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 na├»ve 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.