Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas and the Rite of Disco

There comes a time in most people’s lives when life catches up with them and they are willingly or otherwise, exposed to the social event that is the disco and more specifically, the Christmas Disco.  Generally this occurs around the teenage years and beyond where a large number of participants are squeezed into a very small space for the purpose of dancing or shouting at each other over the din.  Schools, higher education establishments and nightclubs are all responsible for this rite of passage and whether you are the life-and-soul or wallflower, the experience does tend to alter your perception of humanity, but for better or worse?

But it is not the outcome that interests me here, but the din.  Dependent on your age, and I shan’t ask, there are always a few tunes that seem to haunt you through the years – those hits that were so prevalent at discos that the very thought of them now makes you shudder with long suppressed memories.  Of course there is always ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ but this doesn’t count as it has been a juvenile disco staple for so long that nobody bothers about it anymore.

No, it is the ones like the Eagles’ ‘Lyin’ Eyes’ that are one of my bêtes noirs.  It was EVERYWHERE during my non-dancing years and didn’t I just hate it.  It put me off The Eagles for several decades.  Another season ticket holder was Steve Harley’s ‘Make Me Smile’ which even today brings back that slight eye twitch that I’d thought I’d finally got rid of.  What is it about these tunes – and I’m sure you can supply your own list - that provokes such a reaction, years after the event?  Is it the thought of your younger, gaucher and generally less assured self trying to grapple with life after one too many vodkas or is it something deeper?

For me it was certainly the above but also it was because I loved music and somehow the environment of the disco always seemed to degrade it and make it nothing more than background noise or worse, the soundtrack to someone else’s mating ritual.  Nothing will erase the memory of the isolation of the partner-less last dance and for this, 10cc has much to answer for.  I realise that this is a very esoteric stance to take as all through history, music has been specifically composed for the express purpose of dancing (Minuet anyone?) and to complain about it now is a bit churlish but nevertheless that is still how I feel about it.

Which is why you will always find me at a concert rather than a nightclub.  It became clear to me very early on that discos are for those who enjoy dancing and who need not be music lovers at all.  In fact, they were frauds.  ‘Make me Smile’ indeed.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Friday, 9 December 2011

The End of Abba

Like most people, I do like the odd Abba song.  ‘SOS’ was the one that did it for me and I was hooked: my collection of 70s vinyl singles is the proof.  You see, even at the time, I judged that Abba were really a singles band and never bought an LP of theirs except for the singles compilation double LP ‘The First Ten Years’, released when they had thrown in the towel (probably of Ikea design).  And I think I was right.  Madness was another such band.  Great singles band but name me a killer Madness album? (On second thoughts, don’t bother – it’s probably ‘Rise and Fall’)

But unlike most people - and yet again I find myself a little off kilter with the great general public – I have two distinct Abba quirks.  First, I can’t stand ‘Dancing Queen’, by general consensus most people’s favourite.  Never have, never will.  It would not be on any Abba ‘Best Of’ that had me as a compiler and I would be more than glad if I never heard it again.  The fact that my most hated person on the planet, Bono, attempted a version of it has nothing to do with it.  When that dreadful leaden intro starts up my heart sinks, after all there are so many other decent tunes to pick, so why that one?

Second, despite the undoubted fact that they served up some corking stuff from ‘Waterloo’ onwards (although actually ‘Waterloo’ is also on my Very Iffy list…along with ‘Ring Ring’ but let’s not dwell on this), my real preference is for the material they were writing just at the very end, around the time of ‘The Visitors’.  ‘One of Us’, ‘Head Over Heels’, ‘Under Attack’ and the sublime ‘Day Before You Came’ are the songs that really get to me.  Magnificent slabs of Scandinavian melancholy without the over-extrovert backing tracks.  It’s obvious that I’m swimming against the tide here as these were the singles that sold in fewer and fewer quantities as the public deserted them and must have played a big part in the decision to pack it in.

Which is a shame.  There is something about their song writing at this point that was just coming to the boil.  Bjorn’s lyrics were darker and more literate as he mastered the obtuse English language and Benny’s music, whilst still veering towards the whimsical, had an edge to it.  The bleak Swedish railway station in the film-noir video for ‘Day Before You Came’ just about sums up where they were at that point but it is a fascinating place, artistically.  The final single, ‘Under Attack’ is one of their finest yet it sold very poorly (peaked at 26!) and suddenly they were gone.  But what a note to end on!

Friday, 25 November 2011

George Gently and The Cream

I’ve mentioned this before but I’ve found watching the last two episodes of TV cop drama ‘Inspector George Gently’ a profoundly unsettling experience.  Now set in 1966, at which time I was a lad of 10 summers, it is a bit like watching your own childhood pass before your eyes.  Whilst the stories and acting are well up to the usual BBC standards for this type of drama, it is the period detail that really gets to me.

Like the cars.  A blue Ford Corsair similar to the one used in the series, used to sit on a neighbouring drive during those long ago childhood years and most of the other makes and models pressed into ‘Gently’ service would drive up and down our road regularly.  Then there are the boxes of Subbuteo left carelessly in a child’s room and the Airfix planes and…ooh, all sorts of other bits and pieces that are immediately recognisable.  It’s all a bit spooky.

And, of course, there is the music.  1960s music is so recognisable.  It has an aura all to itself and it proclaims a time when the UK music business was booming.  The programme is littered with fragments of English beat boom and American soul classics that threaten to divert your attention from the plot.  There was a moment towards the end of the second episode, ‘China’ where it did just that.  In the background was a strange wailing sound appended to a mildly oriental sounding backing and for an instant I couldn’t place it - but then a burst of fuzzy Clapton electric guitar put me right.  It was ‘We’re Going Wrong’ from the amusingly titled Cream LP, ‘Disraeli Gears’ from late 1967.  OK, so it was a little out of the correct period but somehow its haunting quality complemented the scene perfectly.

It made me think a bit about Cream, who as the first supergroup, bestrode the earth in the mid to late sixties like the most evolved dinosaur of their time and reconsider their place in the scheme of things.  Whilst their music was undoubtedly rooted in the Blues, there was a strange experimental side to them.  As a band very much of their time, they took Indian, African and oriental influences and fused them with the western attributes of harmonic progression and odd melodies.

‘We’re Going Wrong’ is a prime example of this side of their nature – a rather disconcerting keening vocal from Jack Bruce swoops over an atmospheric backing from Messrs Baker and Clapton.  In fact, you might almost say that Cream are the band most representative of the second half of the sixties, more so that the Beatles who tended to have a more scatter gun approach to musical styles.  A fusion of the past (Blues) and the future (Prog) was at the core of Baker’s primal, mystical percussion, Clapton’s wah-wah drenched rhythm playing and Bruce’s melodic bass and experimental writing.

Somehow, when I listen to them now, and especially if it is the 1968  ‘Wheels of Fire’ album, the music just screams ‘1960s!’ and you cannot help but be transported to that era.  As period pieces go, they were the Cream.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds

So finally the Brothers Grimm have gone head to head.  Ever since Noel flounced out of Oasis we have been waiting for this moment.  Liam got his shot in first with Beady Eye’s ‘Different Gear, Still Speeding’ released earlier this year and now we have brother Noel’s offering, ‘Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’.  So now we have both to compare and contrast, how do they fair?

First up, let me say how respectful Liam has been in gathering together the remnants of Oasis and rising from the ashes in a different guise, that of Beady Eye.  It would have been all too easy to carry on using the Oasis brand with all the global goodwill that entailed.  Lesser persons would have done just that but a clean break, at least in name, has opened a new chapter and avoided a whole heap of prolonged legal grief.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out to plan as DGSS is dangerously close to being just what they were trying to avoid, the reheated leftovers of a once-great band (at least for a couple of albums, anyway).

I’m afraid that despite one or two decent moments, I can’t really get on with DGSS and find it rather insipid.  Overall, it all sounds a bit tired and a tad dated.  Whilst the songs are entering new territory, the sound of the band is, well, a bit Oasis-like and not being a huge fan, I’ve had enough of them now.  I need something different.  Perhaps Liam would’ve been better off gathering some fresh talent around him?

Which, of course, is what Noel has done.  OK, so most of them are old friends, but at least they are not Oasis.  Noel has the opposite problem in that although his band doesn’t sound too much like Oasis, his songs still do.  I suppose he can’t really help that but then when Paul Weller left The Jam, his next project, the Style Council sounded nothing like his old band, so it can be done.

Nevertheless, NGHFB does have a bit more verve about it.  There are the classic Gallagher trademarks – the ‘on the one’ up-tempo numbers and the epic ballads but there is a grandeur about it that sets it aside from Liam’s more down to earth rock ‘n’ roll.  It’s as if he was straining to create something worthy to get back at his irksome brother.  In a way, this album reminds me of The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Wilder’.  It too was Julian Cope’s attempt to broaden his horizon with brass and string arrangements yet still retaining the epic nature of his own song writing.  Cope also was a big believer in the ‘on the one’ backbeat (exhibit A ‘World shut Your Mouth’, m’lud).

Although this probably isn’t it, I feel it in my bones that Noel has one great solo album in him.  There is a sense of development in his song writing that implies different things to come.  Let’s hope he can break a few of his own self-imposed barriers and pull it together in the not too distant future.

In conclusion, neither DGSS nor NGHFB is a classic but I’m hovering in the Noel camp for the time being.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Imelda May and the Curse of Rockabilly

For someone who has spent a lifetime in the grip of rock ‘n’ pop, you’d think that I would know something about its origins, wouldn’t you?  But shamefully the answer is more a ‘sort of’ than a ‘yes’.  I suppose the problem has been that my assimilation of knowledge has been via first hand experience rather than vicarious study and that I have basically winged it by living through its twists and turns.

So when it comes to a subject such as Rockabilly, I still find it hard to know whether it is angel or devil.  What I do know is that it is the earliest form of rock ‘n’ roll, emerging in the early 1950s from a primeval stew of Blues and Hillbilly (Country) and carried into the public ear by the likes of Carl Perkins and Elvis but as a style I’ve never really had much truck with it.

I can almost pin down exactly when it swung into the ‘devil’ category and that was in the early 1980s when the Rockabilly Revival stormed the charts in the form of The Stray Cats and numerous imitators and evolved into the dreaded Shakin’ Stevens.  Need I say more?  I hated both of them with a vengeance and vowed that Rockabilly or anything even vaguely resembling it would be banished from my collection for all eternity.

However, the door was edged open again in 1992 when Morrissey’s ‘Your Arsenal’ was released.  Subsequent to The Smiths’ breakup, Morrissey had offered up 2 solo efforts in ‘Viva Hate’ and ‘Kill Uncle’ but the quality was on the wane and the critics were circling.  Luckily for him, ex-Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson took on production duties for ‘Your Arsenal’ and pushed Morrissey’s style into Glam and *gulp*…Rockabilly.  And blow me down, it worked and it worked well.  Somehow, Morrissey’s ultra-modern muse was enhanced by the muscle of the oldest form of rock known to man and the Devil-Angel-ometer began to waver alarmingly.

Fastforward to 2008 and Dublin born Imelda May and her suitably be-quiffed band releases ‘Love Tattoo’ followed in 2010 by ‘Mayhem’ and the meter is registering ‘Angel’ for the first time.  There is something about her take on the form that is irresistible, especially her version of the Northern soul classic, ‘Tainted Love’.  So am I a convert?  Well…up to a point.  Whilst I like much of what Imelda does, there is a limit and I still find myself cherry-picking tracks from her albums.  It goes without saying that I’d still barricade the door if Shaky or The Stray Cats came a-calling.  Everything in moderation, I say.

Friday, 14 October 2011


I have made an amazing discovery.  It is something that pertains to a song that I have known since its release in 1967 yet has only just revealed itself to me via the almost inevitable service of YouTube.  When I tell you what it is, you’re probably going to say, ‘Oh, that old thing…didn’t you know?’ but then I’m always the last to pick up on most things.

Anyway, the year of release - 1967 - will give you a clue as to what sort of song it is.  The Summer of Love was the height of Psychedelia and anyone who was anyone was experimenting with studio weirdness following The Beatles’ lead.  Most of the experimenters were taken from the growing ‘albums-only’ underground which would reveal itself as progressive rock in the 1968/69 period so it was a bit of a shock to find that the voice of Young America, Tamla Motown, a label carefully geared towards the commercial singles market, was also a willing participant.  There were several ‘experimental’ singles released by Motown during this period, mainly by the more progressive elements such as The Temptations, but the one I am referring to here is ‘Reflections’ by Diana Ross and the Supremes.

Written and produced, as always, by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, ‘Reflections’ is one of my favourite Supremes hits.  It has all the usual hallmarks of a great H-D-H song with Ross’s breathy vocal carrying a compelling melody over a classic Funk Brothers backing track (with, unless I am mistaken, a signature slithery bass line from James Jameson).  But it is the psychedelic extras that are most interesting – the signal oscillators over the intro and verses and the strangely reverberated tambourine being just two devices on show.

And now we get to it, the bit that has surprised me over 40 years later and it is this: the main rhythm is carried by, of all things, an accordion!  I mean, who knew?  I didn’t expect to find an accordion in pop music at all let alone in a Motown single.  But then the Summer of Love opened the door to all sorts of exotic instruments, many from India, so I suppose it was inevitable that that most Victorian of instruments would turn up eventually.  Just not in Detroit.

Well damn me, if the video I based this post on hasn't been blocked over at YouTube.  You'll just have to listen to Reflections and try to pick out that accordian for yourself!

