Friday, 27 September 2013

Daughter - If You Leave

Oh Dear!  Act in haste, repent at leisure springs to mind.  Although in my defence I did rather enjoy Daughter at Glastonbury, enough to award them second place in my Top Three for Glasto 2013.  There was something about them in a live environment that was quite beguiling but translating their slightly ethereal material to the studio has not quite worked for them.

Following their Festival appearance, I downloaded their debut album for 4AD, ‘If You Leave’ and have been listening to it on the inevitable ipod commute.  Unfortunately it has not really gripped me.  Without the visuals and expansiveness that live performance allows, their set sounds a bit flat, repetitive and devoid of any really memorable tunes, which is a bit of a disappointment, to say the least as I had great expectations for this unlikely trio.

On the plus side, Elena Tonra’s songs have a pleasant lilting quality and exquisite lyrics and each one has been beautifully arranged by fellow band members, Igor Haefeli (guitar) and Remi Aguilella (drums), but the whole is an object lesson in why everything really comes down to the tunes.  Many have argued that the lyrical content of a song is what really matters but unless you are Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, this is a very shaky premise.  For me, this album proves the point that unless you can write a decent tune all the production stardust in the world will not save it.

That is not to say that some of the songs are not OK but too many are a bit aimless melodically and the pace is too homogenous and too measured throughout the ten or so songs.  It needs a bit of livening up and a bit of drama added (compare with Florence and the Machine, for example) to really set it free.  Even Sade’s ‘Diamond Life’, that seminal 80s cocktail album, had a verve about it despite its mellow quality that allowed you to keep interested.  Daughter, on the other hand, have produced a beautiful sounding album that appears to have all the right ingredients, yet still does not gel

I can’t help feeling that at the moment, Daughter really ought to be a ‘singles’ band as to hear one song at a time is still quite an experience.  It is when you are forced to listen to 10 of them in a row that the impact is lost.  Perhaps next time?


And on that note, I am sad to say that I am ceasing writing my regular posts on this blog.  These last few months have been more of a chore than an enjoyment so after 7 or so years and over 300 posts I am retiring.  I may post from time to time but for now, I am taking a break.  Thanks to all of you who have read my musings and commented here.  It’s been fun.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Eagles Studio Albums 1972 - 1979

Back in the spring of 1977, it seems you couldn’t turn a radio on anywhere without being subjected to ‘Hotel California’.  It was omnipresent on the airwaves for months and effectively cured me of ever wanting to delve into the Eagles back catalogue, ever.  So what is this box set I see before me?  Lo, it is the newly released ‘The Eagles: The Studio Albums 1972-1979’.  And it is here because a) it was cheap, and b) I’m curious to know what all the fuss is about since I’ve not listened to most of their output until now.

Not being a particular fan of The Eagles, I have only ever owned one LP, ‘On the Border’ but now I have the complete set of all six 70s releases from their debut up to the frankly dreadful ‘The Long Run’.  Has time mellowed my indifference or do they now strike a chord?  Well, yes and no.  Listening to these albums now in chronological order it is easy to see how the conversion from ex-Linda Ronstadt country backing band to full blown stadium rock ‘n’ roll outfit occurred.  Whilst there is a gradual shift over time, the most marked change in style happens about the time of my only purchase, ‘On the Border’.  It is here that the mix of Leadon-led country and Frey/Henley rock is at its most divisive following the arrival of additional guitarist Don Felder – a move that eventually precipitated the departure of Bernie Leadon.

Having listened to all six albums, my overall impression is that The Eagles were in essence a great singles band.  Each album has 2/3 stand out tracks and all of them were released as singles.  Even the Hotel California album itself, which I have now listened to for the first time, is little more than the title track with a load of so-so other tracks (I can feel the comments coming already!).  In many ways I am a bit disappointed by this as I expected to find many hidden gems amongst the non-single tracks but I’ve been a bit under whelmed to tell the truth.  Nevertheless, the singles still stand the test of time and show why The Eagles were such a revered band so I think I’ll stick with them.

I have made an ipod playlist of about a dozen of my favourites and it bears a very strong resemblance to most of the ‘Best Of’ compilations already on the market.  The only major addition I have made is to include Bernie Leadon’s tribute to Gram Parsons, ‘My Man’ which is one of the best Country songs I have ever heard and cannot understand why it doesn’t feature on any Eagles compilation.

So, are The Eagles the American Madness, a great singles band with a series of less than great albums?  Discuss.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Music Mechanics

A friend of mine made an interesting remark the other day.  Here’s how he arrived at it.  We were mourning the passing of old technology like the cassette, 8-track cartridge, VHS videotapes and of course, vinyl records.  The real issue, we surmised, with the march of time is that we are all left with the data media, records, tapes and so on, but not the equipment to play them on.  As cassette players and record decks become a rarity we are left with a load of un-retrievable data.  It was at this point that my friend propounded his theory; that of all the media formats, vinyl would be the one worth holding on to as it would be possible for many people, with a rudimentary understanding of physics to build a machine to play them.

Let me expand this a bit.  The vinyl or indeed, shellac, disc was invented during an age when everything was the product of mechanical engineering, electricity barely having been discovered.  As a consequence, the physical record carried an analogue groove which was read by a mechanical contraption, a needle on an arm, and the vibration thereby generated, amplified by physical, not electronic means.  Even today it should be possible to build a rudimentary machine that tracked the record groove and fed the vibrations produced to a large horn much in the same way that the first record players did.  So even if the apocalypse comes, owners of vinyl records may well be able to play them again after a bit of mechanical fiddling with components that could be made or cannibalised.

Those still owning a stack of tape formats such as cassettes, cartridges or CDs would not be so lucky as these are a product of the electronic age and would require a knowledge of electrical engineering and the correct materials to build circuits.

The idea that the age of mechanics has now become the age of electronics was brought home to me when I tried to buy a Meccano set for my son’s birthday.  These days it is manufactured by a French company and is not generally available in the same way that say, Lego, is.  Lego has filled the void left by other construction toys in a big way but it has a flaw.  I read a recent review of today’s Meccano written by a Civil Engineer and he made a pertinent point.  His view is that Lego allows you to build today’s structures in an unreal way but Meccano allows you to build the same structures in a real way.  In other words Lego does not use real engineering principles and thus teaches you nothing.

It seems that in the age of electronics, no one is really interested in teaching youngsters how to build mechanical objects as the knowledge is redundant.  Perhaps building a record player may well be beyond today’s generation after all?

Friday, 16 August 2013

Is There a 1980s Audio Stamp?

It looks like I’m having a bit of a Polish phase at the moment.  Having reactivated my connection with Pat Benatar (nee Andrzejewski), I have been trawling through the back catalogue of another daughter of Polish immigrants, Judie Tzuke (nee Myers but reverted to Tzuke).

Having always liked her 1979 debut ‘Welcome to the Cruise’, I have been rediscovering her subsequent LPs (and in 2 cases, cassettes – eek!) that have been lying dormant and generally unloved in my collection since the 80s.  And it has been time well spent as her first half dozen albums are well worth seeking out.  Why I haven’t until now brought this stuff into my current playlists is undoubtedly due to their limited availability on CD.  The fact that her first 10 albums were originally released on no less than 8 different labels goes a long way to explaining why there is no box set retrospective or sensible reissue programme.  Many of these labels have changed hands several times with the consequence that no one has been really interested in maintaining their availability.  Shame.

Listening to the likes of ‘Sportscar’, ‘Shoot the Moon’ and ‘The Cat is Out’ is a bit like opening a time capsule.  The general consensus is that the 1970s has a strong aural and visual identity but there is no doubt that the 1980s has its own highly identifiable audio stamp.  Take 1985’s ‘The Cat is Out’ for example and have a squint at the cover – that hair!  Those shoulders!  The music is even more identifiable.  Almost every instrument is a classic example of 80s sounding rock.  It starts with a drum machine and no matter what anyone says, these things were a curse on real music.  You can predict the rhythmic patterns after about the first 8 bars of every song.  At least a human error mixes things up a bit.  Then there is that fat fretless bass sound.  Good grief!  I’m SO glad they died a death.  Most noticeable of all are the analogue synth sounds.  Those chord washes and bell sounds are absolutely typical of the early-mid 80s.  For people who know their synths intimately and I’m not an expert, you can probably guess the exact year of recording on these alone.

Yet despite the 80s aura, the songs are strong and the whole things holds together remarkably well.  I never realised that the 80s were so unique, sound-wise.  Moving on to the 90s I have not yet detected any real defining features – perhaps it needs a bit more distance before these things become apparent?

Friday, 2 August 2013

Glastonbury 2013 Part 2

OK, so I did watch a bit of the Rolling Stones set but frankly I wasn’t that impressed.  They looked tired, jaded and dated.  Mick looked faintly ridiculous, prancing around at his age in front of his largely static fellow band members.  Best rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet?  Hmm…

I was heartened to see that at the same time, over on the Other Stage, Chase and Status had drawn a huge crowd of not-interested-in-the-Stones people with their own brand of RapRock.  It’s good to see that the younger generation are not hanging on to the coat tails of classic bands and nor should they.  Each generation should discover their own and if that includes past examples then fine, if not then that’s fine too.

In fact, this year’s Pyramid Stage headliners didn’t really do much for me.  As well as the Stones, I’ve never really quite understood The Arctic Monkeys and although I like a bit of folk, the dreadful corporate blandness of Mumford and Sons sends me to sleep.  So, where do my awards for this year lie?  There were a plethora of new(ish) bands that got my attention without really standing out so a ‘highly commended’ goes to the likes of Noah and the Whale, Editors, Cat Power, Stealing Sheep, Hurts and Phoenix who were all very entertaining, but I’ve had to reject all of these in favour of my final choice of three.
Two HAIM sisters

In third place are US sister band Haim, who were just about everywhere, so hard to avoid.  They played several sets on various stages and turned up as backing singers for Primal Scream so their PR team deserve a medal at the very least.  Their own sets were full of bluesy rock which at times took flight into fabulously dizzy instrumental jams that few bands seem to manage these days (especially when they are playing to backing tapes!).  Unfortunately, their tunes are a bit disjointed and the vocals a tad idiosyncratic but hey, they come across as a raw joyous talent and they provided some of the best festival moments for me.  One to watch, I’d wager.

For second place, I struggled between two bands that I’d not heard of before.  First were Savages, a somewhat strange outfit who delivered an intense and at times, quite frighteningly serious set of spiky songs.  In the end I ousted them for being too close to ‘Scream’ era Siouxsie and the Banshees for comfort and decided to deliver second place to the enigmatic Daughter, whose enchanting set of Indie Folk delivered on the John Peel Stage held me spellbound.  Singer Elena Tonra looks a solo performer but has chosen to surround herself with two male musicians whose edgy arrangements lift her songs to another level.

My choice for first place was the result of much soul searching, having already panned the Stones for being too old, but this lot were so much fun, so the award goes to Chic.  For me, music is something to be enjoyed and in this business oriented age, it is good to see how uplifting it can be, given the right circumstances and Nile Rogers delivered this in spades.  Everybody danced – how could you not?  Such a shame that Bernard Edwards was not there to reprise those iconic bass lines and see how much of his legacy still resonates with modern audiences.  The most enjoyable set at the Festival by a short glitter ball.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Glastonbury 2013 Part 1

After a fallow year in 2012 which allowed us punters to pay attention to the Summer Olympics and allowed the cows to take off their ear defenders for a bit, Worthy Farm once more played host to the great unwashed and the festival that is Glastonbury.  As has now become a ritual on this blog I shall be posting two Glasto reports, this one with a few thoughts on this year’s proceedings and a second with my world famous awards.

So without further ado, here are some general observations.  This year’s event was generally more of the same, sporting a huge variety of acts from all genres and generations, playing to enthusiastic crowds of awe-struck teens, seen-it-all-before parents and bewildered toddlers.  What was different was that the weather was almost Woodstock-like with clear blue skies rather than the usual deluge and the TV coverage was bigger and better than ever before with live broadcasting of all the major stages on multiple channels, website streaming and mobile access.  In fact, it was all too overwhelming for the poor viewer who could not possibly watch everything and was reduced to the same dilemma that confronts the actual festival goer, that is, which acts do I watch?  Hurrah for hard disk recording!

Some things, however, never change and it is quite curious to note that despite the massive advancements in music tech and the changes in society generally, the one aspect of bands at Glasto that has not changed is that guitars have remained resolutely stuck in the 1960s.  Everywhere you looked guitarists were sporting Fender Stratocasters or Telecasters, Rickenbackers, Gibson Les Pauls or SGs.  If you found a bass player without a Fender Precision you were doing very well indeed.  It seems to be that guitars have become the genes of the rock world that are passed on from generation to generation, tying the line of heritage together into a complete whole.  There is almost a reverence in using classic instruments that the likes of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix once sported that says, ‘we are descended from the greats’ like the royal right of succession.

Without giving too much away, Saturday headliners, The Rolling Stones, will not be appearing in my Top 3 (to be revealed in my next post) and for one reason only; they are the meanest band in rock.  They made their fortune several times over, years ago, so why do they still insist on holding people to ransom over fees.  This time, they wanted to restrict broadcast time to one hour and when that was finally agreed (the day before their performance), started to quibble over repeat fees.  It’s not like broadcasting their set is likely to keep paying punters away, the festival was a sell out months ago.  It’s about time Mick and the boys started to give something back to the industry and the fans that made them what they are.

I’ve got hours and hours of recorded material to wade through and I've not seen their performance yet, but perhaps I won’t bother.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Couples in Rock

Benatar & Giraldo
Whilst it may be true that behind every great man is a great woman, it seems that in some circumstances, behind every great band is a great couple.  I’ve been reacquainting myself with my 80s love, Pat Benatar via her ‘Ultimate Collection’ (a download snip at 40 tracks for £7) and can’t help but notice that the common theme running through her lengthy career is her relationship with guitarist, Neil Giraldo who ascends from band member and writing contributor to husband and lifelong collaborator.

There is something quite endearing about such relationships.  Unlike most couples with a shared life they are not to be found in front of the TV with their tea on a tray but are more likely to be seen on that same TV doing acoustic versions of songs from their glory days.  Sweet.  In fact couples can be found in many places.  One pairing is Debbie Harry and Chris Stein who have effectively carried Blondie through thick and thin despite their relationship floundering and Chris’s life threatening illness.  Without their tenacity despite no longer being ‘an item’ the later Blondie comeback would not have happened.  Whether or not this was a good thing is still open to discussion but you can’t help admiring them for trying.

Another long-lived couple is Martha Johnson and Mark Gane who are now the only survivors from the 80s phenomenon that was Martha and the Muffins.  Now married, they have forged a lifelong musical partnership and still record under their faintly ridiculous name as at today.

However, before we get too complacent about the warm glow around couples in rock, let us not forget that musical history is littered with failed attempts.  Those of you who have albums by Fleetwood Mac and Abba in particular will bear witness that not all paths run smoothly to musical dotage.  Amongst others who fell along the way are Siouxsie/Budgie, Annie Lennox/Dave Stewart, Sonja Kristina/Stewart Copeland and many others too tedious to list.  It is the failure rate that makes those that endure stand out amongst their peers.  Had she lived, I envisage that Linda McCartney would’ve been a member of the elderly musical couples club, too.

It is said that married persons generally live longer than singletons, so perhaps this translates to musical couples?  If so look forward to a whole string of albums from Blondie, M+M and Ms Benatar.  Hmm.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Black Sabbath Back on Top After 43 Years!

The last time I listened to something, I couldn’t help but notice that my hearing is still in reasonable nick, which, I suppose, means that I can’t really claim to be a massive heavy metal fan.  Which is true…up to a point.  Apart from a couple of concerts that left my ears buzzing for days after, I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to massive hearing loss.  Yet back in the early 70s I confess to a cautious dabbling in the dark arts as a number of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath LPs in my collection will bear witness.  Obviously, none of these albums could really be construed as the real hard stuff, more a sort of metal-lite and listening back to them now, they sound much tamer than I remember and altogether more tuneful than you might expect.

Nevertheless, it seems I have retained a bit of a soft spot for Black Sabbath and as they have just taken the number one album spot with ‘13’ – their first number one for 43 years, I’ve been inspired to purchase one or two newly re-mastered downloads of worn vinyl LPs so that I can relive their majestic grunge all over again.  Back in the day, my first purchase was ‘Volume 4’, an album that used to get played a lot on ‘Fluff’ Freeman’s Saturday afternoon rock show.  This was followed by the magnificent ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ and ‘Sabotage’ – the one with possibly the worst cover of all time - at which point I rather lost interest and moved on to other pastures, namely punk.

In retrospect, there is something gloriously uncomplicated about the Black Country foursome that even today warms the cockles of my rock heart.  Their Midlands based heavy industrial heritage seems to have a voice in their pounding rhythms and grinding riffs as if the factories themselves have manufactured them to order.  There’s nothing I like better than the sound of a Gibson SG and with Tony Iommi’s industrial-accident fingers on the fretboard, that fat buzzing sound has never sounded better, especially when he is constructing those spiralling duets over a crunching riff.

The only issue I have with listening to old Sabbath albums now is Ozzy Osbourne.  I really struggle to reconcile the wild young singer of then with the comedy figure and star of ‘The Osbournes’ of now.  Is it really the same person?  Weird.  I can’t help feeling that Sharon would make a scarier front-person now.  However, that disturbing image aside, it has been a welcome return to the fold for my selected Sabbath albums, ones that will sit on my iPod for a little longer whilst I revel in some industrial heritage.  Unfortunately both the industry and the music have gone, to be replaced by electronics in both instances.  That’s progress for you.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Ray Manzarek 1939 - 2013

So here we are again, mourning yet another passing.  They seem to be occurring with increasing frequency these days.  This time it’s Ray Manzarek, king of the Vox Continental.

I came late to The Doors and even then it was a difficult passage.  It was the otherworldliness of ‘Riders on the Storm’ that first guided me in and on the strength of it, ‘LA Women’ (on cassette – arrghh!) followed.  But horror of horrors, I didn’t like it much and it eventually got passed on to a friend.  Several fallow years ensued and it wasn’t until the mid seventies that I picked up the trail again with the double compilation, ‘Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine’.  Suddenly the penny dropped and I became quite obsessed with them, buying all their studio albums in quick succession.

The Doors were always in my mind a sum-of-the-parts band with every member contributing an equal portion rather than a star with anonymous backing musicians.  Despite Jim Morrison’s charisma, I always found the other members just as interesting and Ray was no exception.  Perhaps it was that Vox organ sound, rather than the ubiquitous Hammond or the fact that he played all the bass parts in the absence of a full time bass player or those key unspecific runs that he was able to conjure up or even those rimless glasses but there was always something about him that caught your attention.

In the late sixties, the guitar was the rock instrument of choice and it wasn’t until the emergence of the prog rockers of the seventies that keyboards would come into their own, but Ray managed to hold his own against Robbie Krieger’s guitar parts in a way that made them both sound good.  Whether it was the shimmering chords in ‘Waiting for the Sun’ or the Bach-like intro to ‘Light my Fire’, his playing was always inventive and appropriate to the mood.  The Doors would not have been the same without him.

More recently, he popped up numerous times as a talking head in TV documentaries reminiscing about the sixties and the excesses of his erstwhile bandmate and despite the ageing effects of time, he still managed to carry the essence of the Californian hippy that he once was.  The wild speech patterns, liberally punctuated with ‘Maan’ and the sixties vocabulary were still embedded in his psyche like a living fossil of the period.  Yet for all that, he seemed to retain the optimism of those days and a zest for life.  He was always good value as an interviewee.

Recently, I picked up the Box Set of Re-mixed Doors studio albums, which I have to say have been sensitively brought up to date without losing the feel of the original albums and it has been a pleasure to hear Ray’s playing, now liberated from some fairly murky mixes and now sounding like they were played yesterday.  In his mind, I’m sure they were.

RIP Man!

Friday, 24 May 2013

Bits and Pieces

The question is: how did I get myself into such a *!*%#! muddle?  I suppose that being raised on a diet of vinyl discs doesn’t really prepare you for manipulating digital files, but all the same, this will take some remediation.  Those of a techno-phobic nature may prefer to look away now.

The story so far: many years ago I started ripping my CDs to my computer so that I could play them in Windows Media Player.  By default they stored themselves as 128 bit .WMA files and all was well.  I then acquired a Creative Zen MP3 player and using its proprietary software, was able to copy .WMA files directly to it and all continued to be well with the world.  Then it all started to go wrong: I bought a new computer and the darkness descended.

First, the Zen software refused to work in the new Windows 7 operating system which stopped me transferring files and then the Zen died.  In order to avoid the software compatibility problem in future I then opted to replace it with an Apple ipod Nano and the dreaded iTunes.  This is where the problems really began.  Every time I imported my .WMA files into iTunes (so as to sync to the ipod) a new copy file was made in 256 bit .M4A format.  This, in turn prompted Windows to see it as a new file and to automatically re-import it into Windows Media Player, thus doubling everything up.  AAARRGGHH!

In frustration, I deleted one or other of the copies, sometimes the .WMA files and sometimes the .M4A files.  This went on for several years.  Just to add to the confusion, I also downloaded albums from iTunes (.M4A) and Amazon (256 bit .MP3) and converted vinyl albums to 128 bit .MP3 files.  This brings me to today where my entire collection of several hundred albums and songs is split between various Windows and iTunes libraries and ripped to at least 3 different file formats.  Did I mention that my daughter also has an iTunes library on the same machine and we share files?  Blimey!  Technology eh?  This would never happen in the old days where you just bought an LP and put it on a shelf.

So, what to do?  I have decided to eschew both .WMA and .M4A files and use only .MP3 for ripping CDs.  This format can be read by both iTunes and Windows Media Player so no duplication.  Whilst laboriously re-ripping all my favourite albums I am also upgrading them to 256 bit as this seems to be the best compromise between quality and file size.  It also means that I can weed out both iTunes libraries of all the duplicated files and leave only the downloads.

Case solved, but what a palaver.  As a by-product of upgrading files from 128 to 256 bit it has become noticeable how the sound graduates from CD screech to LP warmness.  Perhaps LPs had the right idea from the word go – and you only needed a shelf.

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Musical Box

Until recently I had given the so-called Tribute Bands a very wide and slightly suspicious berth, yet there is no denying that they are becoming big business in some quarters of the industry.  I blame the Elvis impersonators, who started the ball rolling after the King’s demise and now most of the big bands from the 60s and 70s are represented by interlopers – Bjorn Again, The Australian Pink Floyd, The Bootleg Beatles, Dread Zeppelin and so on and on.  So, in the spirit of adventure, I went to see French Canadian Genesis Tribute Band, The Musical Box, perform the legendary ‘Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ show, allegedly perfect in every detail from costumes to back projection and lighting.

I never saw the original Gabriel line up play live, so this had a touch of the ‘never meet your heroes’ about it and having owned the studio album since the 70s and the live version on the later archive box set, I have always had a picture in my head of what the live show was like.  Actually seeing it performed was a strange experience as it both punctured my imagining and opened up a new view all at the same time.  In some respects it rather grounded my impression of it in reality, but in others it revealed its beauty in a live environment.  I actually got the shivers during ‘Hairless Heart’ and the achingly melancholic ‘Lamia’ where guitarist François Gagnon’s guitar replicated the soul of Steve Hackett in all its glory.

There is no doubt that members of The Musical Box have done their homework and the musical exposition was mightily impressive, to the point of virtually reproducing the studio album in all respects.  The tone of the instruments, including the 70s keyboard sounds, was spot on and the playing immaculate.  But it was Denis Gagné’s impersonation of Peter Gabriel that was key to the act.  Frankly, without his uncannily accurate Gabriel impersonation (including his flute playing), the whole illusion would’ve collapsed like a pack of cards.  If there was a weak link, it was ‘Tony Banks’ who didn’t quite nail some of his solos and rather glossed over some of my favourite bits, but this is nit-picking as playing a piece from such a well known band to their fans who know every nuance is probably a no-win situation.

Interestingly, they finished with a rendition of ‘The Musical Box’ from Nursery Cryme (complete with Old Man mask) and then ‘The Knife’ from Trespass as an encore and in many respects these were better, having a real atmosphere to them.  It left me feeling that I would’ve quite liked to have seen some of their other sets from around the ‘Foxtrot’ period, but perhaps another time.

As the rock genre moves across the generations, the great bands of the past are now lost to newcomers, so to reproduce live acts in this way may be viewed as a service to those who missed out, yet the average age of the audience was not reduced by curious youngsters, but remained solidly around the 50-something range.  It seems that as long as we original fans can still get out of a night, the future is secure for the Tributes, but beyond that?  Who knows.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Storm Thorgerson 1943 - 2013

It is with sadness that I take up my metaphorical pen to write yet again about the passing of another music business personality.  Only this time the subject is not an international rock star nor even a little known fringe artist, but a designer; Storm Thorgerson, who died on 18 April of cancer, aged 69.

He, of course, will be best remembered for being the ‘fifth member’ of Pink Floyd who, through his design company Hipgnosis, created a series of unforgettable album sleeve designs through the 70s and 80s – the ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ prism, the mournful cow of ‘Atom Heart Mother’, the Pig flying over Battersea power station of ‘Animals’ and the burning man of ‘Wish You Were Here’ being just a few of his creations that are welded to the Pink Floyd brand.

His unique style can also be seen on a whole host of sleeves from Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel and The Scorpions to Muse and Biffy Clyro and I can’t help but think that with his passing the final nail has been well and truly driven home into the coffin of the album sleeve.  Whilst the CD still held out as the premier conveyor of music, the sleeve, in its reduced form remained a fixture but with the increasing move towards download files and music streaming through the likes of Spotify, the requirement for an iconic sleeve design has all but gone.

Which is a shame.  I still have all my old albums, hundreds of them, stored in cupboards and whilst I only play them very occasionally, I shall never give them away because they represent a repository of Art.  These days I seem to spend more time taking out covers and just looking at them rather than playing the disc they contain.  In many respects, the covers hold more memories than the music - times and places, purchases and parading.  Let’s face it; you can’t walk around school exhibiting your immaculate musical taste with an MP3 file, now can you?

Many of my old albums now spend their declining years in frames on my wall, being rotated every now and again so that their beauty can be admired by all.  In remembrance of Storm Thorgerson, I think I shall have a small exhibition of Hipgnosis sleeves up for a week or two.  They are going to be these four:

'Sheet Music' - 10cc
Peter Gabriel II

'In Deep' - Argent

'Atom Heart Mother' - Pink Floyd

Friday, 12 April 2013


When you are a child, you tend to accept things for what they are.  Your own circumstances have no benchmark and it is generally only much later that you have the data to be able to compare and contrast (as test papers would have it) your position in life.  My own hideously middle class upbringing did not come into focus until I met fellow students at university that lived either in a house the size of a small park or a matchbox depending on circumstance.

So it can be with music.  In the early 1990s I was introduced to the band, Stereolab and in particular their ’94 album ‘Mars Audiac Quintet’ and whilst it hung around my CD player longer than many of its contemporaries, it has since sat neglected in my collection for at least 15 years.  Or until now.  I’m not sure what prompted me to give it another spin but it has come back into my life with a vengeance and with its second coming has materialised a new understanding of its worth.

In the lull between Shoegazing and Britpop the mid nineties was a bit of a mish-mash of styles but none more individual than Stereolab who were essentially a vehicle for songwriter Tim Gane and his girlfriend Laetitia Sadier.  Where do I start?  Imagine the relentless space-age boogie of Hawkwind and then update that sound to the age of the synth – only using ancient analogue Moogs, Vox and Farfisa machines – and add in French female vocals.  Finally douse in Kraftwerk cool detachment and Asian-style synth drones and you have Stereolab.  Simple!  At the time none of this complexity really registered, I just liked the sound, but now it is all too apparent not just how odd they really were, but how different they were from their contemporaries.  And I like both odd and different.

Just for the record, I also bought the limited edition ‘Music For the Amorphous Body Study Centre’ EP, a collection of music used to complement New York sculptor, Charles Long’s exhibit, just to up the oddity factor.  However, by 1997 and their ‘Dots and Loops’ album, enough was enough and they were consigned to the ‘not played anymore’ section of my collection.

Nevertheless, ‘Mars Audiac Quintet’ is back on my iPod and its unique mix of uplifting space-pop is quite refreshing in today’s world.  It has the same ambience of innocence and adventure that pervaded the 60s space-age music, epitomised by ‘Telstar’.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Martha Johnson (without The Muffins)

Clearly, Canadians are a sociable bunch.  It must be those wide open prairies and long cold winters that instils a sense of connection to their fellow man.  Not only that, they drive on the left right and remember to put a ‘u’ in colour.  As evidence I offer Adrian du Plessis, manager of singer Allison Crowe, and regular commentator on this blog almost since its inception many years ago.  And now I can add to the list, Martha Johnson, she of the Muffins and ‘Echo Beach’.

Long time readers will remember that I included my seeing Martha and the Muffins in a cramped, sweaty music pub back in 1980 in my top ten list of all-time favourite gigs and subsequently approved their ‘comeback’ album, ‘Delicate’ in 2010.  To bring the saga up to date, I find that Martha has left a comment on that post advising of her current project, a solo album to be entitled, well, ‘Solo One’.

Like a growing army of artists these days, she has taken the route of asking fans to ‘pledge’ money to fund the production of the album.  This effectively means that the production costs are covered by pre-selling the product.  I remember Sing-Sing doing this in a fairly low key way via social media about 10 years ago so that their 2 albums could be brought to fruition.  Today, it has become more of a business and there are specific websites set up for artists to try their luck.  This is true democracy at work as supply of the eventual product depends entirely on demand and the buying public’s willingness to fund the project.

From a fan’s viewpoint, an up-front payment guarantees you a copy of the album at the very least and a whole host of extras ranging from signed CDs to skype sessions with the artist depending on the level of your pledge.  Comfortingly, you stand to get your money back if insufficient funds are raised and a proportion of any ‘profit’ goes to charity.  The downside being that you are never quite sure what you’re going to get, but then that is the risk with all investment.

In true ‘Dragon’s Den’ style, I’m in for a small investment of 10 Canadian Dollars  (about £6.50) which gets me a download of the album assuming the project goes ahead.  If you, too, wish to invest in ