Friday, 21 December 2012

End of Year Report

2012.  So how was it for you?  From my viewpoint sitting here in the UK, it was probably an above average year as long as you looked in the right places.  Let’s face it, if you concentrate on the woeful economy and miserable weather you’d be marking it down quicker than a GCSE examiner.  So let’s forget all that real world stuff and focus on firstly…sport!

This year served up some bumper sporting moments if you were a Brit and this is something to be savoured as we, as a race, are not used to winning anything – at least since the rest of the world got to know the rules and beat us at everything.  There was Bradley ‘Wiggo’ Wiggins winning the Tour de France, Andy Murray winning his first Grand Slam Tournament, England’s cricket Team gaining World Number 1 status, the Ryder Cup comeback - and that was just for starters.

The jewel in the sporting crown was an amazing Summer Olympics and Paralympics which made household names of the likes of Ennis, Farrah, Wiggins (again), Hoy, Rutherford, Adams, Trott, Dujardin, Adams, Weir, Simmons, Brownlee, Ainslie, Pendleton, and many, many more.

Of course, nothing lasts for ever and it wasn’t long before the Cricket team lost their Number 1 status (but redeemed themselves in India) and inevitably here at the tail end of the year, the England football team continues to struggle in a poor qualifying group for the next World Cup.  Oh well, it was nice whilst it lasted.

But what about music?  Sad to say, I’ve found little to titivate my palette and consequently have bought very few CDs this year, preferring to pick up much improved remixed/remastered releases of favourite albums from my past.  If pushed to pick out a new album of the year, it would probably be Marina and the Diamonds’ ‘Electra Heart’ which has been on my ipod since release.  A close second would be either The Bangles’ ‘Sweetheart of the Sun’ or Doris Brendel’s ‘Not Utopia’, but other than these three not much else has really moved me which is a bit of a sad state of affairs and no mistake.  I might have to re-name this blog, ‘Sport Obsessive’.

So how does it all stack up when added together?  Well, on the music front, 2012 has under-performed a bit if you look at new music alone but if you argue that the art of re-mixing and remastering old albums has come of age then it has been a pretty good year with some stunningly revitalised stuff to the fore (yes, I’m looking at you, ‘Aqualung’).

But if you add in a massively dramatic sporting summer, 2012 acquits itself with flying colours and proves yet again that there is nothing quite like the real drama of live sport – there’s never a script and anything can happen.  Hoorah!

See you all in the New Year!

Friday, 7 December 2012

What Value Music?

The other day, in a moment of supreme weakness, I made the mistake of answering my phone without checking that the caller had WITHHELD their number.  This can only mean one thing; a cold call and if there’s one thing I hate it’s a cold caller.  I usually ignore such intrusions but this time I was caught and had to go through the rigmarole of politely telling them to bugger off.  This time it was from an on-line wine seller that I use regularly and whilst it started promisingly with the ‘only available off line to you, mate’ patter, it ended with a price that was no better than their normal on-line prices.  What was the point?

The trouble is, everyone wants something for nothing these days, including me, so ringing me up to offer the same price I could expect to spend elsewhere was never going to hold my interest and what goes for wine goes for music too.  Having said that, I am of a generation that at least expects to pay something for music, unlike many of today’s kids who seem to think it is their birthright to download everything for free, so cheap rather than free is always on the menu.

The old marketing hook of offering stuff at low prices can be a bit hit and miss.  For reasons that I don’t really understand to this day, back in 1973 I declined Virgin Records’s offer of ‘The Faust Tapes’ by Krautrockers, Faust for the miniscule price of 49p – an LP for the price of a vinyl single at the time.  Perhaps it was TOO cheap?  See how difficult it is?  In retrospect this was probably the correct decision as it is a jumble of live off-cuts but nevertheless, at that price who cares?

Yet some years before, in 1971, I had snapped up ‘Relics’ by Pink Floyd, a band I didn’t really know much about, but when it appeared on the cut-price Starline label, I couldn’t resist.  ‘Relics’ is a peculiar mixture of 1967-1969 period Floyd material bringing together the brilliant early Syd Barrett singles, atmospheric tracks from the soundtrack album, ‘More’, a collection of B sides and odd album cuts from their first two albums.  It was my introduction to The Pink Floyd and remains one of my favourite albums of theirs to this day.  As I have mused before, the late sixties was a strange period and the music created against the backdrop of social unrest and end of the Hippy dream still has a slightly haunted quality to it.  Certainly, this has an ambience that no other record I know of has.

So in the case of the budget label release, ‘Relics’ scored a hit and set me on the trail of proper grown-up Pink Floyd LPs.  Just let someone ring me up today and try and sell it to me…grrr.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Remixes - Should We Allow Them?

Let me pose you a question.  What would be your reaction if Van Gogh, assuming he was still alive, decided that his Sunflowers were all wrong and painted them out to be repainted as Lilies?  Or if Rodin were to hack off The Thinker’s arm in order to re-site it by his side rather than cupping his chin?  Established works of art should not really be tampered with, should they?  Although painting out details in ‘finished’ pictures is nothing new, it feels wrong somehow.  So what about re-mixing Classic Albums?  Hmm.

 Since the advent of digital music, engineers have taken the opportunity to re-master old analogue tapes for the new medium.  Up until now most of these efforts have been poor, in my opinion, but of late things have changed.  Recent re-masters have improved significantly and I cite The Beatles’ catalogue, Paul McCartney’s Archive series and Steve Hackett’s early albums as evidence.  But progress has now reached the stage where artists are re-mixing as well as re-mastering their old albums in a ‘this’ll fix what I didn’t do at the time’ sort of way.  Can they do this?  What about my memories?

I have three examples of this desire to tinker; Deep Purple’s ‘Machine Head’, Mike Oldfield’s ‘Ommadawn’ and Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’.  In each case, the original multi-track recording has been re-mixed using today’s technology in an effort to improve on the original.  In the case of ‘Aqualung’ I have to say that this has been a spectacular success.  The re-mix doesn’t really change the musical emphasis very much from the original but what it has done is breathe new life into what was a very stodgy final master.  Suddenly there is space around the instruments and their tonality bursts out of the speakers at you.  Drums sound like drums and less like wet cardboard boxes – hurrah!  Steven Wilson, who is the engineer responsible, has a magic touch with old masters as his work on the King Crimson and Caravan catalogues has shown.  His re-mixed ‘Aqualung’ is fabulous and I’d choose it over the original every time.

‘Mike Oldfield’s ‘Ommadawn’ also works well but to a lesser degree.  The re-mix doesn’t really alter the sound of the album too much but it does sound clearer and fresher.  However, I understand that his re-mix of ‘Tubular Bells’ does sound significantly different but as I haven’t heard it, I couldn’t possibly comment.  My real gripe is reserved for ‘Machine Head’ and that is because the modern re-mix uses alternative instrumental takes, such as guitar solos, that were not used in the original.  This is a step too far as it changes the music wholesale and I don’t like it – it has ceased to be ‘Machine Head’ and is now something else.

Whilst I object to the concept that once discarded music is now viewed as an improvement, I am disconcertingly aware that my attitude has been conditioned by the last 100 years, or since music became recorded.  Prior to then, all music only existed in written form and every performance of it was different, so there was no definitive version, just a series of interpretations.  Now that music is cast in stone for all eternity by the recording process, we are led to believe that there is only one interpretation, but perhaps that is wrong?

Re-mixing raises a whole series of ethical questions about art and it will take more than this post to get to the bottom of it.  I’m still unsure and will probably just take on a case by case line until someone can convince me one way or the other. 

