Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Ultimate Christmas

So, here we are at the end of another year, in the unenviable position of having to dust off those Christmas CDs for their annual outing. So what will be playing at chez Music Obsessive this year whilst the tree is decked and mince pies sizzle? Will it be that famous convicted murderer and his celebrated Christmas Album? Perhaps not.

Nor will it be any of the usual Christmas suspects by The Beach Boys, Maria Carey, The Carpenters, Andy Williams, Elvis et al but something quite different. In fact, despite its humble background this CD has become an established part of the Christmas ritual at our house along with the Christmas morning fizz and evening slump in front of the TV.

It arrived in our house some years ago as a freebie with the daily newspaper and unlike most of its stable mates did not end up in the bin but was rather unexpectedly, played quite a lot. Like most free CDs it can only be described as a right old hotchpotch of songs from artists old and new(ish) but somehow it has a Christmassy charm that has saved it from the fate of others. Perhaps because it does not comprise traditional carols, which are still played in our house, or recent chart pop songs it falls neatly into that area of Christmas nostalgia – the period from the 1940s to the 1960s.

So in amongst the obvious and slightly hackneyed contenders like Bing’s ‘White Christmas’, Perry Como’s ‘Silver Bells’ and Nat King Cole’s ‘Christmas Song’ there are some interestingly irreverent additions like Eartha Kitt’s sultry ‘Santa Baby’. Quite what my children think of this is unclear – clearly they’ve never seen Marilyn Monroe singing it. Another favourite is ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ sung with satin-like silkiness by Crystal Gayle.

The only hint of more contemporary fare is given by Dolly Parton’s ‘Winter Wonderland’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Paper’, together with Tom Jones and Michael Ball who also get a look in, but overall there is not a hint of Wizzard or the Pogues which, of course, is a huge seasonal blessing. This disc does not pander to in-store browsing pop but harks back to an era when snow decorated every Christmas and families sang around old upright pianos and drank mulled wine whilst breathing in Dad’s pipe tobacco smoke.

It is rather heart-warming to note that these old chestnuts seem to signify Christmas rather than the usual Slade and Band Aid offerings even to my iPod-generation children. Frankly, I’d rather that they take away memories of these songs with them into adulthood than Shakin’ Stevens.

I'm off to take my usual seasonal break from the keyboard, so I'll see you all in the new year.  Merry Christmas!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Your Move

Last week, I attended the London Chess Classic at Earls Court Olympia and followed the four games being played in Round 3 of the 7-Round all-play-all competition as they unfolded live on stage.

This is only the second year that the London Chess Classic has been staged but already it is gaining momentum. This year the players are: the young Norwegian, Magnus Carlson (currently rated the world’s number one), Vishy Anand (the current World Champion), Vladimir Kramnick (the ex-World champion), Hikaru Nakamura (the US number 1) and the top four rated English players (Messrs Adams, Short, McShane and Howell). Quality or what? Play started at 2.00 pm and spectators may remain until all games are complete which can be anything from 2 hours to 7+ hours. And the cost of a ticket? £10.

Where else in the world of sport can a spectator get to see the current and ex-World Champion and the World Number One player for a tenner? It seems that Chess is the last bastion of a time gone by when the average punter could get up close and personal with the elite of sport – and all for a modest cost. I even shared a lift with veteran world title challenger, Victor Korchnoi and held the gents' door open for eventual tournament winner, Magnus Carlson. Only in chess would this happen.

In the early 1990s, I attended a Chess Event in a Park Lane hotel that is now known, rather quaintly, as the Snowdrops v Veterans Match in which a team of young-up-and coming Women players takes on a team of Veterans. The event I attended featured some of the best women players at that time and the vets team included a seventy year old Vasily Smyslov, World Champion I957-58, who eventually won a gruelling 7 hour game. He died earlier this year, aged 89, but I am so glad I was able to witness his success on that day from little more than a few feet away from the board.

The event didn’t start well as the lights failed in the playing area and we were told to go away and come back in an hour when play would start. Taking the lift down to the ground floor, I found myself in the company of half the women’s team including Sofia Polgar and Pia Cramling, two of the best Women players the world has ever seen. What is it about chess players and lifts? Anyway, they sauntered off down Park Lane as if it was the most natural thing in the world – no entourage, no bodyguards.

A year or so later, I found myself browsing the foyer bookstall with Vassily Ivanchuk, the Ukrainian Grandmaster, rated number 5 in the world at that point, during the London Rapidplay competition. I cannot think of any other sport where the world’s top players have such freedom to come and go, usually unrecognised and where the likes of you and I can mingle with them and watch them perform for so little.

Unfortunately money is already raising its ugly head in the Chess world and prize money is increasing. How long before we, the public, lose contact with the players as we have in virtually all other sports?

Friday, 10 December 2010

Pop Charts

A slab of research a while back gleefully revealed that in the year of 2009, ‘pop’ music trounced ‘rock’ and most other forms of music in the singles chart, by a considerable margin. The report cites the success of Lady Gaga and Cheryl Cole and others as proof that ‘pop’ is back in a big way and all traditional rock bands are running for cover. The first question that immediately springs to mind is: who did the labelling?

Music is notoriously difficult to categorise. The music press love to put labels on all music but as far as you all know by now, there are only two types of music; good and bad. However that doesn’t stop the media devising ever more complicated structures of genres and sub-genres with which to box up every known utterance. In truth, pop music never really went away no matter what the media would have you believe and I cannot remember a time when rock music dominated the singles charts. So the second question is not only, is it true, but does it matter?

The singles chart has always been the more frivolous sister to the deadly serious older brother album chart and there is no reason why this should not continue. At its extreme in the late 60s and early 70s the singles chart was cut adrift in an open boat. After all, no rock band worth its salt released singles as it demeaned their serious intent, thus the singles chart was a veritable cauldron of silly songs and one hit wonders. Just don’t get me started on ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’…

Rather ironically, it was the anti-establishment punk bands that broke the stand-off in the mid-70s and rock once again vied for contention with pop and the singles chart reverted to basically what it was designed to be – a barometer of what is popular (but not necessarily any good). But then you did get Top of the Pops and Pan’s People to act as your guide so it wasn’t all bad. As far as I can recall, the singles chart has been that way ever since so quite where all this ‘pop makes a comeback’ nonsense came from is debateable.

Personally, I like a bit of pop me, provided it falls into the ‘good’ category (Gaga, Abba, Madness) and not the bad (Black Lace, Gary Glitter, Dawn) and don’t really care a fig if the serious bands don’t join in.  I wonder what will be the epitaph of 2010?

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Smiths

So here I am, busily writing this blog when I glance at the calendar and…heavens! I’ve been tapping away for over three years now - and I still haven’t got around to The Smiths. So here is a post to redress this appalling oversight.

If ever there was a band that split the music community, it was the Moz and Marr cooperative (Manchester division). On the one hand there was (and still is) a hardcore following of fanatical devotion and on the other, a bevy of critical and equally fanatical Moz-haters with me sort of in the middle ground but with leanings towards the devotees.

Actually, I’ve become more of a fan as the years have gone by but it was only recently whilst I transferred all my Smiths vinyl LPs to MP3 files that I have undertaken a proper retrospective. And the findings have been not quite what I expected. Back in the day, I bought each album as it arrived and rather leaned towards the earlier works like ‘The Smiths’, ‘Hatful of Hollow’ and ‘Meat is Murder’. By the time ‘The Queen is Dead’ arrived my interest was waning and when ‘Strangeways Here We Come’ was released I very nearly ignored it.

