Thursday, 26 February 2009

What's in a Name?

Sometimes I sit here wondering what the hell I’m going to write about next and then, usually after a long walk, I have a Mr Micawber moment and something turns up. Actually, this time around, it was Mr Micawber himself who turned up.

It was whilst I was listening to ‘American Thighs’ by 90s grunge merchants, Veruca Salt that it occurred to me that various bands have stolen, sorry, borrowed their names from fictional characters, Veruca Salt being the spoilt brat in Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. So once this train of thought was chugging along nicely, fuelled by a few chocolate biscuits, several others revealed themselves. The obvious one following the Micawber principle is Dickens’ Uriah Heep from ‘David Copperfield’ (an acquaintance of Mr Micawber himself, I understand) who became the moniker for a bunch of 1970s heavy metallers who were well known to my peers at school if the preponderance of their album covers about the place was any guide.

At the other end of the musical scale sits the acoustic based band, Belle and Sebastian, 1990s indie favourites whose name is an Anglicised version of a children’s book by French author, C├ęcile Aubry. It seems that not only books have been plundered but also films and musicals. New romanticists, Duran Duran based their name on the mad scientist from the fantasy film, Barbarella (hmm...wonder why I remember that one) and recent indie-kid turned presenter, Lauren Laverne once fronted an outfit called Kenickie, pinched from a character in the musical ‘Grease’.

A far madder and convoluted idea is to call yourself after a cartoon character from a fantasy film based around real people, but what possessed Robert Smith (Cure) and Steve Severin (Banshees) to team up under the badge of The Glove from the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ is perhaps open to much debate at the next psychologists convention.

Filching names from fiction is all very well, but it doesn’t stop there. Step forward prog-rockers Jethro Tull who have assumed the identity of a real live agriculturalist and seed-drill inventor, er...Jethro Tull (1674 – 1741). Perhaps more subtly, ex-banana Siobhan Fahey and Marcella Detroit teamed up under the (presumably) assumed identity of ‘Shakespears Sister’ thus side-stepping any identity theft of the Bard himself, but using his proximity.

Aren’t names fascinating? Pass the chocolate biscuits and I’ll see if I can come up with any more.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Hey Hey My My...Into the Black

Those of you who remember the 1950s (ahem) will recall the rise of what the media dubbed, ‘The Angry Young Man’. All you needed was a beard and a chunky knit sweater and you were typecast as the scourge of society pointing to falsity and injustice with rapier-like accuracy.

The creative arts articulated this stereotype throughout the 60s (protest singers and satirists) and even into the 70s (punk, alternative comedy). But note the emphasis on ‘Young’. All protagonists were of tender years and used their youthful energy to harass the establishment mercilessly. As the years rolled by they became less influential and mellower in outlook. After all it takes effort to be angry all the time and damn tiring it is too. There comes a time when a pair of comfy slippers and a box of Quality Street are more inviting than chaining yourself to railings in the driving rain.

I was ruminating on all this whilst listening to a Neil Young ‘Best Of’ compilation as it seemed to me that as the chronologically correct CD ran its course, Neil got older and older yet angrier and angrier in direct contravention to the above. The CD starts in peaceful mode with his folksy Laurel canyon roots (‘Heart of Gold’) interspersed with some manic guitar (‘Southern Man’) and slowly becomes spikier, grungier, more distorted (‘Hey Hey My My (Into the Black’)) and more political (‘Rockin’ in the Free World’) as time goes on. You can almost feel the bile building track by track.

I remember seeing a documentary on Young a while ago where Nils Lofgren recalled a UK gig they did in the 1980s when they played nothing but new material from an album that hadn’t even been released. They finished with a reprise of the first song from that evening’s set (can’t remember what it was called) and left the stage. On returning for an encore, Neil promised the crowd ‘something they knew’, only to play the first song for a THIRD time! Bloody minded or what. Seems he was well on the way to angry-dom by then and has settled in for the long haul ever since.

Neil Young is a WYSIWYG artist and you take him or leave him on that basis. He doesn’t really pander to consumer demand nor does he seem to care what we think of him as he rants and raves. But, strangely, this is his attraction. Perhaps there would be a bit more integrity in the world of rock if there were more like him. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t enjoy his gigs. And not a comfy slipper in sight.