Friday, 9 November 2012

Curved Air - The Lost Broadcasts

As a long time aficionado of the Progrock band, Curved Air, I am mightily relieved to report that my eye-teeth are all but safe.  No longer are they under threat of exchange for a sample of dodgy live concert footage from their peak period between 1970 and 1972 as freshly arrived from a well known on-line retailer is a new DVD; ‘Curved Air – The Lost Broadcasts’.

As far as I am aware, this is one of only two videos in existence which captures them during their golden period even if it is not real concert footage and it has its own idiosyncrasies.  The good news is that the two sessions on this disk, recorded in March and September 1971 for the German TV programme, Beat Club, comprise a total of five songs from ‘Air Conditioning’ and ‘Second Album’ including ‘Back Street Luv’ and the epic ‘Piece of Mind’.  The bad news is that for the second broadcast, session drummer Barry deSouza fills in for regular drummer, Florian Pilkington-Miksa and the obsession with weird TV effects (1971-stylee) with blue screen backdrops and the like, is mildly irritating.  However, the only other video from this period, from a 1972 Belgian TV programme, suffers even more from irritating effects and cutaways, so mustn’t grumble.

So in the scheme of things, this is gold dust.  Looking distressingly young – they were all about 22 at the time – the band demonstrates just what a talented lot they were.  The two aspects that drew me to them in the first place are still mesmerisingly magnetic.  First, the combination of Darryl Way’s electric violin and Francis Monkman’s (at the time) groundbreaking use of the early VCS3 synthesiser still has an oddness about it that time has not diminished.

Second is the female vocals of Sonja Kristina Linwood, an asset that most rock bands of the day did not possess and which added a third unexpected layer to the overall sound.  In fact, her performance is even better than I remember from numerous 70s concerts, especially on the atonally difficult melody of ‘Piece of Mind’ where her confidence is awesome.

Of course, the hairstyles and clothes are laughable (whatever happened to velvet loons?) but the musicianship is first rate as one would expect from a band of this vintage.  It would only be a few years before this type of competency would be derided by the first wave of punk.  Nevertheless, with only five songs on offer, it’s a shame that they chose to include Way’s elongated party piece, ‘Vivaldi’, a mass of electronic effects and cleverness, which only just works on stage but falls a bit flat on screen.  But we do have ‘Back Street Luv’ and mercifully in it’s original form with Sonja’s cool haunted vocal rather than the histrionics we got a few years later.  And we do get a slightly-truncated-from-12-minutes version of their masterpiece, ‘Piece of Mind’ complete with spoken verses from TS Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’.  Magical.

Admittedly, this is probably no more than a curiosity to most viewers, a rather dated snapshot of another time and place, but to fans, this is indispensable.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Coldplay and a dollop of Marmite

After much deliberation I have decided that the word that applies here is ‘Marmite’.  It always interests me how words extend their meaning over time and Marmite, despite being a trademark, is one of them.  These days it refers not only to that sticky black stuff that you spread on toast, but also to an attitude towards certain things.  If an object or concept is ‘Marmite’ it is generally understood to divide opinion into those that love and those that hate – there is no half-way house.

Which brings us inexorably to Coldplay and the problem that I have been wrestling with.  Whilst I can readily appreciate that Coldplay could be quite properly described as a Marmite band, this does not quite help with my dilemma.  You see, I’ve gone down a level and have found that it is not the band per se as much as each individual song that is Marmite.  It’s the only explanation.  For some time now, I have found that I am cherry picking about half a dozen of their songs from their catalogue.  These are the songs that I find utterly uplifting yet I reject all their remaining material as dross.

Let’s not be coy.  Those on the list are the likes of ‘Speed of Sound’, ‘Paradise’, ‘Clocks’, ‘Yellow’ and ‘The Scientist’ and maybe one or two more and they sit in a playlist on my ipod as shining examples of modern pop.  But that’s where it stops as far as Coldplay is concerned as I’ve never really got on with the remainder of any of their albums despite owning them all.  In all my years of music obsessive-ness, I’ve never known a band that splits my allegiance on a song by song level to such a degree.  It’s a bit un-nerving and if at the next social function anyone asks me whether I like Coldplay, I’m not sure what I’m going to say.  I’ll probably open and close my mouth a few times like a beached fish and fail miserably to construct any sort of reasoned argument.

I suppose that when it comes down to it, I find Coldplay a bit, well, boring in the way that their fiercest critics propound and that would explain my antipathy to most of their output.  Yet, somehow, when their style works, it works spectacularly well as in the list above.  It seems that they tread a very fine line and the spark that lifts them above it is a rare and splendid thing.  Perhaps it is just as well that it is an infrequent occurrence as it makes the results something to be savoured.

It just pains me to think that I bought all those albums just for a handful of songs.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Death of an Album

News has filtered down that for the first time ever; the Number One Chart Album has sold less than 10,000 copies.  No doubt obituaries for the album-as-we-know-it are currently being dusted off in readiness that this figure falls further and the album dies a horrible death.  In this instant gratification pick-n-mix age, I suppose this was inevitable.

In the natural world everything works to a rhythm and it seems that the journey of the album falls into this instinctive path.  Back in the early days, albums of songs were just that – a collection of 78 rpm discs that housed musical selections.  When the 33 rpm long player emerged, nothing much changed as its contents still represented little more than a collection of unrelated songs – a selection of singles on one disc, if you like.

It was not until the mid-sixties that the album started to take on a life of its own and become a cohesive whole.  Musicians started to believe that an album was a single piece of art, not to be broken down into its constituent parts but viewed as a whole, like a painting or sculpture. Songs linked by concept or theme started to appear, collages with no gaps between songs or single side pieces.  This reached its zenith in the 70s with the prog-rock giants and whilst the format took a bit of a battering from Punk and the new wave, it still staggered on into the 80s and beyond.  During this period, albums had an identity, a time and place and a huge artwork cover to proclaim it (and don’t they look so BIG now?).  Digital files have none of this.

Today, we have almost turned full circle and the nominal ‘album’ has returned to its origins, being little more than a collection of singles.  This state of unrelatedness is an ideal format for the world of cherry picking through digital downloads as there is no reason why individual songs should not be separated from the rest.  But if this is a purposely engineered state, why release an album at all?  Why not just release a stream of singles to be bought individually, with a suitable discount for buying more than one at a time?

I remember that The Pink Floyd challenged iTunes hoping to forbid the sale of individual songs off their albums.  To them you needed to buy ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ in its entirety, not just bits of it.  It looks like they failed as Amazon are doing just that.  Progress eh?

RIP The Album.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Mike Oldfield - Ommadawn

One of the most heart-warming moments for me of late, occurred during the London Olympic Opening Ceremony and that was the inclusion of Mike Oldfield and his live renditions of parts of ‘Tubular Bells’.  Despite his global profile, his name is not one that automatically springs to mind when a list of GB musical greats is mooted amongst the likes of The Who, Beatles and Kinks.  Yet he probably represents the essence of British individuality (some may say eccentricity) more than most – who else do you know who would lock himself away with a reel-to-reel recorder, endlessly overdubbing for months on end?

I freely admit that those opening bars to Tubular Bells sent shivers down my spine and consequently, I dug out my CD copy and have been playing it ever since.  However, I am also hideously guilty of ignoring him as an artist as despite a career of 40 years and 25-odd albums, I only own the ubiquitous ‘Tubular Bells’…and one other; ‘Ommadawn’ from 1975.

Quite why I decided to buy ‘Ommadawn’ and nothing else is quite beyond me.  I have no memory whatsoever of actually buying the thing, yet I remember playing it a lot during my student days.  Looking at the comments on Amazon, it seems that it is a well-liked album so perhaps I made the correct decision but is does beg the question; why?

This only-buying-one-album thing seems to happen to me quite a lot but usually there is a perfectly rational explanation.  The obvious one is that the album has been prefaced by a killer single.  On many occasions this has led to an album purchase from someone I would generally avoid, hence the one purchase only from a long career.  Alternatively a friend lends me an album on a you’ll-like-this basis and it turns out that I do.  But in the strange case of ‘Ommadawn’, none of this happened.  I didn’t borrow it and I can’t believe I heard anything from it on the radio, so what was it that propelled me into a record store to buy it?

I’m not sure I’ll ever know, but I do know why I have just purchased the 2010 remix on CD.  It is because;
a)      I have been inspired by the Olympic Ceremony performance
b)      I wanted to replace my vinyl copy of a well loved album, and
c)      I was interested to see what Oldfield’s new mix sounded like

See, it’s easy when you have a reason or two and just for the record, the 2010 remix is fabulous – including the strangely naïve yet charmingly beautiful, ‘On Horseback’.  Now about all these other one-off albums I seem to have…

Friday, 14 September 2012

Wire Daisies

As Norman Stanley Fletcher once claimed, it is the small victories in life that stop you going insane.  Like when you get one over on iTunes.  There I was, putting a few playlists together in iTunes ready to synch them up to my iPod when that damned automated Genius thingy pushes an album cover in my face saying, ‘You’ll like this…’

Don’t you just hate it when companies use mindless technology to burrow deep inside your brain and then purport to tell you what you will or will not like?  The cheek!  And all so that they can shift a few more ‘units’.  The problem was that having played a few extracts, it did sound quite attractive and all for £6.99.

So I did what I always do – nip over to YouTube and see if there’s any live footage to check out.  There was and I was weakening so I checked Amazon and there it was available to download for circa £5, so I downloaded it and saved myself a couple of quid. Hahahahahahahaha!  Oh dear, I must get out more.

So I am now the proud owner of Wire Daisies’ second eponymous album, a band that up until iTunes intervened, I’d not heard of, and rather splendid it is too.  Of course, the Genius tool need not be that bright – all it needs to do in my case is present a list of female fronted rock bands and I’d be bound to find at least one to my taste and in this instance Wire Daisies fits the bill.  Fronted by singer, Treana Morris, they comprise Alden Evans (guitar), Ol Beach (keyboards) and Steve Jackson (drums) and hail from Cornwall in the balmy English Southwest.  They probably live next door to PJ Harvey.

I suppose I would call them a traditional band in that they barely use any modern electronic trickery and meld proper, almost folky songs with edgy rock arrangements in the manner of say, Jethro Tull, but without all the proggy time signature changes and classical interludes.  This album has also been beautifully engineered by John Cornfield (Supergrass, Muse, Stone Roses etc) giving it a punchy, immediate sound with loads of space around the instruments so that you can hear exactly what’s going on.  Which means that you get to hear little bits of wah-wah guitar and the like – blimey, 1960s or what?

So, all in all, a nice little purchase and all the better for allowing iTunes to propose it and then not paying them to own it.  Made my day.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Steve Hackett Remasters

I’ve always had to suppress my inner Luddite when it comes to music technology.  Back in the 80s I was never entirely convinced that CDs were ‘better’ than LPs.  More convenient, certainly, but not necessarily better in terms of sound quality.  This attitude has passed into the present where I use an iPod constantly for convenience sake but frankly the sound quality is only average.  The other area where I feel I’ve been had several times over is in the area of ‘re-mastering’ back catalogue.

Over the years I have bought various albums several times, usually as the format changes but also whilst caught on the lure of better quality sound as a result of re-mastering old albums.  Almost without exception, these new products sound ‘different’ but not necessarily ‘better’ and in some case they are just downright worse.  So I am pleased to report that I have just purchased downloads of Steve Hackett’s first three solo albums in re-mastered format and guess what?  They are superb.

I’ve always had a fondness for Hackett’s first three albums as they represent three different approaches to his art.  The first, ‘Voyage of the Acolyte’ is basically what Genesis’ ‘And Then There Were Three’ might have sounded like if it had been Tony Banks that had left rather than Hackett.  It’s a sort of Genesis-with-guitars rather than the Genesis-with-keyboards of the official band – and no worse off for it.  The use of Collins and Rutherford as a backing band gives it a familiar sound but it is definitely a Hackett showcase.  I remember buying this and ‘Trick of the Tail’ together circa 1976 and preferring this.

The second, ‘Please Don’t Touch’ is an attempt at a Transatlantic Genesis complete with American vocalists and production.  Some of this works (Randy Crawford’s fabulous take on ‘Hoping Love Will Last’ is wonderful) and some doesn’t but it still has the trademark snatches of classical guitar and general melancholic atmosphere that pervades his best work.

The third, ‘Spectral Mornings’ is the first of what would become a run of ‘Steve Hackett Band’ albums with a stable line-up of musicians.  Here it is in its infancy containing some cracking instrumentals and a wide diversity of material.  Subsequent albums wrung the Band sound dry and got more formulaic as the restrictions of a set line-up chafed so this first of the bunch sounds so much fresher and more direct.

For the first time, I can definitely attest to the benefits of re-mastering.  These albums sound more detailed, bringing out the tonality of the instruments and have revealed little additional parts in the mix that were once buried.  My original CDs sound very thin in comparison to the new re-masters.  It’s almost as if the old analogue sound has been reinstated giving a fuller warmer, yet more detailed sound and I’m very glad to have digital files of this quality back in my collection.  I understand that Steve himself oversaw the work on this project.  Perhaps it takes the original creator to know what it should sound like?

Friday, 17 August 2012

London Olympics 2012

Oh Dear!  I’m having a colossal post-Olympic let down.  For 16 wonderful days I have lived the Olympic dream and marvelled at London 2012.  I’ve shouted at the TV till I’m hoarse, felt my heart burst with pride at the achievement of Team GB and cried my eyes out watching people of all nations achieve their personal dreams.  I’ve always enjoyed sport but this was something else – something that I’m so glad that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime: a home Games.

I watched virtually everything on TV; three and a half hours of cycle road-racing (gripping), rowing, equestrian, boxing (never thought I’d see a knock down in a women’s match), hockey, football, track and field athletics, swimming, you name it, I watched it.  London never looked better, come rain or shine and the various Games venues set amongst England’s rich heritage, Greenwich Navel College, Horse Guards Parade, Lord’s Cricket Ground, Eton Dorney, Box Hill, Hyde Park, Wimbledon, Weymouth Sound and others scrubbed up surprisingly well.

For me, the legacy of this particular Olympics is the way it has changed the way I look at sport now.  It has put truly professional sports, especially football, into perspective and revealed their participants to be nothing more than highly paid under-achievers.  Whilst it would be naïve to think that Olympic athletes do not receive money, in many instances it is subsistence only, food and board whilst training.  Many still have a day job yet still find the time to train so as to compete and achieve at the highest level.  Somehow, the Olympic Games gives us a pure sporting spectacle and the emotion shown by the athletes reveals that overcoming all odds without monetary recompense is its own reward.  Stunning and humbling.

More in line with this blog, and I apologise if I sound nationalistic here, I felt a real pride in the music utilised in both the opening and closing ceremonies.  As one who has lived a life of music, it was very satisfying to see British music given its own showcase and to underline the decades of quality art we have given the world.  From The Beatles to Take That, this small Isle has come up with the goods over and over.

My own favourite moments included Ray Davies warbling ‘Waterloo Sunset’, Kate Bush’s re-mixed and re-vocalised version of ‘Running Up That Hill’ (modulated down a key or two to suit her current singing range) and Emeli Sande’s beautiful rendering of ‘Abide With Me’.  The only sour moment was provided by George Michael who ignored his back catalogue and chose the occasion to publicise his new single.  What a twat.  The Olympic Games is all about endeavour to achieve – not endeavour to make a few more millions, George.  Perhaps someone should tell him what the Olympic Dream really means.