Undoubtedly, as a complete body of work, you really can’t fault it. The marriage of Marr’s complex guitar driven melodies and Morrissey’s grimly realistic kitchen sink lyrics is a gift that doesn’t get offered too often. It is simply like no other song writing partnership before or since. Then add in the killer rhythm section of Joyce and Rourke and it’s difficult to see how they could’ve gone wrong.

Listening to the albums again in sequence my initial view that the early stuff is best still holds but only for ‘Hatful of Hollow’ the compilation of BBC sessions, which remains their finest hour by a big margin. The playing, enforced by the live session environment, is tight and crisp and the material exemplary. Funnily enough, I now find the early studio albums a bit bland and have begun to appreciate the later ones more. In particular, ‘Strangeways’, the album that almost didn’t get bought, I now find is very listenable indeed.

So, I’m still a big fan of The Smiths, but not in the same way that I once was. ‘Hatful of Hollow’ is still the album to buy, but where I would’ve pointed newcomers to the early studio albums, I am now going suggest ‘Strangeways’ and possibly ‘The Queen is Dead’. Just don’t ask me again in another ten years as I’ll probably have changed my mind again.

Here's 'William, It Was Really Nothing' which just aches with 80s nostalgia.

Friday, 26 November 2010

KT Tunstall - Tiger Suit

Ever bought an album and wondered why you did? I am having that feeling about KT Tunstall’s ‘Tiger Suit’, her latest offering.

Like most people, I first got to know her when she burst onto ‘Later with Jools Holland’ doing the stomping ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’ back in 2005 but it wasn’t until I heard ‘Suddenly I See’ followed by the fabulous ‘Another Place to Fall’ that I was interested enough to buy her debut album, ‘Eye to the Telescope’. At the time I thought it a bit patchy and one of those albums that had two or three crackers in amongst some pleasant if not inspiring material. Accordingly, I failed to buy its follow up ‘Drastic Plastic’ when it turned up in 2007.

Since then I’ve not really thought about KT but recent reviews of ‘Tiger Suit’ made me curious to know what she is up to now. So it was that I found myself owning a copy after a bit of an impulse buying spree in HMV a few weeks ago and have been listening to it on and off ever since. And this is where I start to think about what my motives were. Once again, there is nothing much wrong with ‘Tiger Suit’ but somehow it doesn’t quite grab me despite having some nice moments.

This time around, KT has gone for a slightly less folksy sound and opted instead for a series of electronica environments into which to pour her almost traditional sounding songs. This has had the effect of modernising her sound without detracting from her Celtic roots and the stomp evident in ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’ is still to be heard on tracks like ‘Push That Knot Away’ but in a more dancey and less folksy way.

One thing that becomes apparent is that she likes to hang on to a single chord. This she often does for so long that when the chord change finally comes you are so grateful for the harmonic shift that it sounds just heavenly, like reaching an oasis after a 25 mile crawl across sun baked sands. But you can pull this trick once too often.

In fact, the album starts very well indeed with probably the best cut, ‘Uummannaq Song’ which sports a gorgeous chorus over wailing primal backing vocals. Next up ‘Glamour Puss’ is almost as good, but after that the focus falls away a bit and by the end of the album my attention has wandered a little. This seems to sum up KT Tunstall for me – one or two really good songs surrounded by OK but not outstanding album mates. Perhaps in future, I should get to listen to her albums and cherry pick the best?  I'm not so sure as already this album is growing on me.  Perhaps it just needs a bit more time?  We'll see.

Here's KT on Jools Holland - see what you think.  And check out the fab guitarist - it's Charlotte Hatherley...AGAIN  (ex-Ash, Client, Bat for Lashes, sometime solo artist and now with KT Tunstall.  Blimey, she gets around.)

Friday, 19 November 2010

The Return of Duffy

There’s nothing like opening your mouth to prove you’re a liar. As soon as I suggest that, let’s say, Duffy has vanished off the face of the earth, never to be seen again, then, blow me down, there she is, large as life on ‘Later with Jools Holland’, warbling a few new songs from her forthcoming album, ‘Endlessly’. In fact in the same show was The Ting Tings, also back after a period of nothingness, with their new single, ‘Hands’. You just can’t win.

But when you start thinking about it, this business of when and how to release product onto the market, is one steeped in difficulty. It seems to me that as an artist with a long term career, you are in constant danger of falling into one of two Deep Dark Wells.

Deep Dark Well One is labelled, ‘Not you again, can’t you just leave me alone? I’ve only just got used to your last album and can’t really find the cash just now’. Normally, I like to savour an album for a bit, especially if it is particularly good, and get to know every nuance and inflection. This generally takes a bit of time and the last thing you want is to find that yet another album is on the shelves begging for your attention. Record companies are particularly bad at pushing artists into seizing the moment and releasing a load of half-baked songs onto a public that are lapping up the current stuff. I know that the Beach Boys used to release about 4 LPs a year but frankly, I couldn’t cope with this.

Deep Dark Well Two is labelled, ‘Who? Where the hell have you been for the last 5/10/15 years? Sorry but I’ve moved on and have a huge roster of new artists to devote my limited time to’. This is always a bit sad, but go away and hide for long periods and you really can’t expect your public to be waiting around like a stood-up date for very long. Life’s too short and there is always another band to come along and fill your shoes. Unless you are a mega-star you really cannot get away with not producing anything for decades, can you Kate?

So what’s the solution? With the benefit of 40-odd years of buying and following bands, my considered opinion is that an album every eighteen months to two years is about the right balance and if an artist could see their way clear to releasing a new song, say as a download or EP in the middle of the fallow period just to say, ‘I’m still here’, that would be grand. This approach has several benefits. First, it allows the artist to write and refine some decent material rather than filling up with rejects from the previous effort and second, it gives the buyer a bit of a breather.

On this basis and assuming that new albums from Duffy and The Ting Tings will not be available until late 2010 or early 2011, they might just have left it a shade too long, methinks.

Friday, 12 November 2010

TV Themes

Like all media, music has had to move with the times. Much of what we now consider ‘classical’ music was often commercially motivated or was written for specific audiences – mainly the church and those that fancied a bit of a dance at their next Grand Ball (DJ Mozart, anyone?) Later those commissions came from film makers, first silent accompaniment and then soundtracks.

So with the advent of the cathode ray tube, music found itself being commissioned by programme makers either as an incidental background, or more specifically as an opening theme. TV theme tunes, despite being short and sweet (barely 2 minutes to cover the credits) have since taken on a life of their own and many are remembered with nostalgic affection. To create a brief, yet memorable theme that actually reflects the content of the ensuing programme is no mean feat, so as a tribute to the many composers of TV themes, here are my personal ‘six of the best’ choices.

Hawaii Five-O (Morton Stevens) – arguably the best TV theme ever. It brims over with a joie de vivre that is hard to ignore. Like all of the best TV themes it has since de-coupled itself from Hawaii Five-O, the TV programme, and is generally known as a great tune in its own right yet it still retains that alluring vision of sun and sea. ‘Book him, Danno!’

Mission: Impossible (Lalo Schifrin) – another massive theme tune and probably the only one written in the singularly lumpy rhythm of 5/4. Again, this theme now has a life of its own and is synonymous with derring-do in all its forms. It has become a staple for all programme makers who deploy it in the sort of situations that require a bit of tension and excitement.

The World at War (Carl Davis) – This strangely asymmetrical, yet grimly compelling melody, together with the stark images it overlays, lands an almighty emotional punch. I defy anyone not to be moved by its poignant grandeur, especially that gut-wrenching final chord. Interestingly, this theme has not broken free. If ever there was a permanent link between programme and theme, this is it. Quite haunting.