Monday, 16 February 2009

One Fine Day

How old were you when you did something worth doing? Ten? Twenty? Thirty? One-hundred-and-two or err...never? If you really have produced a world changing work I’ll bet you were at the younger end of the scale (but perhaps not ten).

I am constantly amazed by just how young certain people were when they produced a major piece of work, be it art, science or whatever. The most awe-inspiring example was probably Einstein who was a mere 24 years old when he conceived his theories of Relativity. It almost beggars belief.

The music business is slightly different. By the nature of the beast, pop songwriters tend to be younger rather than older when they release their masterwork, but even knowing this I have been looking at the career of Carole King, who turned 67 this last week, and marvelling. Most of us know Carole from her ‘Tapestry’ album released in 1971 when she was 29 – a reasonable age one would think for producing one of the best selling albums ever. We tend to think of her as starting out at about that date and building a career throughout the 1970s and 1980s. I remember vividly going on a week’s geography field trip to Slapton in south west England in the early 1970s when ‘It’s Too Late’ was adopted as the project’s ‘anthem’, being sung lustily on long hikes over the fields to view Devonian geological formations and the like.

Yet if you go back a whole 10 years to 1961 when the 19 year old Carole was working in the infamous Brill Building churning out hits for others with her lyricist partner, Gerry Goffin, we find that ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’, a mega hit for Bobby Vee, emanated from her pen. As did ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ (Shirelles), a song she would resurrect for ‘Tapestry’ and the evergreen ‘Locomotion’ (Little Eva).

But the list goes on. It includes ‘One Fine Day’ (Chiffons), ‘I’m into Something Good’ (Herman’s Hermits), ‘Oh No Not My Baby’ (Manfred Mann) and one of my particular favourites, ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ (Monkees) and many other minor hits for a whole range of acts and all written between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. This period in her life seems to be almost forgotten now that the glare of ‘Tapestry’ has been switched to full beam and this is a pity for her early work for other others is every bit as good as her later solo output. It seems that what we take for her known career is actually her Solo career and that her real work began much much earlier. To me, her sixties songs have a real joy to them and I still prefer them to her later more successful output. There is something about the creativity of a person in their early 20s that is difficult to recreate once age and experience has taken its toll. It seems that for sheer unfettered originality, young rules!

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Monsters and Angels

The internal makeup of a band is a subject that encourages much study and just to prove the point there have been countless TV programmes showing us the grisly underbelly of many well-known conglomerations. But sometimes a band just seems to have the right ingredients from the word go. Consider, for example, this little concoction. Take the following in generous quantities:
A couple of California-tanned sisters (say, Tracey Bryn and Melissa Brooke Belland)
A UK guitarist with a ridiculous haircut (Steve Jones, obviously)
A famous drummer (enter Woody Woodgate from Madness)
A 50s throwback bass player (Martin Brett)
Some bright and breezy powerpop tunes
A bagload of wry lyrics with more than a pinch of cynicism
Masses of on-stage energy

Mix vigorously then call them something a bit odd, like...ooh...Voice of the Beehive and bingo! VOTB barnstormed the charts for about 9 years from 1987 onwards with some infectious singles, got involved with lots of jumping around on TOTP and offered up two good albums and one reasonably good effort - and then disappeared. During that period I saw them play live twice here in the UK and enjoyed them enormously. I liked the girls’ vocal style which involved unison singing on much of the lyric but then breaking out into two-part harmony to emphasise certain lines or words much in the same way that rappers double up certain key words today.

One particular memory of them is probably their cover of ‘I Think I love You’ – yes the Partridge family thing originally sung by teen heart-throb David Cassidy – as it was one of those occasions when a cover version just clicked. Cover versions are not for everyone, as anyone who has heard Alexandra Burke’s version of ‘Hallelujah’, mentioned in a previous post, will know, but this one is a corker. VOTB rocked it up a bit and gave it some real oomph (musical technical term) so that all vestiges of the dreaded Partridges were blown away, which is basically what you are aiming for when attempting someone else’s song. Even the transformation from male to female vocal does not diminish it and the whole thing sounds fresh and new.

It is such a shame that by the third album only the sisters remained from the original band and a label hop plus general sadness going on in their private lives made it a bit low key. Nevertheless, VOTB were a fun outfit for a while and left us a legacy of some classic pure pop moments. Try ‘I Walk the Earth’, ‘Monsters and Angels’ or ‘I Say Nothing’ (below) and see what I mean.

Friday, 6 February 2009

The Yarmouth Honeys

I’ve always had great respect for people who have the talent to write songs. I think that songwriting is an admirable trade and one that is not always as easy as it looks. It also seems to be the case that songs attributed to one particular writer are often ‘flavoured’ by the input of the rest of the band by a form of musical osmosis. This is identifiable as the unique ‘sound’ of any particular band.

My view on what is rather an academic subject was underlined recently when I received the latest batch of songs from my brother, a long time amateur musician (see pic). As a songwriter and bass player, he has recently compiled a new working band around him and currently hits the pubs and clubs of Norfolk (his current location) and Hertfordshire (the family seat) as the ‘Yarmouth Honeys’ playing his back catalogue of songs, a range of rock and pop in classic 1970s stylee. Some years back, he gave me some demos of songs he had written and recorded himself at home and many of these songs now turn up on the new CD, but now in a band context and it is interesting how they have developed.

Although clearly recognisable as the songs originally created on the first CD, the input of the other members of the band has moved them into a much improved musical setting. Not to put too fine a point on it, the superior vocals of the Honey’s regular singer have added drama and cohesion to the melody lines and the various personal styles of the drummer and guitarist have buffed up the musical arrangement and subtly altered the interpretation to a point where a good song has blossomed into a much better one.

It is the combination of talents that make a good band and it is the reason why we grieve when a member of our favourite outfits leaves and is replaced by an equally competent, yet different sounding member; the sound of the band after such a swap is never quite the same. Whether the band continues to succeed depends on whether the new combination creates a better or worse sound.

Everyone notices the difference between singing voices and no-one would say David Coverdale sounded like Ian Gillan when he replaced him in Deep Purple, yet other musicians are not always perceived in the same way. Drummers are often the least regarded in a band yet the difference between Yes with Bill Bruford and Yes with Alan White is quite marked. Similarly, bass players do not always get the kudos they deserve but I’m guessing most people would’ve noticed Jack Bruce’s absence from Cream?

In any event, getting the right balance is the key to elevating your songwriting so I wish The Yarmouth Honeys all the best in their endeavours. Listen to some of their stuff on drummer Gavin Smith’s website! My current favs are the moody '100 Horses' and the drive-time 'Over the Border'.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Still Alright

So what do you do with someone like Lily Allen? Actually that’s probably what Keith Allen’s been asking for years but then all this fame-through-the-generations-stuff is part of the problem, innit? So, let’s steer ourselves away from the celeb magazines and put it another way: what do we make of Lily Allen’s music?

This is perhaps an easier question. I did actually buy her 2006 debut ‘Alright Still’ and these were my thoughts at the time, published elsewhere prior to the birth of this blog:

First off, I am not a great reggae/roots/hip-hop fan generally but somehow the melding of styles on this album is very alluring in a light frothy sort of way. Musically, the content veers from pure pop to ska and back but always in a way that makes a cohesive whole. The overriding factor is that the melodies are tuneful and catchy. What’s not to like? At times, Lily comes across as Emma Bunton’s more streetwise sister with a nostalgic 60s vibe and at others, like Neneh Cherry – all attitude and urban sassiness.

But what really appeals to me is the combination of her wispy vocal style and wonderfully poignant lyrics – conjuring the sort of images that all the best English lyricists have managed to evoke from ‘Waterloo Sunset’ to ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ via ‘Our House’. Her little vignettes of love and loss are so real that you can almost touch them.

That was then. Since then the allure has diminished somewhat and a listen to it recently showed that its initial bright frothy appeal has subsided with time like a Starbucks cappo leaving the insubstantial filler revealed. That, coupled to her very public mouthy persona, has soured me a bit and when I heard that a new single, ‘The Fear’, was on the horizon, it didn’t exactly get me salivating.

But, damn me, if one listen to it hasn’t just reversed all that at a stroke. It’s not just the move away from her ska/pop legacy towards a sort of modern electro ballad with a corker of a melody that you just can’t help warming to, it’s also the onslaught of one of those melt-in-the-mouth choruses at regular intervals. The lyrics are a bit too self-reverential for my liking and what once sounded cute now sounds a bit contrived but you can’t have everything.

My spider-sense tells me that the rest of the forthcoming album can’t possibly be this good so I may well make do with a download of this song alone this time around. Nevertheless, Ms Allen has forced her way back into my playlist. How bloody irritating!

I’ll bet Keith knows what I mean.