Here's something else I picked up - a song called 'London' by Thea Gilmore.  It was used by the BBC for the backing to an image collage of the Games and set it off perfectly.  Lyrics are by Sandy Denny and were only discovered recently.  Thea was asked to set them to music - here's the result.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Mott The Hoople and a Turning Point

Is it just me or are there certain songs that are so evocative of their time that just playing them sends you into a time warp?  This has nothing to do with individual memories but taps a pipeline to a broader collective history that lurks in us all.  I’ve blathered on about the link between music and memory before but this is different – I think.  This is more to do with the intrinsic qualities of certain songs that cannot possibly exist outside of their own moment in time.

For me, such a song is Mott The Hoople’s ‘All the Young Dudes’.  Even the title only really exists in 1972.  Transplant it into the present and it sounds ridiculous.  Every time I hear ‘Dudes’ leaking from the radio, my mind is filled with that period in the early 70s when the times they were a-changing.

In the late sixties and early seventies, music was made by earnest, hairy beings who served up the Blues or Prog or something in between.  The God of Music ruled over The God of Image and the more faded your jeans and T-shirt were, the more your sounds were accepted.  By the mid-seventies, Glam had changed all that and the God of Image, (and the brighter and gaudier the better), vied for the attention that was The God of Music’s traditional domain.  Some may say, it was the beginning of the end but that’s another conversation.

In 1972, the crossover between the two begun and Mott The Hoople seemed to bestride the chasm like a colossus, as Shakespeare might have put it if he’d been an NME hack in those days.  To look at, Ian Hunter was a long haired rocker of the late sixties who should‘ve been grinding out some worthy blues covers, yet ‘All The Young Dudes’ wasn’t anchored in the past.  In fact, it was very much looking to the future.  Written by David Bowie, who was essaying the quintessential Glam look himself, it was couched in the modern vernacular and musically, pushed away as far from the then current trend as it dared.

With it’s street-wise half spoken verse and sublime soaring singalong chorus, it was a pure pop song yet it had the otherworldliness of Bowie’s early work that separates it both from the prog/blues albums bands and the frothy chart pop of the time.  It was the future of music.

Others in the Glam vanguard like Bolan and Roxy Music were already paid up members of the new world whose image betrayed their musical direction but Mott The Hoople were not like them.  Sure, they smartened themselves up when they saw which way the wind was blowing but they were not Glam pioneers per se.  Hence their marriage of old style band image and futuristic song had all the makings of a once in a moment musical touchstone, a real turning point.  And you can’t move turning points, they are by definition rooted to their place in time.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Jon Lord 1941 - 2012

It barely seems like five minutes ago that I was writing a post about the role of the extraordinary Hammond Organ in my musical apprenticeship (in fact it was over two years ago) and now here we are mourning the passing of one of its greatest exponents, Jon Lord.  Along with the likes of Stevie Winwood, Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, Jon Lord was a master of the instrument and his signature jazz/rock licks can be heard underpinning music from Deep Purple, Whitesnake and his various collaborative bands from the sixties to the point when he became ill with cancer a year or so ago.

Weirdly, I never owned a Deep Purple studio album, opting for the ‘Live in Japan’ set and the rare ‘Marks I and II’ compilation but always kept a batch of taped DP singles recorded from the radio and TV.  More particularly, and in my usual manner of going for the fringe projects, I bought Deep Purple’s 1969 ‘Concerto For Group and Orchestra’ written by Lord, which I enjoyed then and still like today.  It speaks volumes of the man that he could encompass all forms of music from the discipline of classical composition to the unstructured improvisation of jazz and the sheer brutality of heavy rock.  In his mind, it was all just music and for that I applaud him.  It was a concept that he understood completely yet my music teachers at school failed to grasp.  As a consequence, I was instructed to believe that anything that wasn’t classical wasn’t really music.  What piffle – yet this was the late sixties when such views were rife.  This attitude has changed, thankfully, and today I can attend my daughter’s school concert and hear pieces by Mendelssohn, Bach, Lennon & McCartney and Journey (!)

In 1969 the idea of a ‘Rock Concerto’ was uncharted territory and tantamount to suicide artistically as the audiences for classical and rock music were utterly divided by both generation and attitude.  Rather than try to gloss over this chasm, Lord cleverly treated the rock band as the Concerto ‘soloist’ in place of the usual single instrument and rather than try to blend rock and orchestral instruments together, actually accentuated their differences by making the band loud and raucous thus creating a musical war that is full of drama and conflict.  The live recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Malcolm Arnold is stirring stuff, full of great orchestral themes juxtaposed with bluesy fuzzed up guitar solos.

I admired Jon Lord both as a composer and a musician and if you don’t like his Concerto (or subsequent Gemini Suite) just go and listen to his solos on ’Highway Star’ or ‘Burn’.  After all, it’s just music.

RIP Jon.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Doris Brendel - Not Utopia

I’d just got my USB turntable working properly with Windows 7 (thanks to v2.0 of Audacity) and was busy converting King Crimson’s awesome 1974 offering, ‘Red’ to MP3 when what should pop up in my Inbox but a message from that purveyor of eclectic pop, Doris Brendel. Would I like to review her latest album, ‘Not Utopia’? I would. So here it is on my ipod and it takes some dogged scepticism in fate to believe that Messrs Fripp, Wetton and Bruford didn’t deliberately act as a portent to the arrival of this CD as the opening track, ‘No Lonely Girl’ essays the sort of metal guitar riff and pumping bass that could’ve been lifted from ‘Red’. Spooky.

As the daughter of a celebrated concert pianist and lead singer of cult 90s nu-progressive pop band, The Violet Hour, you’d expect a certain degree of musical nous from Ms Brendel and this album certainly delivers, especially in the areas that matter: variety and arrangement. Let’s take the latter first. What is it about musical arrangement that it seems to have such stigma attached to it? These days, all chart singles sound the same and for the very good reason that they use the same recipe. Take equal amounts of ‘beats’ and synths, chuck them into a computer and regurgitate at c120 bpm. Add auto-tuned vocals to taste. But it wasn’t always like this.

In the pre-digital days of Fripp/Wetton/Bruford, musicians who looked to produce anything outside of the 3 minute single were forced to arrange music in almost classical style (try all 12 minutes of ‘Starless’ from the aforementioned ‘Red’). Perhaps this is why ‘arrangement’ doesn’t figure these days – it has the taint of ‘Prog – do not touch with barge-pole’ indelibly stamped on it. But Brendel and her multi-instrumentalist collaborator, Lee Dunham, care little for prejudice and have stuffed NU with as many different instrument combinations as it will take, from Doris’s own haunting flageolet to rampant guitars, pastoral keyboards, plaintive oboes and String Quartets. As a result, each track has its own sonic identity and surprises you at every turn with its tonal intricacy – thus leading us neatly to point 2.

Variety. Rather than sounding like a current chart album bulging with cloned and ultimately boring, yet hopeful money-spinners, NU sounds wonderfully out of step in today’s market place in that every track is wilfully different. This type of madness was once the norm but not these days and Brendel should be applauded for her bravery. The album displays a multitude of styles from the Blondie pop/rock of ‘Going Out’ to the beautifully orchestrated ‘Kind To Be Cruel’ and the proggy overtones of my current favourite, ‘Passionate Weekend’ (which I would’ve loved to have heard developed to about twice its length!). In amongst these are acoustic ballads, bluesey laments and mad pseudo-metal all of which are imbued with her own brand of lyrical quirkiness and Dunham’s virtuoso playing (which is excellent, although I could’ve done without the drum machine – where’s Bill Bruford when you need him?)

Rising above this tapestry of sound is Brendel’s unique voice, all husk and bluesy emotion – a voice steeped in the sort of life experience that the likes of Katy Perry can only read about. As the blurb that accompanies the CD states, ‘There’s something for everyone’ and it’s true, but the other side of that particular coin is a slight lack of production consistency and the very real possibility that an audience bred on monotony is not going to like all of it. But then the White Album never hurt those scousers, did it? Personally, I love it, well the majority of it, anyway and by today’s standards that’s a firm recommendation. It’s not often that you get to hear an album like this in today’s blanded out world. Enjoy it while you can.

‘Not Utopia’ is available through Sky-Rocket Records. For more information visit Doris’s websites at or  In the meantime, here's 'Going Out' with Sophie Patrick (as if).

Friday, 22 June 2012

Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs - Under The Covers Vol 1

Inspired by the last Bangles album, I have been looking again at Susanna Hoffs’s extra curricula catalogue but this time with some foreboding.  I did this once before following The Bangles’ break-up in 1989 and bought her solo effort ‘When You’re a Boy’ but it didn’t do much for me, hence the slight anxiety.  But this time I have chanced upon her collaboration with producer and multi-instrumentalist, Matthew Sweet and this time it was worth the money.

Sweet and Hoffs, or Sid ‘n’ Susie as they are billing themselves, have tapped into their love of the 60s and 70s and created a series of ‘Under the Covers’ releases (two volumes to date).  Volume 1 spans the 1960s and mixes well known songs like ‘Monday Monday’ and ‘Alone Again Or’ with lesser known efforts from the big hitters of the day like the Beach Boys (‘The Warmth of the Sun’), The Zombies (‘Care of Cell 44’) and a killer version of The Beatles’ ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’.

The prickly subject of covers has been aired numerous times in this blog and it bears stating here that these are not deliberate re-workings of the original songs but more loving reconstructions, done with infinite care in a totally modern environment – no analogue and sticky tape here.  What really sets them apart from the blueprints is the vocal performances which are nothing short of awesome from both Ms Hoffs and Mr Sweet and despite having vocal tones at opposite ends of the scale they combine beautifully.  You can almost hear the fun they had doing these songs which are clearly close to their collective hearts.

Dare I say that Hoffs’ take on ‘Who Knows where the Time Goes’ is on a par with Sandy Denny’s original?  It works, yet somehow you don’t expect an American voice to gel with Fairport’s quintessentially English folk sound.  Sweet struggles a bit with the Wilson falsetto on ‘Warmth of the Sun’ but his rasping performance of Neil Young’s ‘Cinnamon Girl’ is a great cut, as is his interpretation of The Who’s ‘The Kids are Alright’.  Let’s face it, this is not high art in the accepted sense but nor is it downmarket karaoke but something in between.  Mainly, it’s a fun record made by people with talent and a real love of their subject matter and one that I shall return to on a regular basis.

So with Volume 1 in the bag, I may well have to have a look at Volume 2 which majors on the 1970s.  I couldn’t resist having a listen to their take on a surprising choice of Yes’s ‘I’ve Seen All Good People/Your Move’, and am staggered to report that if Susanna Hoffs is not the next Yes singer, I’ll eat…something.  She really nails it.  Is there nothing she can’t sing?  And with Clapton’s ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ and ‘You’re So Vain’ on the setlist, I don’t think I’ll be resisting for long.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Diamond Jubilee Concert

Well, it rained.  What did you expect? This is Britain after all.  At chez Music Obsessive we initially struck lucky whilst attending a Diamond Jubilee party on the Saturday with Kiwi neighbours and stayed dry despite a threatening, brooding sky but by the time we hosted our own tea party on Tuesday, it bucketed down requiring a smart move indoors where we all crushed together and got bunting tangled in our hair.

But now that we have put away the Union Jack tea-set ready for the next Royal event we can get down to the real business of this blog – the Diamond Jubilee Concert.  Designed to showcase the best of British over the last 60 years, it was typically British; bathed in nostalgia for lost glories, a bizarre mixture of the quite brilliant and the terribly naff, yet warm hearted and a mini-triumph against all odds.  Whilst you could quibble with the playlist, you can’t really argue with the likes of (Sirs) Cliff Richard, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Tom Jones…oh and Robbie Williams although quite what Stevie Wonder was doing there, I’m not sure even he knew but when he did an awesome ‘Superstition’, I was past caring.  The stage, built around the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace was magnificent and the laser light projections onto the Palace itself were breath-taking, especially during Madness’s stint on the roof.

 I admit, I enjoyed it immensely but there was undoubtedly an elephant in the room, or on the stage, and that was voices.  I’m afraid to say that when singers reach their sixties, seventies and beyond, the voice diminishes and Cliff, Elton, Paul and even Annie Lennox all struggled.  Tom Jones fared better but even the great Shirley Bassey (and no one sings Bond themes like Shirl) has fallen victim to the ravages of time.  Sad but inevitable.

Of course, if you’re going to present the Best of British, one attribute that must be present and correct is outrageous eccentricity and one or two performers stepped up to the plate in grand style.  Annie Lennox and her entire band sported Angel Wings for her rendition of ‘There Must Be An Angel’ and honorary Brit, Kylie, did her hits medley clad in a sort of Pearly-Queen-on-Acid outfit.  But no one could compete with Grace Jones who hula-hooped without a hitch through the entire performance of ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ despite her oiled body and slippery-looking rubber-leotard-type costume complete with what looked like a giant orchid on her head.  Brilliant.

Another of my abiding memories of the evening will be when the TV cameras picked out the most Reverend Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the crowd and he was singing along to McCartney’s ‘All My Lovin’’ – and knew all the words. So much for the Devil and best tunes.  I’ve always thought that The Archbishop hides a secret musical past.  His sermon at the Jubilee Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s Cathedral bordered on that of an aging hippy, all give-up-your-possessions and peace and love, maan.  Also, he lost no time adding fuel to my theory by referencing Ray Davies in his Sermon.  According to the Archbishop, Davies’ use of the word ‘dedicated’ in his seminal 60s tune, ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ is not strictly correct.  I’ll bet Ray Davies, when he conceived the lyrics all those years ago, never envisaged having them picked apart by an Archbishop of Canterbury to a global audience at a Royal Event.

Still, makes you proud to be British.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Playlists and the Ultimate Test

Eureka!  I have just discovered a foolproof way of discovering what you like, what you really really like.  You know how it is, there are always social occasions where you get asked what your favourite songs are by, let’s say for the sake of argument, Queen.  At this point, you are immediately on show and the choices you make reflect upon your standing in society, so you probably do the following.

First up, you pick a few popular titles so as to establish a rapport with your enquirer (Bohemian Rhapsody, We Are the Champions etc), then you add a few early titles so as to show that you’re not a Johnny-come-lately to the band (Seven Seas of Rye or anything earlier if you dare) and then pick a few obscurities to round off the list just to prove that you know all their albums and not just the singles.  Job done.

But do you actually like any of these songs?  At the time, you may think so but I’ll wager not all of them are true favourites.  The way to test this assumption is to create a playlist of about a dozen of these so-called favourites and then play them every day for weeks.  Very soon, you begin to realise that there are some on the list that you can’t wait to get to and others where your finger is itching to press the skip button.

I discovered this phenomenon when I complied what I thought were my very bestest loved Smiths songs into a playlist of about 15 culled mainly from ‘Hatful of Hollow’ and their four studio albums.  After a few days I’d already pared this list down to 10 and after a few more it was down to about half a dozen.  Interestingly, many of those songs that I would’ve sworn blind were my all-time favs fell off the list early on – and all of them were from ‘Hatful of Hollow’, still my favourite Smiths album.

Finally, the list stabilised for some days and comprised the following five:
  1. Hand in Glove
  2. The Headmaster Ritual
  3. I Want the One I Can’t Have
  4. Bigmouth Strikes Again
  5. Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before

I think it is safe to say that these are my true favourites, born of trial by fire and Ipod playlist, but whether I would’ve come up with this list before is very debateable.  Interestingly, two of these songs have been covered by others and there is no doubt that the act of a new interpretation has elevated them in my estimation as a different side to their nature has been revealed.  The two in question are ‘Hand in Glove’ covered by Sandie Shaw and ‘Stop Me…’ covered by Sarah Blackwood of Dubstar and both show how the songs can live outside of the unique Morrissey/Marr environment.

I must try and remember these the next time I’m asked.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Marina and The Diamonds - Electra Heart

There was a time when I regularly bought LPs on their day of release, even to the point of waiting outside music shops so as to rush inside the minute they opened so as to be heading homewards with a brand new LP clutched in my sweaty paw by 9.01 am.  Happy days.  Since the advent of the CD and now Downloads that initial enthusiasm has waned for the most part although some items have been snapped up immediately but these days that just means clicking the pre-order button.

Despite my aging cynicism, there is one album that I have been awaiting for some few months and it is ‘Electra Heart’ by the strangely accented Marina Diamandis (or Marina and the Diamonds as she has styled herself).  When her debut, ‘The Family Jewels’ arrived in 2010 I decided to give it a listen despite the hype from the music press and found that there was substance to the hyperbole.  In fact it turned out to be one of my favourite albums of the year, melding astute lyrics to crafted melodies sung in that peculiar half Welsh, half Greek accent.  It sounded different.  It was different.

So her follow up album has been on my list ever since and as the months have passed, it has grown into a must buy.  Hence my first day of release purchase like the awe-struck teenager that I once was.  But was it worth it?  Now read on.

Well, after several plays I can report that the voice is still as beguiling as it ever was.  That low register growl that shoots up to a pure falsetto inflected with that kooky Welsh/Greek accent is one of pop’s most unique instruments.  Also present and correct are the thoughtful yet pointed lyrics.  I haven’t found myself really listening to what a song is actually saying since ooh…the days of Joni Mitchell in the 70s.  She really does have a way with words, this girl.

Nevertheless, as with many second albums, the music is not quite up to the standard of ‘Family Jewels’.  There are exceptions, like the storming opener ‘Bubblegum Bitch’ and the atmospheric closer ‘Fear and Loathing’ and one or two in between but generally, it is not quite as consistent, but this was almost inevitable given the quality of FJ.  My feeling is that Marina wants to be a star and is prepared to be drawn into the ‘star-making machinery’ (to quote the aforementioned Ms Mitchell).  There are no less than 8 producer/writers credited on this album, one of them being star-maker writer himself, Rick Nowells.  As a result, the album is all over the place, style-wise and struggles for consistency.  It lurches from crunching cutting edge synthesised ‘beats’ one minute to old-school rock arrangements the next.  Little Boots’ debut ‘Hands’ suffered the same way – it seems that the current music industry is so paranoid of failure that it will dress up all potential new talent with a slick everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production believing this will make them mass audience friendly rather than letting them breathe by themselves.

But in the case of Ms Diamandis, I can’t help feeling that all this paraphernalia is totally unnecessary.  The fact is that Marina has the most important tools required to be a star already on board – her unique voice and her undoubted song writing ability, both with tunes and lyrics.  The issue with this album is that both are submerged in a mess of over-production and too many song writing collaborations.  Aimee Mann and Nerina Pallot have also been pushed down the ‘must collaborate’ path and it didn’t work for them either.  ‘Fear and Loathing’ and the excellent 'Teen Idle' are by far the best songs in the set and she wrote them by herself.  QED.

Despite all this, I still like ‘Electra Heart’, and seeing the ‘acoustic’ versions of some of the songs on YouTube just confirms my views about production (see video attached to this post).  Marina, please just take a deep breath, write some great songs and find a producer who will set them sympathetically to show off your thought-provoking lyrics and that fascinating voice.  Those are your USPs - not an all-enveloping production.  You don’t need to be Katy Perry to succeed.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Queen - Now I'm Here

Looking through my motley collection of vinyl singles the other day, it struck me how different were their reasons for being there.  Some sit there anonymously as if I’d never bought them at all and they had just sneaked in by chance during a dark night, yet others are full of pride and bursting to tell their story.  One of those eager storytellers is ‘Now I’m Here’ by Queen.

In the early 1970s I had become a fully fledged album buyer after spending much of the late sixties amassing a small, yet top quality (ahem) singles collection but as I became a student at University in the autumn of 1974 the restrictions of a student grant (remember them?) meant that in order to satisfy my rampant music possession syndrome urge I had to reduce myself yet again to a singles buyer.

This was a pain in the backside yet it did lead to my purchase of Queen’s ‘Now I’m Here’ in early ‘75, which if memory serves, was the first Queen record I ever bought.  Now, the second issue I was faced with was this: not wanting to uproot my beloved stereo system, I didn’t have a record player with me – only a tape player and a load of LPs hastily transferred to cassette the previous summer.  True, my first year room mate had brought with him an ancient autochanger-in-a-box, the sort of kit that every sixties teenager owned in order to annoy the older generation with the new-fangled beat music.  But it was his, not mine.

So the reason this single has its very own back story is partly because it didn’t get played very much…until I went home for the weekend, that is.  In my first year, I went home for a weekend once or twice a term.  Of course this didn’t happen at all after the first few terms as life away from home became infinitely preferable to life at home but that’s another story and probably one that everyone knows.  I always managed to arrive home about midday on the Friday when the house was empty, all occupants still being at work or school and this was the moment that ‘Now I’m Here’ came into its own.

My own prized stereo system still sat in my room and I cranked it up to ‘11’ to play my still pristine Queen single.  It’s a great rock number in anyone’s book but at deafening volume in an empty house it sounded sublime.  You could even play a bit of air guitar and leap around without anyone seeing.  This is what teenage years were made for.  Brilliant.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Music and the Loss of Community

One of the inevitable consequences of age is that reflection follows.  Now that the popular music genre we call Rock ‘n’ Roll has staggered past its fiftieth birthday, television is awash with retrospective documentaries about this band and that time and so on.  In particular I have just watched a three part documentary tucked away on BBC4 about the attempts of British bands to crack the vast American market from Beatles in 1964 to the New Romantics of the 1980s.  All fascinating stuff, especially the bits where you try to work out who is being interviewed by matching up the fresh faced youths in the archive film to the ravaged face of the interviewee.

But more than anything else, I came away with a sense of loss for a musical community that seemed to exist in the 60s and 70s and has now dissipated.  Admittedly, because of the nature of the programme subject matter, most of the band names were British but the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the Animals in the 60s together with Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, ELP, Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd in the 70s are known to a generation of music lovers on a global scale.  Throw in the American contributions such as Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan and so on and you have a community of musicians that is part of the life of everyone of a certain age.

When I converse with my Blogosphere Buddies throughout the world, it is obvious that those of us of a similar age have much in common whether we live in the US, the UK, Australia, Canada or even the non-English speaking countries in Europe and beyond.  For those of us born in the 50s and 60s when the musical community was much smaller than it is today, there are common touchstones that allow us to converse easily and understand each other.

I’m not convinced that this sense of commonality exits today.  Having rashly opined that many of my fellow bloggers have a common past, when it comes to today’s music, we have very little in common.  When I read blogs containing reviews of recently released music, I very rarely know of the artist, let alone the album itself.