Friday, 30 September 2011

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

For my at-home film fest this year, I watched the entire second season (22 episodes) of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.  This was originally broadcast on Satellite TV here in the UK a few years back so as the only person on this isle that does not have a Satellite Dish disfiguring their house, it passed me by.  Nevertheless, watching it years later on DVD has its benefits, one of which goes, ‘OK - I’ll watch just ONE more episode…’

…Six episodes later I rise bleary-eyed from the sofa to get a coffee fix.  Yes, it is that addictive.  The plot has more twists than the Hampton Court Maze and the acting is superb – especially from Summer Glau as Cameron the Terminator whose unnervingly spooky not-quite-human mannerisms are very unsettling.  All in all, it is cracking stuff, which means of course that those haters of quality TV, the Fox Corporation, immediately cancelled it.

It has become abundantly clear that the business model that is Television is now completely broken.  Programming exists merely to ensure that as many viewers as possible are available to watch adverts.  Advertising is now the real reason why television exists, with the programmes between them being a subservient lure.  Quality programmes that attract an enthusiastic core following are not, by their very nature, a strong enough enticement to casual ‘viewers’ (i.e. those that merely have the set on while doing something else) to satisfy the real paymasters; the advertisers.

Science fiction and fantasy programmes seem to suffer particularly badly from the core viewer syndrome.  Look at the number given the chop (programmes, not viewers) prematurely, Buffy (although reprieved after season 5), Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Tru Calling, and now The Sarah Connor Chronicles.  The real reason these projects were canned was because their viewers don’t watch adverts like good little consumers.  We actually prefer good drama.  Shame on us.

Which brings me to another subject: Torchwood.  What the hell has happened to it?  The current series, ‘Miracle Day’ sucks.  After three episodes of a 10 episode run, I’m bored out of my brain.  Seems the mix of UK and US locations/writing/actors just doesn’t work.  The best of US produced Sci-Fi/Fantasy (see all those in the canned list above) are fabulous pieces of TV.  Ditto, the UK series, Dr Who being the prime example, which are also magnificent.  But try and make a hybrid and what do you get?  Torchwood.  I may not stay the course.  I’m going to cancel it before someone else does for the first time ever.  Yay me!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Marina and the Diamonds - Fear and Loathing

Some time back in the mists of blogdom I raved about Greek Welshwoman, Marina and the Diamonds.  Time has passed since her last release, ‘The Family Jewels’ and she has been a bit quiet of late.  Well, she’s back and if the phrase, ‘A game of two halves’ was invented for anything, it was made to apply to her new material – an album track labelled ‘Part 1: Fear and Loathing’ and a single release, ‘Part 2: Radioactive’.  Videos for both have just been launched on her YouTube site.

It appears that they are supposed to be linked but I’m buggered if I can see what the connection is.  ‘Part 1: Fear and Loathing’ is by far the better of the two.  It is a smouldering ballad wallowing in a massively atmospheric backdrop, the type of which she seems more than adept at writing.  This sort of tuneful yet slightly dark song suits her unique vocal delivery down to the ground.  It makes you realise that there is no one around currently who sounds exactly like her or has her peculiar accent.  I find it very endearing, but that’s probably just me.

It takes a few listens to get all the hooks but this in itself is a plus as there is nothing worse than a song that you can sing on first hearing – there is nothing left to know.  If this is a taste of what’s to come on the new album then bring it on.

Unfortunately, ‘Part 2: Radioactive’ rather lets the side down.  The polar opposite of Part 1, it is the type of up-tempo electro-pop that everyone and his dog is putting out at the moment from Katy Perry to Jessie J and it just doesn’t stand out from the crowd.  In fact, I struggle to stick with it all the way through which is a dreadful shame as these types of songs on her debut CD all had tremendously hook laden tunes but this is just not strong enough.  I just hope that this one is not representative.

Either way, I shall await the new material, to be entitled, ‘Electra Heart’, with much agog-ness as ‘The Family Jewels’ was close to being my Album of the Year, 2010.  Second albums are always a bit of a decider for me as to whether I stick with them or not so there is much resting on Ms Diamandis.  I hope she pulls it off again, as I consider her a rare talent.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Garbage - Best Live Act?

Isn’t it funny how some things just sort of creep up on you with all the impetus of an unstoppable, developing realisation.  Since the burgeoning force that is YouTube hit our computer screens I’ve been diving in and out watching clips of favourite bands like there’s no tomorrow, but when it comes to a bit of live rock ‘n’ roll, the type where you can turn the volume up to 11 and shut the world out for four of five minutes, I find that I am returning more and more to the live performances of one band; Garbage.

It begs the question; are they one of the world’s greatest live bands?  I think they probably are, but I doubt they would feature on any ad hoc list should a consensus of the great general public be taken.  I’ve not turned up one bad performance from Shirley and the Boys.  I’ve said before that I consider Shirley Manson one of the best live singers in rock and until I hear a really bad performance from her, I shall stick to this view.  The band members are no slouches either.

The band is a classic example of a deliberate sleight of hand.  Ask yourself: what do a bunch of session musicians, that is, Butch Vid (drums), Steve Marker (guitar) and Duke Erickson (guitar, keyboards & bass) do when they want to form a band and the following is apparent?

  1. They are slightly over the hill age-wise to be pop stars
  2. Let’s be kind, they are photo-genically challenged, and
  3. They have a need to put out some killer material but can’t sing for toffee

Answer: they employ a fiery, feisty extremely photogenic Scottish singer, 10 years younger than them, to hide behind, to divert the attention of the paying public and of course, to sing.  The thing is, the guys are extremely competent, experienced rock musicians and adding Ms Manson has just put a cherry on an already excellent cake.

I bought their first two albums, ‘Garbage’ and ‘Version 2.0’ in the mid-90s and played them to death but curiously never bought their later work but that has now changed with the purchase of ‘Bleed Like Me’ from 2005.  It’s a cracker – what took me so long?  It may almost be their best album.

Here’s a track from the album, ‘Why Do You Love Me’, performed at Glastonbury 2005.  This whole set is worth seeking out on YouTube as the band is on top form.  If anyone knows how Shirley can manage to keep singing without being out of breath after all that running around, please let me know.  Perhaps she IS a cyborg after all…

Friday, 19 August 2011

Warpaint - Fool

This year’s Glastonbury Festival has done me proud.  First the singing Pierce sisters prompted me to listen to their current album and now Warpaint, the female foursome from the west coast of the USA have done the same.  As a consequence of being beguiled by their set on the John Peel Stage I immediately used up a bit of credit at iTunes and downloaded their album, ‘Fool’ and what a good decision that turned out to be.

In fact there is a strong feeling of Déja Vu at work here.  I remember the first time I saw The Cure at Hammersmith Odeon in 1980 just after the release of ‘Seventeen Seconds’ and was mesmerised by their minimal gated drums and chiming chorused guitars.  It was a studied architectural sound when all around, the rest of the world was snarling and making as much punky noise as possible.  Listening to Warpaint gives me that same sense of wonder 30 years on.  Their sound is very much rooted in the intricate gothic structures of The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees only it is flecked with the sunny disposition of California rather than dour new-town-ness and suburban uniformity of Crawley and Bromley.

Interestingly, their setup of twin guitars/vocals, bass and drums mirrors that of that other west coast female band, the Bangles yet their sound couldn’t be more different.  Don’t you just love how rock can spawn such variety from the same roots?  It’s what keeps us all interested after all this time.

As suggested by their name, their music has a slightly tribal quality that manifests itself as a trance-dance flow that draws you into its unique ritual where you half expect virgins to be sacrificed at any moment.  There are no solos, just intricate rhythms and carefully constructed guitar and bass figures underpinning muted vocal harmonies.  Lovely stuff when you’re in the mood but perhaps a little frustrating when you’re not.  Sometimes you just want to shake them out of their carefully constructed cathedral and tell them to let go and lash up a tent on the moors.  Perhaps this will come with maturity in the same way that ‘Love Cats’ followed ‘A Forest’ for Bob and his mates.

Nevertheless, ‘Fool’ is a fine achievement for a debut album and I shall be agog to see what happens next.  Here is ‘Undertow’ from their appearance on Jools Holland earlier this year.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Yes it’s true; I’m a big Harry Potter fan.  I read all the books as they appeared AND didn’t opt for the ‘Adult’ covers so that people could snigger at me on the tube.  For heaven’s sake, a book’s a book - how can a different cover make it an ‘adult’ version?  I think the books are a great read.  Not great literature but written by someone who knows how to pay out a rattling good yarn from page one and that, for me, is enough.

So when the films came out I was a little cautious as we all know that a film never really represents the book it is based on.  In fact I didn’t see any of the first five films at the cinema but curled up with a glass of wine and the DVDs when they became available.  Generally they have been well constructed but lacking in the sort of detail only a book can provide as is only to be expected by the time constraint of a film.

However, for the final film, ‘Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows - Part 2’ I took my daughter, a fellow fan, to see it on the big screen – and in 3D.  It seemed only right that the concluding film should be witnessed as intended on a huge screen with deafening surround-sound.  And I was right.  The 3D was good, (although frankly, I could’ve lived without it) and the film was possibly the best of the series.  The popcorn seemed to have an everlasting charm on it as no matter how much we ate there always seemed loads more to go.  But best of all was the sound which was awesome.  Clashing spells had the impact of a nuclear bomb and the destruction of land and property rumbled under our feet.

For once, I didn’t really miss the fine detail as the film seemed to be very focussed upon drawing together JK Rowling’s rather disparate plot strands into a final conclusion.  In fact it did a better job than the book in explaining the eventual denouement.  So hats off to the Screenwriter and Director for a thoroughly memorable experience.

Nevertheless, I still am not wedded to the cinema for one reason and one reason only.  Why do gaggles of schoolgirls find it necessary to whisper and giggle through the entire film ruining all the poignant moments with their juvenile lack of consideration for others.  Must brush up on my Cruciatus Curse ready for next time…on no!  There isn’t one.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Juliana Hatfield

There are some artists that never really lodge themselves in the consciousness of the great buying public and thus never appear on those worthy ‘best of’ lists.  However, before I get too pompous about this, bear in mind that I am as guilty as the rest when it comes to US singer/guitarist, Juliana Hatfield, yet an album that I return to on an unnervingly frequent basis is her ‘Become What You Are’.

Originally the bass player with the Blake Babies in the 1980s, Juliana flirted with Evan Dando (in all senses of the word) and his Lemonheads before issuing her first well-received solo album, ‘Hey Babe’ in 1992.  But it was the follow up in 1993, the magnificent ‘Become what You Are’ that gave her a deserved 15 minutes of fame with frequent airplay of both singles culled from the set.  Configured as a classic power trio with a bass/drums rhythm section in addition to herself on guitar, she produced music that is a joyous throwback to gutsy guitar rock with proper tunes and few overdubs.  Thankfully, it is also exceptionally well recorded giving a ‘live’ feel which accentuates the looseness and excitement of the material.  How many times have good albums been dragged down by indifferent production?

But the real draw to BWYA is the way that the music reflects her own personality: a sort of child-woman with attitude.  The whole album is a battleground where her angst, given full rein in grungy guitars and pointed lyrics is constantly tempered by quieter girlish moments of feminine vulnerability.  These competing sides to her psyche were to be laid bare in 2000’s double album ‘ Juliana’s Pony: Total System Failure’ where one whole album (Juliana’s Pony) would be given over to delicate acoustic songs whilst the other (Total System Failure) would indulge in an orgy of electronic white noise that even Sonic Youth would shy away from.  Whilst this later album shows the separated extremes, ‘Become What You Are’ demonstrates what happens when the two are cleverly combined and it is a magic that she has not quite managed since.

Juliana continues to release albums today and I feel a little guilty that I have not investigated many of them.  Somehow, BWYA has spoiled me and I don’t anticipate that anything else she does will satisfy.  Perhaps I’m wrong and in a way I hope I am, but it doesn’t take away from BWYA – an album to which I will always return.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Pierces - 'You and I'

If there is one thing that is guaranteed to make me perk up my jaded ears and sit up and listen, it is a dose of classic harmony singing – think Everly Brothers, Beach Boys or even The Bangles.  So when I was wading through the hours of Glastonbury footage and came across The Pierces, I was more than happy to pay attention.

It turns out that The Pierces are an ex-Alabama, now New York based sister act, Catherine and Alison Pierce, who have been around for some ten years yet only seem to be hitting the UK now with their fourth album, ‘You & I’, co-produced by none other than the Coldplay team of Rik Simpson and bassist, Guy Berryman.  Their brand of upbeat retro-Californian pop is almost irresistible in these times of austerity.  Once you have added their song writing ability that brings together elements of The Mamas and Papas, Stevie Nicks era Fleetwood Mac, early Jefferson Airplane and strangely, Crowded House when both Finn brothers were both on board, to their sibling voices, you have a very marketable package indeed.

Having downloaded ‘You & I’ I am now wallowing in some of the best harmony singing I’ve heard for some time.  I gather that their previous albums have been a little quirky and that this is their tilt at the big time, hence it does come across as very polished  70s style AOR which I’d have thought was a little out of fashion at the moment but notwithstanding the production, this is quality stuff.  The song writing is solid with the up-tempo stuff sounding a little better than the ballads which are a touch staid but the overall effect is very listenable.  However, if their inspiration truly is the sunny Californian pop of the Mamas and Papas, they ought to be a bit more careful how they disguise it  as ‘Kissing You Goodbye’ is so close to ‘California Dreaming’ that if anyone associated with John Phillips’ estate gets to hear it there may well be Lawyers at dawn.