Dr Who (Ron Grainer arr. Delia Derbyshire) – who would’ve thought that this theme, cobbled together from taped samples of signal generators and home-made sound-effects would turn out to be probably the best known piece of electronic music? A masterpiece of arrangement by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic workshop. And made in 1963 without a box of digital tech in sight!

The Virginian (Percy Faith) – A waltz has never quite had as much momentum as this western theme by the late Percy Faith. You can’t help but be swept along by its galloping beat and visions of the great windswept western frontier. Knocks other contenders like ‘Bonanza’ into a ten-gallon hat.

YouTube won't let me embed it here so click here to hear.

Jeeves and Wooster (Anne Dudley) – A fabulous pastiche of 1920s jazz/swing by pop keyboardist Anne Dudley (Art of Noise). To replicate the style of the roaring twenties is one thing but to make it sound as recklessly foolish yet endearingly familiar as the Wodehouse novels themselves is a real achievement. Try not humming this for days after hearing it.  Again, YouTube won't let me embed the moving picture version so this static one will have to do.  After all, it's all about the music!

I haven’t even scratched the surface here. Morse, The Sweeney, Batman, The Avengers, The X files…the list goes on and on. Which goes to show how we have taken these small, yet perfectly formed tunes to our hearts.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Worst of Times

Sometimes, when I’m sitting here thinking about what the hell am I going to write next, if I am very lucky, someone comes along and gives me an idea. And in this instance it is just as well that they did or my next post would’ve been a blank screen - very artistic, I’m sure, but not really in the true spirit of a blog. So I am deeply indebted to Luminous Muse whose post ‘Guilty Pleasures: 70s Songs I Hate to Love’ has set in train a series of thoughts about pants music generally rather than specifically.

I’ve already covered my Guilty Pleasures in a series of posts some time back, so I thought rather than wheel out my list of Hate-to-Love songs yet again, I’d nominate my contender for the worst period in rock’s history and spookily it, too, comes from the 1970s – the decade that fashion forgot. My nomination for ‘Worst Period of Rock…Ever’ is the five year period 1973 – 1978.

The reasons why can be summed up in three words: Glam, Disco and Smart-Arses. It should be remembered that up to about 1973 everything had been going swimmingly from the Rock ‘n’ Roll explosion of the 1950s through the 1960s Beat Boom to Psychedelia and the beginnings of Progressive.

But by 1974 it had all gone wrong. Glam had ousted my beloved Prog and got it firmly on the run. Of course, Prog really only had itself to blame as it had disintegrated into self-indulgent noodling and we were drowning in pixies, but if only it knew what it was letting in... Whilst Glam had its upside, just, in Bowie and Roxy, the remainder was just the worst 1950s pastiche claptrap imaginable. Mud, Rubettes, Showaddywaddy, Sweet, Wizzard (Roy Wood what WERE you thinking?) were all as guilty as hell. Aged 18, music to me was a serious business and this lot were just taking the p…

Disco was almost as bad (with the possible exception of Chic). By the mid 1970s the likes of KC and the Sunshine Band, Sylvester, Heatwave, Donna Summer and Odyssey, were gearing up to batter our ears with stuff that only clubbers understood but the worst offender in this category was the person who invented the 12-inch single. If I ever get my hands on them…well, don’t worry, I’ll think of something. If Disco wasn’t bad enough over 3 minutes it was indescribably tedious over 10 long minutes of melody-free monotonous rhythm.

So for people like me, there was only one area left and unfortunately it was inhabited by the Smart-Arses as represented by the unholy trinity of Steely Dan, Supertramp and 10CC. I will put my hand up and admit to liking the first three 10CC albums but I never really took to either Supertramp or Steely Dan who were just far too clever by half. Thank God for Abba!

Never has one music lover been so relieved than when the Punk revolution swept away all this dross and replaced it with badly played, raucous yet passionate short sharp songs. Luckily this racket didn’t outstay its welcome but its lasting legacy was to open the door to a whole New Wave of artists from Blondie to XTC and by the end of the 1970s music was back on track. Phew!

Friday, 29 October 2010

Money Money Money

When I bought my first vinyl LP as spotty youth back in 1970, it cost me the princely sum of £2 and at the time, I didn’t really stop to consider whether it was priced correctly – I just wanted it and bought it. So it comes as quite a shock to realise that £2 in 1970 is the inflation adjusted equivalent figure of £23 today. These days I wouldn’t even countenance paying that sort of money for a CD or download album despite being more affluent. In fact I would probably baulk at paying half that price…and possibly even a quarter.

It just goes to show how we have unconsciously absorbed the reduction in price for the music we buy yet still feel we are hard done by and will turn our collective noses up at product that in real terms has at least halved in price over the last 40 years. In fact, these days file sharing for free seems to be touted as a ‘right’ amongst some parts of the consumer market.

So I note with some amusement that ex-Warner Music UK boss, Rob Dickins, has decreed that albums should be sold at £1 each in an effort to combat piracy and encourage waning sales. Whoo-Hoo! Predictably, this has caused howls of outrage amongst the music industry who are still trying to keep a firm hold on their diminishing profits, but to me it seems eminently sensible. His argument is that file-sharers would be happy to pay a legal £1 per download rather than an illegal nothing and that the remainder of us would buy substantially more albums, thus recouping revenue for the industry and generating demand in other areas such as live concerts and merchandise. He may be right, but I suspect not. The sense that media should be ‘free’ is pretty ingrained in some parts of society.

Nevertheless, I see no defence to those companies still charging full price for albums produced in the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s whose production costs have long been recovered. I’ve never understood why it is virtually impossible to buy Beatles albums, for example, for less than £10, a staggering 45 years after they were first released. It smacks of greed. I for one would undoubtedly buy more if prices were reduced considerably. It takes away the risk that you are about to spend good money on something that turns out to be the worse album ever produced – something that I’ve had enough of in the past.

Record producers say that they must charge to cover their risks, but what about the consumer? They shoulder risk every time they buy today’s ‘product’ as most of it is sub-standard. Reducing the price would alleviate buyers' risk and I’m all in favour of that.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Dangling Conversation

‘Aha! I knew I’d find it somewhere. It was stuck in amongst the kinks in that old bit of carpet. Can’t really remember when I lost it, it’s all a bit of a blur now. It must’ve been one of those Sundays I was making a wedding present for the family up the road.’

‘What are you wittering about, woman?’

‘My sewing needle! I lost it months ago. You know, I told you just after him next door had his massive attack. How that doctor and the medics got him out past his caravan, I’ll never know. What a squeeze and him with a dickey heart. Mind you, his wife’s not much better. She had to go to Lourdes for the cure last year after her primal scream therapy failed. Anyway, I must get on. The cleaning all needs doing.’

‘What? Again? Anyone’d think the Queen was coming.’

‘And another thing. I need a proper washing machine. That toploader has just about had it. Do you know it leaks so badly the kitchen looks like an oasis half the time? All it needs is a camel.

‘It’s no good you screaming. Trees don’t yield money you know. Anyway, I can’t listen to you all day. What’s on the wireless?’

‘Dunno. But you’d better turn it on now. It takes so long to warm up, you’d think it was human…’

‘…League Division Two. Stockport County one, Barnet nil…’

‘It’s the bloody football results, oh joy…’

‘…Division One. Portishead Town six…’

‘I can’t listen to this. Who’s interested in a minor south-western league clash? What’s for tea?’

‘Scones, cranberries and cream.’

‘Again? You’d never get that garbage at my Holly’s.’

‘Yes, but then you’d have to put up with that grandson of yours.’

‘Kevin’s not such bad company. What’s he been up to now?’

