worry, it’ll be along in a moment if you don’t. All the usual factors that were to provoke older generation outrage are present and correct in this scenario. Bowie is virtually unrecognisable dressed up to the hilt in his gender unspecific ‘Ziggy Stardust’ costume with orange spiked hair and complete facial make-up over Harlequin clothes and stacked boots. He even puts his arm around Mick Ronson in a manner guaranteed to raise blood pressures the length and breadth of Britain.


Now have a look at the area just behind Bowie. There, captured on video for all time is a creature more terrible than any Bowie reincarnation – a member of the studio audience. Only this member of the studio audience, an adolescent boy, is sporting an array of colour un-coordinated clothing including a gruesome rainbow hooped tank top and maroon wide collared shirt. He also has one of those trying-to-grow-a-sensible-haircut-a-bit-longer hairstyles and is involved in trying to dance in rhythm without the necessary coordination.


But let’s not be too hard on the boy, it could have been me at that age, because it is now that the awful realisation dawns – everyone in the audience looks equally dreadful. And this applies to any period from 1964 to 2004 you care to name – not just the early 1970s. Music programme audiences are almost universally comprised of fashion victims of the first order. Dreadful hairstyles, pinafore dresses, padded shoulders, afros, you name it and there they are.


What hindsight shows us is that Bowie just looks like Bowie and his look, being outside of conventional fashion, now looks strangely timeless despite being regarded as worryingly avant-garde at the time. Looking back from the comfort of today, it is the members comprising the studio audience that look horribly dated and embarrassingly anachronistic. In other words, the roles have been reversed and it is now the pop stars who look normal and the rest of us that deserve derision. Now, is that a girl or a boy?