But accusations of plagiarism aside, there is something magical about sibling harmonies that just sets the hairs on my neck going.  It’s the closeness of those genes that makes everything so beautifully seamless yet just different enough to set them apart in the mix.  Someone should devote part of a book to this phenomenon…wait a minute, someone has – it was me.  Singing is food to the soul as church-goers past and present have discovered, as have those who now cram the halls of England to attend ‘Rock Choir’ events.  And harmony singing is the next step to heaven.  Those that can do it well, especially when singing live have my undying attention.

Here is the video that started me out on this trail of discovery – The Pierces at Glastonbury doing a live acoustic spot for the BBC and making their hit ‘Glorious’ sound well, glorious.  If the harmonies at about 1:40 don’t make you go weak at the knees, you have no soul.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Glastonbury Festival 2011 (Part 2 - The Awards)

This year the Glastonbury Festival marks its fortieth anniversary, the first (then free) festival taking place on a cobbled together tubular steel and wooden plank stage in 1971.  In order to celebrate the fact, a ‘Spirit of ‘71’ stage was included this year where many of those who performed in 1971 returned to the scene of their crimes to perform to nostalgic on-lookers.  To see the likes of Melanie and Edgar Broughton belting out old familiar numbers even gave hardened old cynic me a misty eye.

The Hippy roots of Glastonbury continue to pervade the Festival to this day and there is no doubt that the festival spirit affects both performers and audience alike.  Major beneficiaries this year were undoubtedly Elbow whose connection with the huge crowd was quite mesmeric.  But they weren’t the only ones and it is one reason why I love this Festival – for three days, the world seems at peace.

But enough of this new-agey stuff, on to the Music Obsessive Awards which this year were very tricky to pitch given the huge and generally enjoyable line-ups on virtually every stage.  However, a decision has been made. 

In third place comes the old crooner himself, Morrissey who played as the warm up act to the all-conquering Coldplay on the Saturday evening.  Despite the fact that he is clearly middle-aged these days and the old joints are not what they were, and the fact that the set went a bit flat in places, I thoroughly enjoyed his mix of solo stuff and old Smiths songs.  It served as a timely reminder of what a way the man has with words.  The mixture of kitchen sink, no holds barred truths and wry black humour has never really been matched by anybody writing since and to hear the likes of ‘I Want the One I Can’t Have’ and ‘This Charming Man’ again was a real pleasure.  All together now;
‘I would go out tonight
But I haven’t got a stitch to WE-AR….’

In second place is Beyoncé.  Yes, I know.  Before the Festival started, I would have laughed in your face if you’d told me I was going to type those words, but it has happened.  Despite not really knowing much about her music, I was vastly entertained by her Sunday headline set and I was entertained because she didn’t fall into the trap so many of her mega-star ( and I have to say American – sorry guys) peers fall into and kept it simple.  No constant costume changes, no huge sets, no complicated Busby-Berkeley dance routines – a bit of glitz, sure, but just music.  Glastonbury is all about music and the connection between the performer and the audience and Beyoncé seemed to understand this.  The mix of songs was spot on, drawing on all her influences from funk to ballad, from R&B to soul.  Glastonbury is not a place to plug your new album, it’s a place to display your best stuff and to convince people who are not necessarily your fans that you have worth and for me she did just that.  Once again Glastonbury wove its magic and you could see the emotion, especially during final song ‘Halo’ where she had to stop to catch her breath.  Beyoncé, you have a new fan.

And so to my Number One Act.  They played two sets; one on the Park stage on Friday and one on the John Peel Stage on Saturday afternoon and they are the all-female foursome from Los Angeles – Warpaint.  Warpaint is such a clever name for starters, combining the slang for makeup, thus underlining their gender, with the more tribal connotations of warfare.  Their music could also be described as ‘tribal’ being a cross between 1982 Cure/Siouxsie gothic and 1992 Cocteau Twins.  It has a peculiar quality of being quite mesmerising without seeming to go anywhere in particular.  Somehow, it doesn’t really matter as the heavily chorused guitars chime over intricate bass patterns and complex drumming and you are drawn in forever.  Their live vocals could do with beefing up a bit as they don’t quite match the studio versions I now have in my possession on their debut album, ‘Fool’ but otherwise they were beautifully understated, yet wonderful and worthy winners this year.

But that is not really the end of it.  Special mentions must also go to The Horrors, Kool and the Gang, Rumer, Hurts and Elbow and a very special mention must go to Jessie J who played her set with a broken foot and provided us with a magic moment.  It occurred when she asked for a member of the audience to help her with ‘Price Tag’ and we old cynics cringed.  But it turned out to be nothing like the toe-curling moment we expected and a gobsmacked Jessie didn’t quite get what she expected.  It put a smile on my face for hours afterwards.  Magical.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Glastonbury Festival 2011 (Part 1)

Well, you have to hand it to the BBC, they always do a wizard job of covering the Glastonbury Festival and this year was no exception.  The only problem for goggle-eyed TV viewers like me is finding the time to watch over 24 hours of footage, either live or recorded.  It is becoming a bit of a marathon involving a sagging couch and several crates of beer.

Nevertheless, this year’s event was well up to standard and remains the Festival that all Festivals should aspire to.  Despite the enormous amount of airtime set aside on up to three BBC channels (plus the red button), the ever growing size of the goings-on is beginning to defeat even the wily TV editors and the viewing experience is becoming one of not so much what you do see, but what you don’t.

This year the number of stages and line-ups over the three days was so huge that I was left feeling a bit frustrated by the fact that some of the smaller bands I wanted to see were not covered.  Of course, the answer is to attend the thing myself, but as BBC presenter Jo Wiley put it so succinctly, ‘Why brave the mud, when we can do it for you?’  Having said all that, the atmosphere was like a well-used comfort blanket and for a weekend, music did what it should and provided a considerable amount of emotional pleasure.

The 2011 extravaganza was thus for me, one of undoubted enjoyment but tinged with a sense of loss.  I have no real attachment to any of the three headliners, U2 (it rained heavily on them on the Friday evening - so there is a God), Coldplay (OK, but they didn't play 'Speed of Sound' - my only real must-have Coldplay track) and Beyoncé (more of her later) so this year I became more attuned to some of those lesser names further down the playing order.  Many were very good indeed and some will feature in my top three acts which will be revealed, as has now become a MO tradition, in my next post, but there were names that never saw a TV camera. 

Of those that were given airtime my particular favourites included the astounding vocals of Hurts, the neo-prog of Everything Everything, the wild Aussie rock (circa 1969) of sister-band Stonefield, the quite outstandingly good harmonies of The Pierces (I’m sure John Phillips was smiling down at their Mamas and Papas meets the Jefferson Airplane song, ‘Glorious’) and Jessie J complete with broken foot.