‘Well, there was a bit of an incident at the pet shop. Boys will be boys, you know, but they should never have called the police. I know eagles don’t come free but I’m sure the wings will grow back in time. Of course, Kevin’s been a bit sensitive after his dad spilt tea on that igloo he made out of sugar cubes. All of a pulp, it was. And that girl of his, you know, blondie, gave him the elbow. Poor boy!’

‘Huh! Can’t imagine what the youth of today think they’re up to. Walking around like zombies on ecstasy and nattering about pop music. Complete madness! Wouldn’t have happened in my day…’

Friday, 15 October 2010

Generation Gap

It is a well known fact that we all grow up to be our parents no matter how hard we try to avoid it. But growing up to be someone else’s parents is even more worrying. This nightmare scenario slowly dawned on me the other day whilst helping my daughter to download a couple of songs from iTunes.

But let’s back up a bit. In the early 1970s I spent a large proportion of my life hanging around in St Albans record shops, either the traditional specialist venues like The Record Room or the new pretender, Cloud 7 or even the less obvious places like Tesco, Boots or a furniture store whose name I’ve forgotten, who all sold chart singles.

Oh, the arrogance of youth! This was a time when I felt entirely at ease in such places and, like the owners, knew most of the stock by sight. As a frequent visitor and dedicated browser, not to mention compulsive buyer, I felt that slight superiority that an expert feels when confronted with an amateur. So when anyone came into the shop with that furtive and marginally panicked look on their face you just knew that some fun would ensue.

These were the people, usually elderly, who didn’t really know what they had come into buy, either because they’d heard something on the wireless and didn’t know what it was, or because they were buying for someone else. In the first instance they would try and describe what it was they were after, usually going to extraordinary lengths to avoid actually having to sing the thing to the bemused shop assistant. Alternatively, if they were buying for someone else (usually much younger), and Christmas was always a good time for this, they would clutch a scrap of paper and whisper the contents to the assistant who would be drowning in a sea of mispronunciation and misunderstanding. Their delivery would be akin to a police officer recalling a slang filled conversation with a villain in a court of law.

All this was huge fun to people like me, safe in the knowledge that I would always, always know what it all meant. Until now.

So there I was, navigating through iTunes to download my daughter’s choice, when suddenly, oh no, I was that someone’s elderly parent in the record store who hasn’t a clue what they are asking for and all those years of arrogance have come back to bite me.

‘No, Daddy. It’s THAT one. Don’t you know?’


Friday, 8 October 2010

Neneh Cherry - Manchild

Quite out of the blue, I have been drawn to thinking about the song ‘Manchild’ from two differing sources. One; a review of Neneh Cherry’s 1989 debut, ‘Raw Like Sushi’ by Aussie commentators YourZenMine and two; a comment made by the compiler of the chords to ‘Manchild’ on a well known music tabs website which asks, ‘Is this the most discordant song ever written?’

I’ve always liked ‘Manchild’ and it is still, for me, one of the stand-out tracks on the ‘Raw Like Sushi’ album. One of its major features is its unusual chord progression which flits across keys like a butterfly in a flower shop. In theory a musical key comprises a set of chords based on the notes of its scale, a bit like a paint palette using set colours of a chosen theme (say, browns and oranges for an autumnal setting). Normally, a song would move between these related chords giving a smooth comfortable ride. ‘Manchild’ is the equivalent of introducing splashes of primary blue or red from an unrelated palette where it is least expected and upsetting the normal order of things.

For example, the song is nominally in the key of C♯ major, but even in the first line of the verse we are wrenched onto a chord of E major – a chord having no business at all squatting in the home key of C♯ major - before lurching drunkenly onto the dominant chord of G♯ major. Then it gets worse as the next phrase starts on F major (not the ‘correct’ F minor), briefly redeems itself by rising to F♯ major before rushing off recklessly to C and then E major again prior to ending the verse on a chord of D major – an agonising half-tone from where it started on C♯.

And so it goes on whilst the melody struggles manfully to hang on during the rollercoaster twists and turns of the quirky harmony. It’s thrilling stuff, but it is not discordant in that the chords themselves have no internal dissonance, but it is unusual in the way that it dives in and out of unrelated keys yet manages to hold itself together without alienating the listener.

The overall effect of all this is to make the ambience of the song a little ‘unsafe’ and challenging for the listener who has to constantly readjust their assessment of where the melody is going as it is buffeted away from its safe harbour notes by the underlying harmony. This is what music should do, in my opinion, it should surprise and reassure in equal quantities and this song does just that.

But then Neneh Cherry has always been a pusher of envelopes. She famously appeared on TOTP to perform ‘Buffalo Stance’ whilst 8 months pregnant and in the video for 'Manchild' she holds a teeny tiny baby, presumably her own. Is this baby the youngest person ever to appear in a pop video? I think we should be told.

What we already know is that ‘Manchild’ could well be one of the most ‘discordant’ songs ever written and it’s all the better for it. Whether it is Rock ‘n’ Roll is another question altogether.

YouTube won't let me embed the video here so you'll have to go here to see it and just listen to how those chords lurch around like a ship in a storm.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Download Problems (Part 2)

Last post I told the tale of why half my downloaded songs have gone to the great gig in the sky. I also mentioned that I had been forced to buy a selected few again and I’ll bet you were wondering what they were? No? Tough, ‘cause I’m going to tell you anyway. I mean, what are blogs for? In no particular order:

‘It’s My Life’ – No Doubt

Despite liking the classic Talk Talk version the first time around, this is such a great interpretation that I couldn’t resist it. Gwen Stefani’s vocal is spot on and the arrangement, although not much different from the original, just brims with energy. I seem to remember that the video was good too, with Gwen hamming it up as a knife wielding murderess.

‘Light Flight’ – Pentangle

This was the theme to the late 60s TV drama, ‘Take Three Girls’ and is typical of the high profile folk music had around that period. The melody is quite extraordinarily complicated (in a similar vein to Joni Mitchell’s work at that time) and beautifully sung by the hugely under-rated Jacqui McShee. All this against some fine acoustic instrumental backing by Messrs Renbourn, Jansch, Cox and Thompson. Real musicians made music back then. Beards optional.

‘Sail on Sailor’ – The Beach Boys

I’m a Beach Boys fan, but not of their later efforts. This comes from their 1973 album ‘Holland’ and is one of Brian Wilson’s last great songs. Not his best but so simple yet so endearing. I wouldn’t give ‘Holland’ houseroom but can’t live without this one. Those effortless harmonies on the bridge get me every time.

‘The Fear’ – Lily Allen

Buying this song saves me from having to buy yet another unwanted album, which all told, is what downloading is all about. I do rate this song with its knowing lyric and soaring chorus but would hate to have to buy the entire (and almost inevitably disappointing) album just to get it. Technology has some benefits after all.

‘Wild Horses’ – The Sundays

The Sundays’ somewhat bleak guitar, bass & drums style suits this Jagger/Richards song perfectly. Harriet Wheeler’s vocal is a little stained but somehow this only adds to the yearning quality. I still can’t separate it from its use in the emotionally charged final moments of the ‘The Prom’ (BtVS Ep20, Season 3)…sniff.

‘Everything I Wanted’ – The Bangles

In a move not seen since the 1960s, this single release was not included on a Bangles album, but only collected on their ‘Greatest Hits’ release – hence this purchase. Another adrenaline fuelled 4 minutes punctuated by a stunning a Capella middle section. Love them.

So that’s it. These are the thoughts that led to my paying another 89 pence each for the downloads. Last of the big spenders, eh?