Music today is a vast industry comprising numerous genres and sub-markets.  Unless you are Lady Gaga or Adele or similar there is no real global connection.  Most artists today work in a niche of hardcore fans, despite the efforts of the internet.  The singles chart, such as it is, is an irrelevance, changing almost wholesale week by week.  There’s no (adopts slightly nasal Fluff Freeman voice), ‘ and … moves up 6 places to number 27’ type jostling for position over several weeks – you get in, shine for a week and are gone.

I wonder whether today’s generation will be able to reminisce about the music of their youth en masse like we can?  I rather suspect not.

Friday, 30 March 2012

The Bangles - Sweetheart of the Sun

The one thing you could not accuse The Bangles of is being prolific when it comes to output.  Since their reformation in 2000 they have only managed two albums, the quite wonderful and still my fav Bangles album ever, ‘Doll Revolution’ (2003) and now ‘Sweetheart of the Sun’.  In fact, I nearly missed ‘Sweetheart’ completely as having been tipped off as far back as 2010, or was it 2009, that it was ‘imminent’, I’d mentally gone to sleep and only spotted that it had finally been released at the back end of last year when trawling through Amazon.

So was it worth the wait?  In truth, yes, but with caveats.  In a nutshell, it starts well with the mid-tempo ‘Anna Lee’, rather loses its way in the middle and then picks up again towards the end. So 8/9 of the 12 songs are fine but the remaining few are a bit under whelming.  Whilst this is undoubtedly a fine album, I can’t help missing the quirky and sombre-voiced contributions from bassist Michael Steele, who has retired from the music biz and does not appear on this album, the first not to feature her.  The result is that the remaining three chop up song writing and vocal chores amongst them and each gets a bigger slice of the pie.

Certainly, Susanna, Vicki and Debbi have more compatible writing styles which means that the album as a whole sounds more consistent and the majority of the songs are classic west coast jangly pop at its best, but it does miss the experimental and slightly more edgy contribution that Steele brought to the table.  Interestingly, it seems that drummer Debbi Peterson has taken on part of her mantle and produced some of the more interesting songs such as the delightfully poignant ‘One of Two’.  Elsewhere, you can always rely on Susanna Hoffs to produce a one or two decent ballads and Vicki Peterson to chip in a couple of individual efforts and provide those curious sub-Neil Young blustery solos.

In fact the self-written material is generally very good but it’s the covers that let the side down, which is unusual as the band are very adept at covering others’ material.  This time around, we have Todd Rungren’s ‘Open My Eyes’ (originally recorded by The Nazz in 1968) and Carter-Lewis and the Southerners’ ‘Sweet Tender Romance’ (from 1963) which are given the usual Bangles-o-risation treatment, but sadly these are not a patch on past covers like ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’, ‘Manic Monday’ and ‘If She Knew What She Wants’.

Musically, the album is dominated by two pervading influences: country rock and the aura of the late sixties.  Some of the songs have a countrified feel with pedal steel guitar and folksy harmonies; others have a definite psychedelic lilt with Indian tinged guitar figures and the ghost of Jefferson Airplane and Love hovering over them.  The penultimate song on the album, the beautiful ‘Through Your Eyes’ could quite easily have been lifted from the sessions for Crosby Stills and Nash’s 1969 debut such are the awesome vocal harmony arrangements.  Time has not dimmed those voices and they still harmonise with real aplomb.

So whilst not quite as diverse as its predecessor, ‘Doll Revolution’, this album is still a worthwhile addition to the Bangles’ catalogue.  It shows a determined move away from trying to ‘modernise’ their sound and instead it builds on their strengths of strident retro guitars and Beach Boy harmonies and reinforces their modern psychedelic take on today’s music structures, evoking a late sixties mood which I rather like.  In truth it is still growing on me.  A keeper.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Who - I Can See For Miles

It has become apparent that, quite unconsciously, I have been led, as if by some unseen hand to post more than a few column inches about the so-called psychedelic era of 1967-8.  First there was the exotic ‘Paper Sun’ by Traffic, then the accordion infused ‘Reflections’ by The Supremes and finally, virtually anything by Cream, but especially stuff like the wah-wah drenched ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’.  This is not really something I’ve thought a lot about before, but now I come to muse on those years, there are some cracking songs to pick on.

There is something about that summer-of-love period and just after that threw up some really adventurous sounds, presumably prodded on by the studio trickery of ‘Sgt Pepper’.  Some very intriguing singles can be found amongst the output from the psychedelic period, like ‘Rainbow Chaser’ by the Anglo-Greek band, Nirvana (i.e. not Kurt’s lot) with its dizzyingly flanged chorus, virtually anything from The Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and as early as 1966, the rush of jangly guitars that heralds the Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’.

But having wallowed in a bit of strictly non-substance related nostalgia; I have come to a conclusion.  One song that, for me at least, has strong links to that time is from none of the bands so far mentioned, but from those mod-rockers, The Who.  Of course the song in question is ‘I Can See For Miles’.  Released in the relevant window of late 1967, it sees the Who on the rise to their creative peak probably around 1969/70 and uses so much studio enhanced ingenuity and complicated harmonies that, like many of its contemporaries, it was impossible to reproduce live without it sounding a tad on the thin side.

At the time, this was considered a bit inhibiting as most bands still went out on tour to hawk their wares instead of lounging around whilst their marketing company drummed up a bit of business (I know, what were they thinking?)  Whatever, it has a strange beguiling atmosphere that Who singles hadn’t had up to that date yet it still majors on the staple Who ingredients of the restlessly manic drumming of Keith Moon and the windmill chords of Pete Townsend.  Its almost whispered verse leading to a relentlessly rising chorus is one of Townsend’s crowning achievements.  There is a tension throughout the whole piece that is not fully resolved and gives it a twitchy, slightly anxious quality.

Whilst I am not convinced that any one decade is musically superior to any other in the history of pop music, there is an undoubted freshness about the 50s, 60s (and possibly 70s) born of charting new unexplored territory that is difficult to replicate now.  ‘I Can See For Miles’ has that new-born patina and listening to it even now allows you to feel it.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow

Back in ancient times, during the decade that fashion forgot, or the 1970s to give it its proper title, I’d read all the music press on a regular basis – no mean feat as the amount of paper produced by the music press in those days was considerable – and I’d wonder.  I’d wonder how reviewers could really get under the skin of an LP (for it was LPs in those far off days) after a cursory play or two.  It was my experience that new releases were a minefield of pitfalls (to thoroughly mix metaphors).  You never knew which way it would go.

There were those that would leap off the turntable (an ancient music retrieval system, M’Lud) after a single play, filling you with the certainty that another purchase was going to join your list of great albums only to find after the third play you’d be bored stiff with it and that it was really a tedious sheep in a vibrant wolf’s clothing.  Others, of course were the reverse.  I have many an album that failed at the first hurdle yet, assuming I’d bother to persevere, would sneak up on you and make itself utterly indispensable.  So, I return to my question: how do reviewers know which way to jump after only a short period of acquaintance?

I’m having that trouble with Kate Bush.  Only worse.  It’s her latest offering ’50 Words For Snow’ that is causing all this musing and stopping me from writing an erudite and informed review.  The truth is; I just can’t make my mind up even after more plays than your average reviewer would ever have the privilege of hearing.  At first, I thought it disappointing, then it began to sneak up on me in the time honoured way, but now I’m beginning to get a bit bored with it again – but interspersed with bits where I can’t help feeling, ‘that’s quite good…’.

For those who need to get up to speed, ’50 Words For Snow’ comprises 7 fairly lengthy piano based ‘songs’.  I say ‘songs’ advisedly as one of the problems is the lack of melody.  Each piece seems to comprise a meandering vocal line against a jazz-tinged backdrop.  Each ‘piece’ therefore has a ‘mood’ rather than a melody.  Which is OK, but is very much dependent on the listener’s acceptance of the ambience, which can change from day to day, hour to hour.  You don’t get these problems with melodies.  Either you like them or you don’t.  And there lies the conundrum.  Therefore, my considered opinion is that this is an album that defies traditional review because its impression varies with time (and probably mass as well).  It is more than likely the sort of album that Einstein would’ve enjoyed.  So I’ll hand you over to Prof Brian Cox to tell you whether it’s any good…

Friday, 17 February 2012

123 or 1-2-3

It never ceases to amaze me how, yet again, seemingly unrelated old memories can be triggered by songs.  There I was, browsing a post over at RockRoots about Spanish one-hit-wonders Los Bravos, like you do, and the memories attached to their mighty opus, ‘Black is Black’ came flooding back.  For some reason they involve the purchase of my first bike, a handsome blue-framed affair, and why I inexplicably decided to cover it with football stickers.  ‘Black is Black’ with its Gene Pitney-esque vocal is one of those songs that define my childhood as a sixties kid but quite why the bike is involved is beyond me.

This post also led me on to musing about other sixties one-offs and it was then that a fragment of a song forced its way into my consciousness.  I could hum it with reasonable certainty yet couldn’t quite get a handle on its entirety.  As much as I tried I just couldn’t remember who sang it or what it was called.  It went…er, let me see…
One two three…
Da da da daah da da dah
Da-da-da-dah, da da da dah da dah
It’s easy (it’s so easy)
Like taking candy, FROM A BABY!

First I tried searching all the possible singers.  The timbre of the voice suggested singers like Andy Fairweather-Low (Amen Corner), Chris Farlowe, Frankie Valli or Barry Ryan but no luck with any of them.

I then tried every ‘find your song through its lyric’ website I could find, but none of them could reveal it despite using all the keywords like ‘123’, ‘candy’ and ‘baby’.  I tried my old standby, but it still didn’t come up.  It was only days later that it suddenly popped into my head.  Of course!  It was ‘1-2-3’ by Len Barry.  Hurrah!  I’d got the song title right all along but all the lyric sites I’d consulted didn’t recognise ‘123’ in place of the official title of ‘1-2-3’.  Search engines eh?  Who writes these things?

The other discovery I’ve made about this single is that Len Barry is actually an American where I’d just assumed he was British.  My apologies to my US readers for taking the credit for this single for well over 40 years but I’m putting the record straight now.  In my defence, ‘1-2-3’ does have a very British feel to it and during the 1960s beat boom it is perhaps not surprising that it does.

Funnily enough, this one doesn’t have a specific memory attached to it; it was just sort of…there.  I still love it, so here it is.  Nice suit!!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Fathom OST - John Dankworth

I have to admit that only a decidedly small proportion of my music collection is given over to Soundtrack albums – less than 5 in fact.  I have a couple of well-loved John Barry/James Bond compilations and a collection of ‘Bronze’ acts from the Buffy TV series, but that’s about it…until I downloaded John Dankworth’s soundtrack to the film ‘Fathom’.

‘Fathom’ is my very-guilty-indeed film pleasure, a British made Bond/Avengers spy-spoof made in 1967, directed by Leslie H Martinson and starring my 60s pin-up, Raquel Welch in the title role.  It was shot on location in sunny southern Spain and in the probably rainy UK at Shepperton studios and the cast includes a whole bunch of British character actors like Ronald Fraser, Richard Briers, Tom Adams and Clive Revill along with America’s Tony Franciosa as the film’s other major draw.  Adapted from the unpublished draft of Larry Forrester’s second Fathom novel, ‘Fathom Heavensent’, the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr (of Batman TV series fame) tells of how Fathom, a US dental assistant-cum-vacationing skydiver, is drawn into a web of espionage and intrigue involving H-bombs and valuable Chinese artefacts.  The script is full of twists and turns with a host of running gags to keep it light and airy – it’s no coincidence that Leslie H Martinson had also directed ‘Batman – the Movie’ the year before.

Whilst never more than a ‘B’ movie (I saw it first when it was doing the rounds as second feature to ‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ around 1970), it has a classic 60’s vibe of tongue-in-cheek innocence and frothy inconsequence.  However, the photography, especially over the brilliantly lit Spanish Costa Del Sol, is quite stunning, Ms Welch, at 27, is at the peak of her sexpot period and the performances range from competent to hammy, but who cares?  I watch it quite regularly and am charmed every time by its dated yet engaging point-in-time aura.  It just oozes 60s appeal from the unique make-up and clothes to the curious ‘bright’ yet slightly washed out colour rendition that all films of that period seem to have.

Last but not least is the soundtrack.  Written by well-known jazz musician and spouse of Cleo Laine, John Dankworth, it is the epitome of hep-cat sixties jazz and it fits the joie de vivre of the film perfectly.  In places it veers a bit too close to Henry Mancini or Ray Conniff territory for my liking but the theme itself is a masterpiece – conjuring up the sort of ‘hip’ jazz that films used to use as ‘party’ music in the early 1960s, pre-Beatles in an effort to sound cutting edge.  In particular, there is a flamenco styled section that accompanies Raquel’s skydive to a villa perched on the Spanish Coast that is quite exhilarating and worth the price of the album alone.

Sadly, Dankworth died quite recently and much of his work is not available on CD but the soundtrack to ‘Fathom’ is a wonderful reminder of what a talent he was.  Cool, Daddy-O!

Friday, 20 January 2012

Cyndi & Sandie

Having nothing better to do on New Year’s Eve, I watched a bit of Jools Holland’s Hootenanny (HOOTENANNY!) to usher in 2012 and whilst enjoying the usual entertaining mix of acts backed largely by his own Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, I was constantly nagged by one question that seemed to loom large over the proceedings.  And it was this: Why do the older generations of popular music just refuse to go quietly?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining, just a little mystified that most acts who are now edging retirement age are not donning the comfy slippers and having an early night.  Exhibit A was Sandie Shaw who did first rate versions of both ‘Always Something There to Remind Me’ and ‘Long Live Love’ whilst predictably bare footed and wearing a dress that she probably bought in 1967 and showed acres of well preserved leg.  But not only that, she danced, flirted with Jools, sat on fellow guest James Morrison’s lap and generally terrorised the audience.  No wonder Jools saw her off with a ‘Wild Woman of Rock’ accolade.  ‘Such fun’, to coin a phrase.

The other thing that I find a bit disconcerting about performers of her vintage is the voice.  Obviously, age plays tricks with your vocal chords and the register and timbre often change as the years go by.  This is only to be expected.  But what is a little disconcerting is that every now and again, the younger version of the voice peeps through and it feels like the years have rolled back just for an instant.  This was very apparent during Sandie’s performance.  If you closed your eyes it was like her older and younger selves were vying for prominence in a Dr Who timey-wimey sort of way.  Weird.
Exhibit B was Cyndi Lauper, who whilst not quite as old as Ms Shaw, also refuses to grow old gracefully.  She also is beginning to show signs of the dual voice syndrome when doing her hits.  We were treated to an utterly mad version of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and a beautifully re-arranged version of ‘Time After Time’ with strings and pipes.  Not only that, she showed us a new side to her with a traditional blues number from her 2010 album, ‘Memphis Blues’ which I thought suited her perfectly.  It takes character to sing the blues and Cyndi has it in spades.

I like Cyndi Lauper a lot.  She is humble and has a true musical soul.  Her performances were mesmerising and full of heartfelt honesty.  How unlike her hard-nosed business woman contemporary, Madonna.  Madge, take note – you may be infinitely richer but you could learn a lot from Cyndi.  And even Sandie.