Sadly, top of my list of non-shows was the Swedish female quintet, Those Dancing Days, which was first introduced to me by fellow blogger, Zee, and whose last few singles I have enjoyed enormously.  Their raw energy and slightly ragged playing style puts me in mind of bands like The Slits and the Raincoats, but they have a classic Swedish ambience all of their own.  Apparently, their set on the Park stage on the Saturday was beset by technical problems so perhaps it was best they remained anonymous this once.  However, in order to balance out the fact that they got no airtime, here is their latest poptastic single, ‘Can’t Find Entrance’.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Kate Bush - Director's Cut (Part 2)

Previously on Kate Bush – Director’s Cut:

So having listened to it for a week or so, what’s the verdict?  The short answer is that she has about got away with it by the skin of her teeth – but only just.  I suppose my main criticism of this album is that I didn’t like most of the songs, the majority of which come from ‘The Red Shoes’, to start with, so the process of making a silk purse out of the various sows’ ears was always going to be a problem for me.  Having said that, there are one or two cuts that have been improved.  I don’t think I have listened to ‘Rubberband Girl’ more than about twice, ever, but this new version has been immersed in a classic Rolling Stones chugging rhythm that is difficult to resist.

The other song that I feel has been improved is ‘Lily’ which appears to have been slowed down very slightly and given a vice like groove and excellent new vocal. So far so good.  In fact, the new vocals on every track are remarkably good.  Set in a new lower key to accommodate her more mature voice, each song is sung with real abandon and a lack of self-consciousness that is pleasantly surprising and provides a real link to her younger self captured on the original recordings some 20 years ago.

In the main, these tracks have not been altered radically but rather set free from their 1980s/90s trappings.  Gone are the gated drums and slightly compressed overall sound and in their place are beautifully recorded instruments which have warmth and space.  There is no doubt that in pure sonic terms this album sounds so much better than the originals.

Whilst the more relaxed nature of the songs works for most of the time, I cannot help but feel disappointed with my two favourite songs here.  One is ‘Deeper Understanding’ which has lost its flow completely during the ‘computer speech’ sections where a vocoded/autotuned line of speech by her 12 year old son has been inserted.  So where there was a great surge of harmony we now have a jerky mechanical voice and it just doesn’t work.

The other major disappointment is the wonderful ‘This Woman’s Work’ which in its original form is a real emotional roller-coaster.  But again the vocal has been slowed down and chopped up to a point where the rhythmic integrity has been lost.  In the original, the drama of the chorus is intensified by a quickening of the vocal delivery.  In this version the opposite occurs and all the energy of the piece dissipates.  The underlying electric piano isn’t helping either making the whole thing a bit ‘chicken-in-a-basket’ nightclub fare.

On balance this album is a bit of a curate’s egg.  The de-restriction of the instrumental sound and new vocals are definite plusses but the loss of intensity in the drama of some of the songs is a definite debit.  And I still don’t like many of the songs, overhaul or not and that’s the bottom line with ‘Director’s Cut’.  As I said, all things considered, I think she just about comes out on an even keel.  Let’s see what the new material brings.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Nerina Pallot - Year Of The Wolf

For her fourth album, ‘Year of the Wolf’ released this last month, Nerina Pallot has been welcomed back into the fold by Polydor (who dropped her after her debut) and has taken the brave step of enlisting the production talents of Bernard Butler, he who guided Duffy to fame and fortune on the back of the retro-sounding ‘Rockferry’.  Presumably this is an attempt to move up to the big league after three albums on the sidelines. Having listening to YOTW several times now, I am still a little undecided as to whether this was a good move or not.  There is certainly a retro feel to the whole project – even the cover depicts her wearing what looks like one of Carly Simon’s hats, circa 1972.

Inevitably, Butler’s fingerprints are everywhere and never more so than the rather heavy-handed string arrangements and aggressive guitar figures which attend some songs, but I can’t decide whether this has enhanced Nerina’s own personality – so prevalent on her previous outing, ‘The Graduate’ – or submerged it in unnecessary production.  Either way, I am now getting more used to the overall sound and feel of the album and finding that it is not quite as un-nerving as I thought.  But has she sacrificed her own essence for Polydor’s vision of success?

Having become a mother in late 2010 has clearly modified Nerina’s outlook and the lyrical content of the songs has taken on a more worldly wise tenor but still retains her trademark literacy.  The songs range from the upbeat pop of ‘Put Your Hands Up’ (a real tilt at the charts, I feel) to tender ballads such as ‘If I Lost You Now’ but they all have a more polished demeanour about them than on previous albums.  It is here that I am having trouble as the polishing has taken off the patina of Nerina’s great strength – her ability to communicate emotion.  There are undoubtedly great tunes on this album and there is humour but the raw emotion she is capable of is somehow diluted by the production.

But as I write this and the album plays, there, nestling right at the end of the album is the killer song, ‘History Boys’.  This simple piano ballad tells of mothers awaiting the return of their dead soldier sons in the streets of the military town of Wootton Bassett in SW England and it is heart-breaking.  Sung at the top of Nerina’s vocal range, the melody glides over a piano and string waltz (rather than a military march) perhaps to indicate the strength of love over war?   The song was composed whilst Nerina was pregnant and the poignancy of the lines in the second verse are almost too much to bear.  She has admitted that this song is very difficult for her to sing as her anger and sadness spill over:
One day I'll have a child of my own
How will I tell him, oh
This world, this world it is a good place?
How will I hide the fear from my face?
Suddenly my qualms about the rest of the album pale into insignificance as ‘History Boys’ plays out and I have a tear in my eye, I realise that this could be Pallot’s finest moment, worth the price of the album on its own.

Here is an even better version with just voice and piano.  Without any distracting production it is quite devastating and is what Nerina Pallot does best.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Andrew Gold 1951 - 2011

I note with increasing sadness the loss of yet more members of the music community, the latest being Andrew Gold who died from a heart attack on June 3rd at the age of 59.  I am beginning to find all these deaths a bit alarming, especially as I am not that far short of 60 myself.  It’s all a bit sobering.  Regrettably, I admit to not really being much of a fan of Mr Gold’s work either on his own or as ‘Wax’ with Graham Gouldman, but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t carved a small area in my life for himself.

Like most other people, I’d guess, I know him best for his 1977 hit, ‘Lonely Boy’ and it is a song that has grown with me over these last 30-odd years.  At the time of its release I was totally immersed in Punk and didn’t pay it much attention, but since then it has loomed larger and larger in my mind so that today it is probably one of my favourite singles.

Let me try and explain why.  Songs have different hooks.  Sometimes it’s the lyric, most times it is the chorus and other times it’s some other aspect or combination.  Some songs, like much of the Cardigan’s output for some impenetrable Scandinavian reason, have musically stunning verses which then makes the chorus a bit ho-hum.  In that case the verse is a strong enough hook to draw you in.  The real lyricists like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan can often hold your attention without a decent melody at all but this is very rare and shouldn’t be relied on if you are just starting out as a song writer.  Most song writers fall over themselves to produce a hook-laden chorus – listen to any current Lady Gaga song to see how this works as she is no slouch in this department.  Most memorable songs have their best hook in the chorus – but not ‘Lonely Boy’.

For me, the real hook in ‘Lonely Boy' lies in the combination of the tragic lyric and the musical bridge between the verse and the chorus.  The verse starts in jaunty vein:
He was born on a summer day, 1951
And with the slap of a hand
He had landed as an only son

But then the rhythm changes and the mood gets just a little darker.  This is the part that gives me goose bumps as the repeated melody winds up the sense of foreboding and understated guitar figures play with your heart:
His mother and father said "what a lovely boy"
We'll teach him what we learned
Ah yes, just what we learned
We'll dress him up warmly and
We'll send him to school
It'll teach him how to fight
To be nobody's fool

And so into the chorus:
Oh, oh, what a lonely boy etc.

That extended bridge section is a masterpiece all on its own.  The way that it builds both the story lyric and the musical tension from the verse to the cry of pain that is the chorus is awe-inspiring.  Unless you are Paul McCartney, most song writers probably manage something of this class once in a lifetime.  This was Andrew’s moment.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Cee Lo Green

No doubt you will all be relieved to hear that I have now fully recovered from my attack of Dad’s Disease after watching episode two of Later…with Jools Holland where Cee Lo Green powered his way through a set of three songs that, by the finale, had both audience and guests (including Bootsy Collins) dancing in the aisles.

His blend of power rock and old-time Motown soul was just the ticket for my somewhat jaded palette.  In fact I’ve been a bit remiss here and failed to pick him up through the Gnarls Barkley and earlier solo career but I shall definitely be checking out his last album ‘The Lady Killer’ and his back catalogue without delay.

However, it wasn’t just the quality of music that piqued my interest, it was the band configuration.  As I am sure you all know by now, I favour female singers and my preferred band set up is a batch of male instrumentalists fronted by a female singer.  This just works for me as it has all the advantages of male aggression in the musical presentation, melded with the sensitivity of a woman in the vocal department.  Over the years I have collected dozens of these bands from my first love, Curved Air in the 1970s, through Siouxsie and the Banshees, Blondie, Dubstar and Lush to Garbage and beyond to name but a very, very few.

But the musical force that is Cee Lo Green does it differently.  His idea is to back himself with a self-contained female band, Scarlet Fever, comprising Sharon Aguila (guitar), Brittany Brooks (drums), Theresa Flaminio (keyboards) and Regina Zernay Roberts (bass).  Their brand of soul infused stadium rock suits Cee Lo to a tee and it is heart-warming to see ‘proper’ instruments in a live environment.  Oh dear, am I sounding old?

Of course, many of you will remember Robert Palmer’s video for ‘Addicted To Love’ in which he pulls the same gender-reversal trick but in that instance he was using models (in case you hadn’t spotted that…) rather than real musicians.  Despite being put together through audition, Scarlet Fever is a proper band and they rock.  I can’t think of another example of a male fronted female band off the top of my head, although I have vague thoughts of Prince doing something similar so this may not be the first of its kind.  But if the Cee Lo Green experience is anything to go by, there should be more.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Song Writing

Once upon a time it was all so easy.  Writers of popular songs would sit in a small bare room with a thermos and a piano and toil relentlessly until they had a half decent song and then their agent would sell it to a suitable performer.  Writers seldom performed and conversely, performers virtually never wrote.  Everybody knew where they stood and more importantly, writers, having a target audience in mind, would tailor their songs to fit the performer.

This cosy and ordered world was upset firstly by the early rock ‘n’ rollers who often liked to have a hand in their own material, but more particularly by The Beatles who insisted on writing their own material and, what’s worse, tended to be quite good at it thus putting out of work a whole generation of writers.  Their endeavours upset the apple cart of A&R and from then on artists felt duty bound to write their own material for better or worse.

This alternative universe was therefore peopled by bands and artists who wrote to their own strengths and the once noble art of writing specifically for someone with a different style to your own was submerged in the rush to make yourself into a pop star.  But there were exceptions.  The Beatles themselves occasionally wrote songs for others (Mary Hopkin, Cilla Black and so on) and Rod Argent, whilst with The Zombies wrote the magnificent ‘If it Don’t Work Out’ for Dusty Springfield.  The latter song is a really good example of a writer working outside of his own band’s remit to create a creditable Dusty-type ballad.

Bringing this line of thought up to date, current singer-songwriter Nerina Pallot, an artist who has never written anything other than for herself, was approached last year to write songs for Kylie Minogue’s’ last album and turned out a couple of classic Kylie style pop songs.  Check out ‘Better Than Today’ and the title track ‘Aphrodite’.

But here’s the rub.  Should these writers be deliberately writing in the style of the performer, thus perpetuating their perceived style or should they be writing in their own style in order to broaden the horizons of the performer.  Bit of a tricky one that, especially as there is money and reputation at stake.  Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that by pandering to a ‘house style’ the writer is not doing themselves or the recipient of the song any real good. The songs that Pallot has given to Kylie are a bit Kylie-by-numbers and by her standards are a little, well, sub-standard.  Why not get Kylie just to cover some of her better songs even though they are not tailored to style?

Friday, 27 May 2011

Lady Gaga - Born This Way

So after all the hype and leaked snippets, Lady Gaga’s new opus, ‘Born This Way’ has arrived.  Let me declare my interest up front – I like Lady G a lot and feel she has brought some much needed colour to a bland corporate musical landscape.  And she does have a talent, which is always a bonus.  So what of ‘Born This Way’?

First up, at 15 tracks and over an hour in length, it is too long in the way that many CD albums are too long these days.  I was brought up in a time when albums were limited to about 40 minutes so my attention span is pre-conditioned to this span.  As a consequence, BTW plays like a short double album and like most double albums would benefit from some pruning.  Nevertheless there are some cracking songs here, not least the title track, the Queen inspired ‘You and I’ and the finale, ‘The Edge of Glory’ which would give the Boss himself a run for his money.  When Gaga is on form, there is no one to touch her, but in places this album feels a bit forced and sledge-hammer-like as if the pressure is beginning to tell and the only solution is to over-produce everything.  When she calms down a bit, like on the sublime semi-ballad, ‘Bloody Mary’ her efforts have so much more soul.  Cut this album by about 3 or 4 songs and I’d have no hesitation in recommending it unreservedly.  But in the wider world, it is not just criticism of her work that she has to contend with, but comparison with past musical icons.

Many commentators have compared both this album and Gaga herself with the life and works of Bruce Springsteen and Madonna and suggest that she falls short.  The comparison with Springsteen is the more relevant as they are both writers and performers and it is probably true to say that Gaga has some way to go to match the esteem in which Springsteen is held in both categories.  Funnily enough, the track, ‘Hair’ is a curiously Bruce-like rocker – imagine a disco version of any of the boss’s stadium anthems and you get the idea – although I can’t quite see her competing at this genre.

However, I get a little irritated with the Gaga/Madonna comparison as I feel that we are looking at two quite different entities.  Madonna is primarily an astute business woman who happens to work in the music industry.  She is supremely adept at surrounding herself with the right people at the right time and manipulating business contacts to get the best for herself, be it songs written by others especially for her or marketing effort.  Whilst she has a passable voice and musical awareness, she is not a musician per se but the ultimate corporate money-making machine.  Lady Gaga, on the other hand, is primarily a musician who is most at home writing songs at her piano, an assertion she has alluded to on several occasions.  And there is no doubt in my mind that when she does this, she excels.

It is interesting to note that during her live performance at Radio 1’s Big Weekend recently, her best work was when she sat at her piano with her live band around her and sang her heart out.  Consequently, I can’t help feeling that with ‘Born This Way’, she is trying too hard and that the burden of creating her own music and maintaining her undoubted fashion consciousness is weighing heavily upon her.  Perhaps she should take a step back next time out, relax, play to her strengths and just concentrate on her writing?

If she were really bold, she would shut herself away with a piano and a portastudio and create her own ‘Nebraska’.  It would finally set her apart, as it is something Madonna could never do.  Put Your Paws Up!

Here's an emotional Lady G doing 'The Edge of Glory' at the Radio 1 Big Weekend.  If you want to skip the preamble, go to about 1:10 where the song starts proper.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Argent - Original Album Classics

I love a good bargain, me!  And if it involves one of my favourite bands of the early 1970s then so much the better.  Browsing through Amazon, like you do, I chanced upon a series of reissue box sets rejoicing under the inspired title of ‘Original Album Classics’, each collating five albums from a set artist and retailing for about £12!  Artists included in the list so far are largely from the US, so the likes of Poco, Ted Nugent, J Geils and so on get the treatment.

So when I discovered that one of these sets was UK band, Argent and comprised their first five Epic albums (‘Argent’, ‘Ring of Hands’, ‘All Together Now’, ‘In Deep’ and ‘Nexus’) 4/5 of which I have on well worn and crackly vinyl, my finger was on the ‘Buy’ button before you could hum ‘Hold Your Head Up’.  Of course, the value quality of 5 albums for £12 has its drawbacks, one of which is that the box cover photo depicts the band including John Verity and John Grimaldi, both of whom joined after the first five albums and leaves out Russ Ballard who was definitely an integral part of the band through the whole series.  Still, you can’t have everything.  Indeed, each of the five re-mastered CDs comes in a nice cardboard sleeve with the original artwork – except ‘Nexus’ which depicts the US version of the cover, not the UK one.  Hmm.

I suppose I became an Argent fan because they were a local band, springing from suburban St Albans, my home town and you couldn’t really miss them.  It meant that they played the St Albans Civic Hall seemingly every other week and in those joyful days you could pitch up at the door on the day in question and get in without any trouble at all.  None of this selling out within 5 seconds on the internet stuff then.

Despite being a fan, I never owned their debut and listening to it now, it is apparent that it forms the missing link between Rod’s former band, The Zombies and the more progressive band that Argent would become.  Each of the subsequent albums charts this journey to Full Prog Status mixing the ethereal churchlike keyboards of Rod Argent with the down-to-earth blues/rock of Russ Ballard until finally at ‘Nexus’ it was all too much for Russ who left to pursue a solo career and write proper rock songs for the likes of Rainbow.

I still love ‘In Deep’ which was always my preferred choice with its magnificent ‘It’s Only Money (parts 1 & 2)’, but have now developed a fondness for ‘Ring of Hands’ which I hardly ever played at the time.  Funny how distance alters your perception of some albums and you start hearing things you missed the first time – like Jim Rodford’s awesome bass playing on the looser instrumental sections.  Let’s hope this reissue series extends to a few more UK bands in the future.  My breath is suitably bated.

Here is the original line up of Argent, still rockin' in their sixties, doing 'It's Only Money pts I & II', at a festival gig in Victoria Park, London, 2010 (no hair dye then, Russ...).

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Year of 1971

In the writings of one N Molesworth (the curse of st custards as any fule kno), there are described a number of patent daydreams designed for bored schoolboys to utilise during double maths – mainly space adventures with wizard whams, bonks and xplosions.  But what of grown ups?  Are we not entitled to a bit of downtime when life gets a bit lethargic?  Can we not let our imagination drift for a minute or two during that Health and Safety presentation?  One of my usual standbys is to imagine that my entire music collection has been held to ransom and I am allowed to save one particular year’s worth.  What will it be eh?

After deliberating for longer than I care to admit, a few candidates start to emerge.  For starters, 1982 was quite a good year encompassing some great stuff from Kate Bush, Siouxsie and Michael Jackson but then so was 1992 (Tori Amos, REM, Lush etc) and even 2006.  But eventually I incline towards 1971.  This is probably not surprising as I gave the game away here.  It is the year that I began to buy albums in earnest and not having many of them, tended to play them all to destruction.  It was a time of great discovery and great music.  Let’s see the evidence.

These are the LPs I bought during the year in question as they were released:
Chicago – Chicago III
Curved Air – Second Album
The Doors – LA Woman
The Faces – A Nod’s As Good As A Wink…To A Blind Horse
Focus – Moving Waves
John Lennon – Imagine
Paul McCartney – Ram
Don McLean – American Pie
Pink Floyd – Relics
Yes – Fragile

These I taped from friends (so sue me – I’ve bought them since):
Jethro Tull – Aqualung
Lesley Duncan – Sing Children Sing
It’s A Beautiful Day – Choice Quality Stuff

 And lastly, these I bought a year or two later but belong in 1971:
Beach Boys – Surfs Up
Caravan – In the Land of Grey and Pink
Deep Purple – Machine Head
Fanny – Charity Ball
Genesis – Nursery Cryme
Carole King – Tapestry
Joni Mitchell – Blue
Pink Floyd – Meddle
The Who – Who’s Next

The more I look at this list the more I am convinced that, if forced into giving up the rest of my entire collection, I could live happily with every one of these discs.  Each is so well known to me in a way that most of the albums I have bought since are not.  As the years went by, I bought more and more albums but with the exception of a chosen few, didn’t really listen to them much and some perhaps only once.  These albums represent a time when I was seized by music and spent hours listening to it.  Time and experience deadens this initial enthusiasm to a point where today, only one album in say, 10, really grabs me.

So, on my desert island, I shall sneak in all 22 of these albums and be blissfully happy playing them repeatedly like those heady days in 1971 when I was doing it for real.