Friday, 24 September 2010

Download Problems

After 7 years of (almost) faultless service, my old computer has finally given up the ghost. In the last few weeks the mouse has formed the incredibly irritating habit of freezing on me and the hard drive has sounded like a chainsaw negotiating a slab of concrete, so I thought it time to treat myself to a new model. Ergo, I am now the proud owner of a shiny new black box. Never did like laptops.

I hate setting up new hardware; it is such a pain in the butt getting printers to work, re-installing software and transferring data. Having said that, Windows7 does a reasonably good job of setting up peripherals so all was going swimmingly until I moved all my music files over. It was only then that I found most of my downloaded songs either required re-licensing or just expired on the spot. Great! Luckily I had burned all the purchased albums to disc but I never bothered with the odd songs so they are now lost and I can’t be bothered to clutter up my brand new machine with a whole load of old applications from sites I don’t visit anymore (or just don’t exist now) just to re-licence a few songs (Interestingly those bought from Amazon and the dreaded iTunes work perfectly).

So having sat down with a list of about 30 songs I’d accumulated over the years in order to decide what to do, it became apparent that my download file has taken over from my old cassette tapes back at the dawn of time. In my taping days, I’d copy everything that sounded interesting and this inexorably became a sort of ‘buffer zone’ between the real world and my ‘proper collection’ (i.e. LPs). After a period of assimilation, I’d either buy the LP or just delete the tape. And so it came to pass that this is what has now happened to my downloads.

Many of the songs on the list have already been superseded by the album from whence they came and are thus redundant. And frankly, the majority of the rest I can live without so at the end of the day I decided to re-purchase about half a dozen of them (from Amazon) and just ignore the rest - this on the basis that if I’d liked them enough, I would’ve upgraded them to full album status by now.

Seems my weeding out process has just moved with the times.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Music Buddies

Throughout the history of rock ‘n’ pop there have been partnerships. Simon & Garfunkel, Hall & Oates, Peter & Gordon…and er, Zager & Evans being but a few of the performing artists that understood the benefit of being a duo. Songwriters, in particular, like to team up and so we have Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards and so on. The advantage of having a mate around is that ideas can be bounced backwards and forwards before setting them in stone and a degree of quality control can be introduced into the process via the good old fashioned argument.

This is all very well on the performing and creative side of the fence but what about us consumers? Are we not allowed the benefits of the collaborative partnership? I believe we are. When I was a young music fan back in the 1960s I had a ‘music buddy’ myself. His name was Terry and we went to the same primary school. In those days, being fiscally challenged, we did little more than discuss the most recent singles chart and agree or otherwise on what was any good. But as time went on and the 1960s turned inexorably into the 1970s, our partnership became more productive.

By this time we were both buying singles regularly and just beginning to venture into the world of albums. Some of my favourite bands of that period were chanced upon by the direct action of out musical buyers co-operative. The chain of events would often go something like this. One of us would buy a single we liked by an unknown band which would prompt the other to buy the album from which it came (usually on the cheap from St Albans market). Having then borrowed the LP and listened to it the other would become hooked and consequently buy subsequent albums by that band. My love of early Chicago and Curved Air were fostered by this method.

Also, providing your tastes did not overlap significantly, having a ‘music buddy’ effectively doubled not only your own knowledge but also your music collection by way of illegal taping. The trouble with this is that all my old tapes have disintegrated and over the years I’ve been forced to buy all the albums for myself so the record companies get you in the end. I have Terry to thank for introducing me to many cherished artists, Lesley Duncan of whom I posted recently, being one of them.

I look back now on those years of collaborative exploration as some of the happiest I spent. Music is a bit like life. If you can’t share it, it doesn’t really mean quite so much.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Raquel Welch Season

Jo Tejada
For a period in the very early 70s, Jo Raquel Tejada had pride of place on my bedroom wall, lording it over the Gallic Brigitte Bardot and the cool Norwegian Julie Ege. During that time I tried to see as many of her films as possible but cinemas in my neck of the woods very rarely showed them and it seemed only old black and white films were shown on TV at that time so the list was depressingly short.

‘Fathom’ came and went and , I think ‘100 Rifles’ (both ‘B’ movies to the main event) and I even sneaked in, years under age, to see the worst film of all time; ‘Myra Breckinridge’. After that, interest waned so it has been fun recently to see a whole raft of them, some for the very first time, after so many years in my very own Raquel Welch season at chez MusicObsessive.

60s Spy Spoof -'Fathom'
The advantage of following a so-so actress is that all her old films can be found in the bargain bin at next-to-nothing prices, so I’ve been able to pick up the sci-fi ‘Fantastic Voyage’ (1966), the spy-spoof ‘Fathom’ (1967), the western ‘Bandolero!’, the private eye detecting ‘Lady in Cement’ (both 1968), another western ‘100 Rifles’ (1969) and yet another western ‘Hannie Caulder’ (1971) for very little outlay at all.

The one thing that that becomes obvious having watched this lot is that no-one really knew what to do with her. At the time, she was married to film producer, Patrick Curtis, who was hell-bent on promoting his easy-on-the-eye wife, a young mother with two children in tow incidentally, on a journey that one cinema website describes as from ‘Cocktail Waitress to 60s Sexpot’ and effectively succeeding. The problem was that the films designed as vehicles to promote this image were run of the mill and didn’t really make the most of her middling talent.

Another Western Wench - 'Hannie Caulder'
Making use of her South American looks (courtesy of her Bolivian father), she was endlessly cast as the feisty Mexican wench in westerns or as the exotic neighbour in a bikini (natch) drawn into the unlikely circumstances of the main protagonists. Neither of which really showed us what she could do but only showed us her - which, presumably, was the plan. As an aside, one thing you notice, well one of the things, is she has a waist, which few young women seem to have these days. Is it not fashionable any more or has it gone the same way as the real hourglass?

It isn’t until ‘Kansas City Bomber’ (1972) and ‘The Three Musketeers’ (1973) and the post-Curtis era that we begin to see what she was good at; the ‘everywoman’ role and especially, comedy (she won a Golden Globe for ‘Musketeers’), a glimpse of which was evident as far back as ‘Fathom’ in 1967. But all this was too little too late and with no recognition and the inevitable aging process diminishing her sex symbol roles, she left the film set in 1977 to appear in TV, sell wigs and fitness videos like most other 80s celebs. In retrospect it is a shame that her looks worked against her by obscuring her real natural talents but I dare say it was ever thus.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Record Labels

Whatever happened to the record label? I don’t mean the companies themselves but the circular paper thing that used to sit in the middle of a vinyl disc. Labels were half the enjoyment of owning a record. They were colourful, artful, recognisable, informative and well, fascinating. In the 30 odd years that vinyl ruled, record labels were an instant source of information both explicit and implicit and with the advent of CD and now downloads this source has dried up completely.

International Note: All design descriptions that follow relate to records released in the UK and yes, I know they are often different in other countries.

In the days when I was an impoverished singles buyer, the combination of record label and sleeve was part of the fun of music collecting. My first 7-inch single was on the RCA label, a black and silver affair with a stunning pinky-red and white sleeve. All RCA releases were the same and thus were instantly recognisable. Then there was the deep blue and silver of Decca, the bright orange of CBS, the cool green of Columbia and the maroon of London, each a joy to behold. In the 70s I owned a complete set of Abba singles with their mesmerizingly vivid yellow Epic labels and sleeves – such a shame when Epic changed to orange with a spiral pattern.

Once I’d graduated to buying albums, a whole new set of labels beckoned and each label ‘stable’ held a clue to its contents. The vomit-yellow and green of the Harvest label told of underground progressive bands – the ones you’d want to be seen carrying. The shocking pink and white Island label promised a touch of the exotic whilst the yellowy-orange riverboat of Reprise said ‘classic’.

Labels eventually became artier like the Apple ‘skin and core’ graphics of the Beatles’ releases and the beautiful butterfly motif on the Elektra label or the Asylum ‘barred door’ on a white background but they always had a ‘house’ design that said ‘these are my acts and if you like one you might like the others’.

These days I have not a clue which label releases what as a) there are about 32 trillion different labels which come and go at will, b) they are all owned by about three companies anyway and c) they have no graphic representation by which to identify them. A file download won’t tell you the label identity and even CD inserts fight shy of this fact. Somehow the individuality and fun has gone out of this aspect of music collecting and will probably never return. It’s like the great labels of the past like Stax and Atlantic, Parlophone and HMV never existed. But just give me a black labelled Tamla Motown single in its shit-brown sleeve and I’ll be happy.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Free - Wishing Well

Bloody TV advertising! It’s done it again and you just can’t seem to escape from it. Sadly, I saw an advert for the new Free/Bad Company compilation CD recently and it immediately reminded me of ‘Wishing Well’, a song that was once a great favourite but about which I have not really thought about for many many years.

‘Wishing Well’, with its chiming descending riff takes me right back to a time when I could only afford to buy 45 rpm singles very infrequently and so was forced into the dark world of taping stuff off the radio onto my brand new WH Smith cassette recorder – at the time, the height of new tech. One of my early compilation tapes from 1972/3 contained the aforementioned Free track which, as time went on, shone like a beacon in amongst a whole load of other admittedly banal chart material. But that’s the trouble with tape – you can never easily edit out the banal at a later date.

In those days, I used to take my tiny cassette player with me on outdoor excursions so that I could have music wherever I went (in compliance with the ‘Ride-a-Cock-Horse’ convention) and I cringe to remember what a fool I must’ve looked wandering around Verulamium Park nursing a small grey box with chart hits of the day blasting from a tinny speaker. I wonder what the Romans would’ve made of it?

Despite many of my friends being devotees, I’ve not really been a Free or a Bad Company fan and other than the odd single here and there own nothing by either of them so I tentatively checked out the Free/Bad Company compilation. Unfortunately even now it doesn’t do much for me. As well as being bored with ‘All Right Now’, I find that the Bad Co contingent just reminds me of dreadful mid-70s college discos (the clumping ‘Can’t Get Enough of Your Love’, being a prime example) so I’ve chickened out and downloaded ‘Wishing Well’ for old times sake and it still sounds as good now as it did then.

Actually on further listening, there are one or two others that could qualify for my collection - ‘My Brother Jake’ comes a close second - but for the time being I’m going to stick with ‘Wishing Well’ as my Free representative. Sometimes you just have to trust your judgement and not let golden nostalgia cloud the issue.

Friday, 20 August 2010

How's Your Musical Health?

How are you feeling today? On top of the world, or a bit peaky? Me? Well, my back’s still a bit stiff after surgery a few years back and I seem to have developed a stabbing pain through my left shoulder and…oh, yes, music.

Rather than not taking my vitamins, engaging in vigorous exercise or taking particular note of what my doctor tells me, it seems that the real problem is that I have not been listening to enough music. This is according to Dr Maoshing Ni (thanks to Alan for the link) who claims that music has therapeutic effects which affect longevity. Judging by the comments in his blog on the subject, Dr Mao would probably prescribe me a course of early Kinks singles for my back and perhaps an album or two of Britpop compilations for the shoulder. Actually probably not, as his main recommendation is for large doses of classical music as the real secret to a long life and produces as exhibit A the fact that all orchestral conductors live to a grand old age despite having to get to grips with the dissonance and shifting time signatures of the likes of Stravinsky and Shostakovich.

I have to say that I have a certain amount of sympathy with his view, having been a music listener for some considerable time. There is no doubt that much mental and spiritual well-being can be derived from music, unless you count ‘Tie A Yellow Ribbon’ and the world would undoubtedly be a poorer place without it. But as to whether it can cure all ills and lead to a longer life, well, let’s say that is open to debate.

The difficulty with all this is that there appears to be a difference in effect between those that create and those that consume music. As I have pointed out on numerous occasions in this blog, those who enter the world of music to produce art of the highest calibre often have a shortened lifespan themselves so it seems a little unfair that those that listen to the product of their creativity benefit from enhanced longevity. I’m not sure that the likes of Hendrix, Morrison, Lennon and all the others who died young would be overly enamoured of the fact that the rest of us are living it up for decade after decade on the back of their musical therapy but then who said life was fair?

Friday, 13 August 2010

Strange Days at Café Chouette

After a period of rather scary unemployment, I am now working on a contract basis for a property company in the west end of London which now means that I can now eat without worrying about what I need to sell first. Across the road from my office in what has become over the years, the Lebanese quarter of London, sits a small café run by a delightful posse of girls who supply my mid-morning Latte. I sheltered there whilst waiting for my interview for the job I now have so it has become a bit of a sanctuary.

Usually, I enter at around 10.30 to be greeted with a smile and a rush of piped music, sometimes western pop, other times of ethnic origin and all this seems to fit the ambience perfectly. But last time I tripped up the steps I was met by ‘Love me Two Times’ by the Doors from their second album, ‘Strange Days’ and somehow, it felt very incongruous. I’m not sure why this should be so but Jim and the Boys were stood out like the proverbial sore digit.

Actually, I like ‘Strange days’ a lot despite the fact that it sold poorly on release in 1967. It has all the usual hallmarks of a classic second album – it came too soon after their debut and comprised mainly of material left over from the sessions for the first album. Despite all this and the fact that everybody else’s second album turned out to a bit of a re-heated meal as a consequence, I prefer it to the more celebrated ‘The Doors’. The material has a more psychedelic feel and its 12 minute centre piece ‘When the Music’s Over’ is better realised than the similarly lengthy ‘The End’ from their debut. All in all, a good listen and an album I would put in my top three Doors’ albums along with ‘Morrison Hotel’ and ‘LA Woman’.

So getting back to my café, why did The Doors sound so out of place? Perhaps it was my own preconceptions of what should fit? Certainly, the staff had no problems and the customers weren’t making an undignified dash for the door, which just goes to show how universal music can be and how it can cut across cultural boundaries if given the chance. Or perhaps the pastries are too good to leave?

I think I may be guilty of allowing myself to be brainwashed by the media who insist on compartmentalising music to the extent that you feel some square pegs should not be played in round holes. I should return to my mantra: there are only two types of music, good and bad.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Dan Dare

In the mid sixties, when I was a young lad of some eight summers, I was struck down with Rheumatic Fever, a disease that attacks the heart valves, and was carted off to the children’s ward of St Albans hospital for 3 months. During my stay, my mother was obliged to traipse across town nearly every afternoon to see me. Of course, I was always glad to see her but it was her Thursday visit that I really looked forward to as it was on Thursday that she arrived brandishing my weekly comic, ‘The Eagle’.

And ‘The Eagle’ meant only one thing: Dan Dare. There are two abiding memories of those hospital days; Dan Dare and the ominous rattle of the blood-testing trolley. But blood aside, I’d been introduced to the delights of Frank Hampson’s iconic pilot by a school friend who had been following his adventures for some years and I’d badgered my parents to buy me ‘The Eagle’ on regular order – my first comic. Unfortunately I entered the fray too late to witness Hampson’s own celebrated artwork as he had left the strip in 1960 having completed a 10 year run on the characters he had created in 1950 but with artists Frank Bellamy and then Keith Watson doing a sterling job recreating the futuristic world of Dare and Digby, I was hooked.

