Friday, 31 July 2009

Can't Buy Me Love

Right, let’s be a bit more controversial for this post. If history has taught us anything at all it is that, to quote a classic silver screen tag line, ‘Nobody’s perfect’. Even the greatest icons have their lesser moments, the trick seems to be to overwhelm those moments with a wealth of acclaimed work so that no one notices.

One of the greatest exponents of this principle was The Beatles who managed quite successfully to overshadow their own failings with a constant production line of brilliant songs. But strip away the good stuff and what are you left with? Welcome to some of The Beatles Worst Songs Ever.

‘Within You Without You’ – Does anybody not skip over this track nowadays? It is the wart on Sgt Pepper’s nose and not what most people would have you believe, i.e. a beautiful piece of eastern-inspired music, but a complete dirge. Whilst I am happy to indulge George in his other Indian influenced efforts (‘Love You To’ for example) and even John in his (‘Jealous Guy’) I really can’t be doing with this.

‘Ob-la-di Ob-la-da’ – Whilst I can live with most of McCartney’s whimsy (even frogs), I’m afraid that this just doesn’t do it for me and it rather spoils the otherwise excellent first side of the ‘White Album’. What were Marmalade thinking of? (answer: the money).

‘Dig A Pony’ – Fans will tell you that ‘Let it Be’ is just as good as other Beatles albums but this song belies that contention (along with a few others). Yet another Lennon/McCartney song that I cannot stand, basically because it is waaay too long and it drags like a sack of coal up a steep incline.

‘All Together Now’ – This song, knocked up to allow the Fabs to appear in their own ‘Yellow Submarine’ film, just redefines ‘filler’. It is rather depressing to see the greats of the popular song sunk to riffing around a nursery rhyme melody like it was their latest golden egg.

‘Octopus’s Garden’ – There’s a limit to how much ‘loveable’ Ringo a person can stomach, and this is it, or it could possibly be ‘Don’t Pass me By’.

‘One After 909’ – I feel that I dislike this so much because it arrived out of context. What was OK on the first Beatles album sounds naive and dated on ‘Let it Be’. Let’s face it, this is a bog standard rock ‘n’ roll structured song which belongs in the 1950s, not in the late 1960s rubbing shoulders with ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. It just reeks of barrel scraping.

Right, that’s it. I’m off to calm down and listen to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’, arguably two of the greatest songs ever written. Strange that they came from the same stable as all the above!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Guitar Man

In the aftermath of the Glastonbury experience with its thoughts about guitars and guitar solos, it has become clear that I am a guitar man at heart. Even whilst watching my top act, Bat For Lashes, run through their exemplary set using predominantly percussion and keyboards, the occasions when my hairs stood up were when Charlotte Hatherley added a chord or a little guitar figure to the harmony. You see, guitar playing doesn’t have to be raucous; it can be subtle and supportive.

There is something about the sound of a guitar and the player’s ability to bend and hammer on notes that gives it a soul and it is a soul that all the keyboard technology in the world can never quite reproduce. Despite guitars going out of fashion, they are still the heart of rock and roll and will never die.

It also set me thinking about solos, those things that you rarely hear these days, and which players I would set apart. Of course in the 60s and 70s there were no end of budding soloists and it was probably the overwhelming magnitude of electric noise that finally gave guitar solos a bad name, but for me the most consistently enjoyable guitarist, if you ignore Chicago’s Terry Kath, was Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser of Blue Oyster Cult. BOC are best known for ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ but I think their best work preceded this.

I was first introduced to BOC by my roommate at University who had a copy of their debut LP and I carried on buying each release right up to about ‘Cultosaurus Erectus’ in 1980 before giving them up, but it is their debut and 1974’s ‘Secret Treaties’ that I would still buy today given the choice. BOC had an interesting 3-guitar configuration buoyed by the fact that many of them were multi-instrumentalists and when in full flight were truly magnificent. It allowed them to create multi-layered rhythms using all three players and showed that they had a grasp of musical structure beyond their peers. I saw them play live at the Hammersmith Odeon in the late 1970s and they ended their set with a song (forget which) which allowed each member to drop their own instrument and pick up a guitar so that by the climax they were all thrashing away at guitar parts. Fabulous…if you like guitars.

I love Roeser’s style; it can be exhilarating and soulful but it is never boring – a trait of so many would be guitar heroes and their extended workouts. Check out the final solo from ‘Dominance and Submission’ (Secret Treaties) to hear one of the best air-guitar solos ever. Guitars – I love ‘em.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Did They Really Say That?

There is something highly mysterious about the human brain. I’ve alluded before to how ancient barely-remembered memories can suddenly become unlocked when a suitable stimulus is applied. An offshoot of this phenomenon is the memory snippet that isn’t really lost but sits under the surface of your consciousness and pops up every so often when you least expect it.

I generally find this applies to phrases that make me laugh and it is thus a constant source of embarrassment that they often surface when I am in a public place and they make me smile inanely or, even worse, laugh out loud for no obvious reason, in the face of complete strangers.

An example of such a memory is a review of the Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ album published in that reverent of all music weeklies, the NME in the late seventies. Did the reviewer really describe the introduction of the track ‘Sheep’ in the following manner?

‘...the song opens with Gilmour strumming over Wright’s swelling organ...’

Hahaha! Oh dear! It makes me laugh just to type it. I can’t believe this is true but when it suddenly pops into my brain, I can’t help but giggle.

Another example is some lyrics by Fred Wedlock. Fred was a comedy folk singer who trawled round the folk circuit and student unions of Britain in the 1970s doing one-man shows which comprised the sort of stories, gags and comic songs that went down well with student audiences. He actually had a rather cheesy national hit with ‘The Oldest Swinger in Town’ in 1981 but for the most part has been a more low key performer. Anyway, one of the songs in his repertoire was a long rambling talking blues which described the goings-on in a folk club and a few lines describing a fellow performer have always stuck with me.

‘His guitar was Japanese I’ll wager
With overdrive in E flat major
Fuel injected tuning pegs
And a hole for slicing hard boiled eggs’

OK, it’s not that hilarious but for some reason it still tickles my funny bone when I think of it. And there are many others but they are currently submerged in my sub-conscious and will not be making themselves known just yet. Some I may recall tomorrow, but others may not reveal themselves for years. That’s the worry of it.

So if you ever catch me grinning like a lunatic or guffawing about nothing in particular, you will know that I have been attacked by the pop-up memory syndrome.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Deep Purple Rides Again

Although I didn’t actually meet any strange kinda women, it has been a bit of a Deep Purple week. Firstly, I note with barely disguised knowingness that the riff from ‘Smoke on the Water’ was awarded ‘Best Guitar Riff Ever’ by some survey of worthies, ahead of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Walk This Way’, ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’. Well, duh!

The standard joke here is that it is claimed that all budding guitarists play this riff when trying out Flying Vs and Fender Stratocaster replicas in music shops to the annoyance of all concerned. But it’s true. When I last visited London’s Chappells music emporium, then located in Bond Street, many years ago to replace my aged acoustic guitar, I tell you no lie, someone was actually playing Smoke on the Water, very badly. You couldn’t help but laugh! I never went in for this sort of thing, but just played a few chords furtively to check the action and made my decision. I mean, who wants to show the world how badly you play?

The second Deep Purple moment came when I raided my sisters CD collection with a view to listening to something new and amongst all the 70s disco, came across a copy of ‘Stormbringer’. This was an album that I bought (on vinyl) when it came out in 1974 but because it followed the rock-outs of ‘Machine Head’ and ‘Burn’, I didn’t really think much of it, thus it was actually the last Deep Purple album I ever bought and indeed, I subsequently sold about ten years later. At this point in their long and tortuous life, Purple were in Mk III configuration having replaced singer Ian Gillan with David Coverdale and bassist Roger Glover with Glen Hughes. The changes made a fundamental difference to their sound that predecessor, ‘Burn’ didn’t really reveal. ‘Stormbringer’ did.

However, listening to it again has mellowed my view. Originally I didn’t like it precisely because it wasn’t in the same mould as previous Purple hard rock albums, but now I quite like some of it for the very same reason. In retrospect, the parts I like are the funky, bluesy tracks but not the rather clich├ęd rock tracks. Interestingly, I listen to ‘Burn’ less and less despite loving it in 1973. This is when you realise that you have a sort of creeping movement in your appreciation of musical style and that your choices very rarely stay still over time.

The test comes when re-evaluating stuff that you used to love years ago only to find that it is scarcely listenable. It’s the bands that you can still bear to listen to that show how good they really were.

Now, dare I listen to those Mk IV Purple albums with Tommy Bolin?

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Glastonbury Festival 2009 (Part 2)

Michael Eavis has been quoted as saying that he thought this year’s Glastonbury Festival was the best yet, but he would say that, wouldn’t he? Nevertheless, looking at the headline line-up of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and a reformed Blur, you feel he may have a point. Certainly, there was a good feeling about this year’s event and I for one enjoyed it immensely. It has made my task of picking my favourite three acts humongously difficult and I have thought long and hard about it, as well as going to the BBC website to see highlights of bands for the second time just to make sure. In the end, I have just had to go with what I enjoyed on a personal level rather than what was clearly good stuff but didn’t touch me in the same way. So here goes in time honoured reverse order:

In third place is Florence And The Machine who played to a huge crowd on the John Peel Stage. This is a controversial choice for me because a) they didn’t quite meet the hype put around by the media, and b) Florence’s singing was a little wayward at times. But what sealed their place on the podium was the performance. Florence prowled the stage like a wild animal and every feral snarl and leap was a captivating watch. This is what separates live music from MTV video. There was nothing choreographed, nothing thought about for more than a nanosecond just pure instinct – it’s called star quality and Ms Welch has it. Pity the music wasn’t a bit better but the performance was captivating and for that reason alone they get my vote.

In second is Bruce Springsteen. I am not a Boss fan and have never seen him play live but I sat through nearly an hour and a half of his set without knowing most of the songs and still loved it. I dare say that the size of the Glastonbury set up was not too daunting for Bruce – he’s probably played to bigger audiences before but somehow the occasion seemed to get to him and he looked like he was savouring every minute of it. He sang, he danced, he played guitar and risked life and limb in the audience and it was clearly as much fun as his old mate Joe Strummer had told him it would be. A true icon.

And so to the top spot and after much heart searching I’ve given it to Bat For Lashes who played the Other Stage on Sunday night. Never have I enjoyed seeing someone whom I wasn’t quite sure about blossom so assuredly on stage. Natasha Khan and her fabulous backing band (including Charlotte Hatherley on guitars, basses and keys) have elevated the nursery school music lesson to epic heights. All manner of strange percussion instruments were rattled and shook, ancient keyboards were prodded and a staggering variety of drums thumped, yet despite the musical complexity somehow you felt you could join in if only you had a detergent bottle filled with rice.

The playing was highly inventive, especially the drumming and Nat’s vocals were cool and beautiful. Top stuff.

There are so many other bands that have had to be relegated to the ‘Highly Commended’ category that I would have to continue this post into part 3 but mention in dispatches should go to Neil Young, Blur, Ting Tings, Crosby Stills and Nash, Franz Ferdinand, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Lady GaGa, all of whom I enjoyed unreservedly.

Follow that Mr Eavis.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Glastonbury Festival 2009 (Part 1)

The end of June is always a time ripe with anticipation chez Music Obsessive. Down on Eavis farm, the tents are erected, the stages built and the cows fitted with ear-defenders. Elsewhere, travellers are checking their backpacks for wellies, toothpaste, ridiculous comedy costumes and TV camera blocking flags – yes it’s the Glastonbury Festival 2009. After last year when I felt that age was finally catching up with me and apathy was the thief at the door, I was a little apprehensive, but having just watched a marathon 20-odd hours of TV coverage (another sterling job by the BBC) I am glad to say that this year was a cracker. So much so that I am splitting this post into two parts. Part 2, with my now globally famous top three Glasto acts awards to follow…

This year was marked by several aspects that are worthy of comment. First up, this was the year when I was out-manoeuvred by my own 9 year old daughter. Up until this point, I have been carefully educating her in the ways of rock ‘n’ roll whilst steadfastly retaining my God-like status as ultimate rock bore and fountain of all knowledge when it comes to knowing who wrote what and which obscure album it can be found on…but no longer. There we were watching Lily Allen’s rather lacklustre set on Friday afternoon when Lily went into the song ‘Womanizer’. At this point The Daughter affirmed with some conviction that this was a Britney Spears song. No, no, no, said I (with admittedly some smugness), I think you’ll find this on Lily’s album, ‘It’s Not Me It’s You’. But to be on the safe side I sneakily checked later and... I was wrong! It appears on Ms Spears’ latest effort, ‘Circus’. Damn! My cover has been blown and may never recover.

The second aspect concerns guitars. It was noticeable that only the more, ahem, mature acts still play guitar solos and that the younger generation still spurn them like the plague. This seems to date back to the mid-1970s when musical dexterity and especially guitar dexterity suddenly went out of fashion big-time. But now? Why is this grudge still perpetuating itself down the generations like a family curse? ‘Don’t-ee be playing that there geetar solo m’boy lest ye be struck down by the devil’. Anyway, it was great to hear some proper solos. Hat’s off to the likes of Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Francis Rossi and The Boss.

Also, it is interesting to note that all hoary old rockers play guitars which are battered to within an inch of their life. There seems to be a sort of reverse logic here where long-lived and presumably successful musicians spend no money on their tools of trade, preferring the ‘comfy shoes’ instruments that they are used to. Perhaps there is a natural life cycle where all bands start out with cheap instruments, then when they are successful they buy a new one every week, just because they can, only to revert to an old faithful when in their dotage. Someone should do a thesis on it.

Next up – the Music Obsessive Awards, stay tuned!

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Another Three Bite the Dust...

It is often said that bad things come in threes and so it has occurred. There I was, sat down to write about the passing of a relatively minor star, in global terms, from my childhood when suddenly, two more slightly better known personages also leave this mortal coil. You know who I mean, but more of them later.

My original post was to be about Duke D’Mond (b. Richard Palmer), singer with one of those rarest of bands, the comedy group. In their heyday in the 1960s, The Barron Knights – for it was they – produced a string of hit singles with the same formula. They would take a theme and then impersonate groups of the day rendering a verse or two of their current hit with words suitably altered to raise a laugh or two. This required several skills; vocal impersonation, visual impersonation and comic lyric writing as well as being a competent band in their own right.

The Searchers, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Bachelors, The Rolling Stones and even The Beatles were parodied mercilessly. The Dukes’ vocal ability and uncannily hilarious impersonation of Mick Jagger will remain with me always. Duke died in April this year aged 66.

The second death was that of Farrah Fawcett and to anyone who remembers Charlie’s Angels (no, not the dreadful film) she will forever be the blonde one in an enjoyable yet highly improbable TV series. To die of cancer is most people’s nightmare and it is so sad to see a once vivacious person struck down and reduced to a shadow of her former self. Certainly for me, she will live on as the iconic 1976 poster, bedecked in red swimsuit, head tilted back to allow her mane of unruly curls to cascade around that million watt smile.

And so to Michael Jackson. In truth, the real Michael Jackson died about twenty years ago, but that doesn’t lessen the shock that such a talent should be cut down at age 50. I’m probably of the wrong generation but Michael was never really part of my growing up and although I own ‘Thriller’ along with most of the planet, I was only really aware of him from the sidelines. Nevertheless, I hope that his work from the 70s and 80s will be his epitaph and not the ‘wacko’ exploits of his later years.

Two thoughts spring to mind on his passing. First, what will happen to his children (although whether they are really ‘his’ remains to be seen – I see no evidence of black genes in their appearance)? I feel dreadfully for them, now at the centre of a global media circus yet again. Second, will Paul McCartney see the remaining rights to the Beatles songs returned to him?

Whatever the outcome, what unites all three of these people is age. None of them reached the biblical 70 and this seems to be happening more and more, yet we are told that life expectancy is increasing. Perhaps it is - but not for the famous.