In retrospect, the original Dan Dare stories come across now as a sort of WWII RAF squadron in space complete with pipe and banter, but they are still hugely imaginative and combine story telling with eye-boggling artwork in a way only comics can manage. It is why I still enjoy comics to this day, although in the face of the virtual demise of the British comic industry, I have now shifted my allegiance to the American comic-book.

But going back to Dan, I remember a story called ‘The Mushroom’ in which the green dome-headed Mekon attempts to invade earth via a mushroom structure built on the earth’s surface. It is the story that I read and re-read during those long hours in hospital and as the memory fades, I would love to see it again in print.

Luckily, Titan Books are reprinting the collected Dan Dare stories in hardback at the rate of about 40 weeks worth of comics per issue and two hardback releases a year. So far they have published 10 volumes with a further two promised for 2010 which takes Dan up to about the end of 1959. I have calculated that it will take them about another three to four years before ‘The Mushroom’ appears, assuming Titan have not stopped publishing. I can wait. After 45 years, a few more won’t make much difference.

But if they could see their way clear to speeding up the process, I wouldn’t object.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Marina and the Diamonds

There is clearly something in the water that trickles down those Welsh valleys that produces more singers than I’ve had hot dinners. Dame Shirley Bassey and Thomas the Jones became international stars eons ago and even now the well, to stretch an analogy, has not dried up. Since then we have marvelled at ‘Voice of an Angel’ Charlotte Church, had fragile chanteuse Duffy (retired?) grace us with her presence and now we have Marina Diamandis.

Born to a Greek father and Welsh mother in Abergavenny in the decade of big hair and shoulder pads, she is the latest in a line of Welsh musicians to entertain us with those Celtic vowels. Under the stage name of Marina and the Diamonds, she and her band played an entrancing set on the John Peel Stage at Glastonbury this year and as a consequence, I have been listening to her debut album, ‘The Family Jewels’.

From what I gather, the ‘The Diamonds’ bit of her name is not her backing band but represents her fans, so says she, presumably in the same manner as Lady Gaga’s ‘Little Monsters’. Accordingly, the musicians she plays with form a somewhat fluid community but certainly the guys who played at Glasto were an exceptionally tight little keyboard-led ensemble who underpinned her rather quirky songs with real panache. I’d keep hold of them, if I were you, Marina.

Those of you who read these missives will, no doubt, be pleased to see the return of the Music Obsessive Influences Pie-Chart from which you will gather that Marina’s vocal style is towards the idiosyncratic end of the spectrum being possessed of a pleasingly rich contralto (or possibly mezzo-soprano, what do I know?) with an indefinable touch of the Greek about it which can soar into the heights and back quite effortlessly.

The songs on the album are probably best described as hook-laden pop tunes with overtones of Sparks and Lene Lovitch. In fact, with all this quirkiness going on it is all too easy to believe that it is all a front to catch the media eye and this may be so especially as her songs are designed to give a feelgood vibe. Nevertheless, there is a darker side lurking in the lyrics which gives a glimpse into a potential depth of talent that is not so apparent at first hearing. Certainly, I found the studio versions of the songs slightly less immediate than the live versions I had witnessed on stage and that bodes well. She is clearly an artist that thrives in a live environment where the performance and relationship with the audience allows her to add nuances to the content and add value to the experience.

I shall be intrigued to see where her career takes her. Take a look at her Glastonbury set-closer, ‘Guilty’, a song that seems innocuous enough, but then goes on growing in the mind until you are completely hooked and see what you think. Now, where did I put that bottled Welsh spring water?

Friday, 23 July 2010

Allison Crowe - Spiral

As I have already reported, Allison Crowe’s new album, ‘Spiral’ plonked through my letterbox all the way from Canada a while back. I’ve had a week or two to assimilate it so it’s time to post a few comments.

My first impression on opening the package was of the unusual nature of the digipak that contains the CD. It is one of the best I’ve ever seen. The design of the pak, which opens out to reveal the disc, is beautifully conceived and contains a montage of part embossed and wonderfully colourful images around the main disc holder. Unusually, and so much better is the way that the user does not need to drag the disc out of a tight cardboard sleeve, thus scratching it forever, but can merely remove it from a slotted base after all the flaps have been folded back.

So, full marks for packaging but what about the content? Allison is known for the largely piano based output of her previous albums like the acoustic ‘Little Light’ released in 1998, but this time she has gathered her small but select touring band around her and the effect is to fill out her sound in quite a delicate way.

As has become standard for Allison’s albums there is a majority of original material with one or two covers of others’ songs. In this instance, she has covered Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel No 2’ and Annie Lennox’s ‘Why’ and for me these are the highlights. It takes a certain type of artist to take another’s song and have the insight to reinterpret it in a way that makes you see another side to the song. There has been a good amount of discussion about the subject of covers in this blog in recent months and commentators have contributed a whole list of cover versions from a variety of artists where they feel that this object has been achieved. Certainly it is a subject that seems to provoke a lot of debate amongst musicians and listeners alike. In the case of Allison Crowe I do not need to make a case as her record of covering songs by Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and other big hitters in the song writing fraternity proves.

This album shows yet again what a sensitive interpreter she is. ‘Why’ in particular is a tour de force performance giving the song a spine tingling sheen. And this is where I find myself wondering what direction her career might take. Left to me, I’d say that in view of her special talent, she should reorganise the content of her albums and increase the number of covers. This sounds like her own material is sub-standard, but that is not true, it is just that she may find playing to her obvious strengths may benefit her in the longer term, but that’s just my opinion.

In any event, this is another fine album and comes with an unconditional recommendation.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Glastonbury Festival 2010 - Part 2

Viewing Glastonbury on the TV is a bit like looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. Despite the hours of footage broadcast by the BBC with all its digital channels you really only get to see someone else’s edited highlights. Nevertheless, a TV viewer probably still gets to see more acts than a person actually on site, so I suppose it’s not for me to complain.

As I opined in part 1, I felt a little underwhelmed this year. The headline bands were OK but I never did understand the attraction of Gorillaz and as a stand in for U2 (and I’m not a fan of U2 at all), they were mildly disappointing. Muse was the best of the bunch bringing a sense of bravado to Saturday night and then there was Stevie Wonder. To me, Wonder falls into the same category as Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones in that their best work was done in the late 60s and early 70s and they’ve spent the last 40-odd years trying hard not to tarnish that work and largely failing. As the years have passed, I’ve tried to watch as many of the older generation of musicians as possible because you always get the feeling that it might be your last chance and this year I tried to like Stevie Wonder. Admittedly, his set was an endless and impressive list of hit songs but it wasn’t until he did ‘For Once in my Life’ that I really connected with him. There is just something compelling about his early Motown singles that still touch me where much of his later output doesn’t. The musical arrangement was pure Motown and the spirit of the Funk Brothers hovered over the performance like an old long lost friend. A gem of a moment in a workmanlike set.

So who were my personal favourites? This year I have tried to pick three acts that I don’t really know much about. So no accolades for Florence and the Machine, Rodrigo Y Gabriela or Scissor Sisters (despite Kylie turning up for a brief few minutes) – all of whom were excellent, but have been applauded in past years.

Instead, in third place comes Shakira who, according to rumour, is the best selling female singer in the world after…Susan Boyle. Dressed in surprisingly demure attire, she wiggled her way through a largely enjoyable set which not only pleased her audience but seemed to fill her to overflowing with the spirit of Glastonbury. For such a major star to appear so humbled and grateful was quite heart-warming. Sometimes this world can be a wonderful place; you just need to know where to look.

In second place is a band that I know next to nothing about and they are Editors. I found singer Tom Smith, who appends a memorably cavernous voice to the tortured style of a Morrissey/Ian Curtis hybrid, a fascinating front man. Whilst being a standard Indie band at their core they embellish the template with sparkling synthesisers and a variety of song styles which move them into an area that is more gothic and less jangly. An interesting set and a band I may well research a bit further.

My winner this year is another band of which I know next to nothing and they are Faithless which has quite surprised me. As a rule, I am not a fan of Rap finding it a bit ‘lazy’ technically but the sheer musicality of their performance won me over. The combination of dance grooves and pop/rock dynamics was riveting. Whether I follow this up, I don’t know but for an hour or so on a sunny Sunday afternoon it was perfect.

So that’s it for another year. Special mentions must also go to Ellie Goulding, Pet Shop Boys, Marina and the Diamonds and Corinne Bailey Rae who all entertained but just missed out on the prizes. Will next year be another classic?  Only Star Trek knows.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Glastonbury Festival 2010 - Part 1

Isn’t it the Star Trek movies that people always assert are better if they are even numbered, starting with Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and pants if odd numbered? I only ask because I’m beginning to think that the Glastonbury Festivals are following a similar alternating path. The 2007 shindig was great, the 2008 event disappointing and last year’s 2009 festival probably one of my all time favourites.

So you can see where I’m going with this. Despite the fact that the weather was completely alien to your average Glastonbury goer – sun and clear blue skies the whole three days – this year’s Glastonbury just didn’t really do it for me. None of the headliners, which included Gorillaz, Muse and Stevie Wonder, held me spellbound despite their obvious credentials and a few high spots and compared to last year, I felt the line-ups generally were a bit lacking.

Not that there was anything wrong with the composition of the artists’ roster. As usual, the Eavis family did a great job in mixing up genres and generations so that we had the likes of Willie Nelson and Ray Davies rubbing shoulders with Groove Armada, Snoop Dog and Dizzee Rascal, but frankly it was always going to be difficult trying to match last year’s headlining trio of Neil Young, Blur and The Boss, especially after U2 had to pull out.

Nevertheless, there is one aspect that remains a constant and it is the reason why I tune in year after year. It is that the Glastonbury Festival seems to have a direct link to its hippy roots of the late 60s and early 70s and the abiding spirit of peace love and good-natured openness never fails to infiltrate performers and public alike. Every act, irrespective of their age, style or, let’s be honest, ability, plays to a huge and appreciative audience and everybody appears to have a good time. The cynic may say that the audience should, after all they’re paying for it, but what about the artists? There is more to this than meets the eye.

Even hardened big name performers who are no stranger to playing in front of gargantuan crowds seem to succumb to the Glastonbury spirit and come over all emotional. I saw it in Bruce Springsteen’s eyes last year and it was Shakira’s turn this year. Somehow, the atmosphere seems to take them by surprise and it is this powerful emotional feeling that still pervades, even in these days of rampant commercialism, that makes the Glastonbury Festival the best in the world. In a nutshell, it is always Glastonbury itself that is the star of the show and this acts as a great leveller between artist and audience.

But enough of this new age musing, what you are all waiting for is this year’s Music Obsessive Top Three Acts but I have to say that I am struggling here and may plead for additional time in front of the BBC iPlayer before I make my decision. But never fear - it will appear here soon.

Friday, 2 July 2010

England Lose World Cup...Again

So England exits yet another World Cup at the hands of the Germans and on the back of the poorest showing since 1958. I can’t see us winning a major tournament ever again. But it wasn’t always like this.

When I was at junior school a lifetime ago, I was already a convert to our national sport, football, or soccer as the Yanks insist on calling it (correctly, I might add) and played it every spare minute of every day, but nothing had prepared me for the sort of playground politics that come with being a fan.

‘So what team do you support then?’ was the question that threw me, as giving the wrong answer could be fatal and the truth was, I didn’t support anyone. Luckily, the following Saturday saw the staging of the 1963 FA Cup Final when Manchester United stuffed Leicester City 3-1. I’d actually heard of Man U and as they were clearly winners, they would do for me. Thus it came to pass that a home counties boy who’d never travelled north past Luton let alone to the far north-west of the country became a Man U supporter for no other reason that they were there and I’ve followed them ever since.

So by 1966 when I would sit goggle eyed in front of our flickering black & white TV watching the World Cup games, it was United’s Bobby Charlton and Nobby Styles that I cheered on (in lieu of my true hero at United, Dennis Law, but he was Scottish). One of my fondest memories is Bobby’s thunderbolt goal against Mexico in the Group stage, a goal that still looks amazing today. Just have a look at that mazy run and catapult shot that bulges the net before the goalkeeper has time to reach it.

There was much comment at the time about Alf Ramsey’s assertion that Martin Peters was a player ten years ahead of his time. Actually if he had truly been ten years ahead of his time, he would’ve sported long greasy hair and wide lapels, but we’ll let that pass. In truth, Alf had picked the wrong man. Hindsight shows that it was Nobby Styles that was genuinely ahead of his time by his relentless harassing of the opposition and his willingness to stick the boot in. Watching those games from the 1960s, it is obvious that players had slightly more time and space to play. These days, the opposition close you down relentlessly, but not so then – except for Nobby who gained a reputation for doing just that with terrier-like tenacity.

Alf’s theory about Peters was that he had the ability to ‘ghost’ into shooting positions so late that he was never picked up – a trait that few possessed. But actually Geoff Hurst could do that as well, as his goal against Argentina in the bad-tempered quarter-final shows. This is actually my goal of the ’66 tournament and a memory that will never fade. It made me gasp at the time and still looks good today. The skill with which, Hurst glides in at the near post, unmarked, and just lets the ball skim over his head with enough purchase to guide it into the far corner of the goal is just awe-inspiring. Such delicacy in what was an ugly and spiteful game.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Lesley Duncan (slight return)

‘Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be’, so say a host of waggish graffiti artists and they could be right as nostalgia only really works in certain circumstances. Music has long been known to be the conduit by which we can revisit the past and relive past glories (or not). Songs that we remember from specific events can sometimes trigger memories buried for decades but the effect isn’t very consistent.

My theory has always been that in order for this effect to work with any certainty, the song in question must be linked directly to a specific point in time and then forgotten until rediscovered long after the event. This must be so otherwise all my favourite songs, and there are many, would all transport me back to their point of origin – but they don’t. And they don’t because they are not fixed to a specific point in time but many points in time, that is, all the times I’ve played them since. The only real memory joggers tend to be those songs that either I don’t own or don’t play much.

Which is why I’ve been wallowing in a warm pool of nostalgia over Lesley Duncan’s ‘Sing Children Sing’. You will recall that I posted about her a few days after her death in April this year and subsequently dug out my tatty copy of her debut album which, in all honesty, I have not played since about 1973. But that’s the point. Because it has not been a regular on ye olde turntable, it is still firmly fixed to the person I was and the circumstances that applied nearly 40 years ago.

In 1971, my music collection only numbered about 6 LPs so this was a time when I was starting out in the music buying business and every purchase held huge meaning. It reminds me of a time when the somewhat earnest young me still lived at home and spent too much time in my room listening to records and trying to learn the guitar. Playing this album now has a strange effect on me as it tries its best to reconfigure my brain into the way it was during that time with all the thoughts, images and sounds that are associated with it. For some reason it is summer and the sound of my Dad mowing the lawn is infiltrating my window. I can see the sun drenched street from my window and wonder why my own room is so cold.

The album itself is very sparsely arranged with just guitar or piano on most tracks and a basic band on others in a way that music is not recorded today. Its simple nature harks back to simpler times but has a sort of honest truth about it that today’s sophisticated recording techniques don’t really convey. It is both a little sad and very uplifting at the same time and to me that is what nostalgia is all about.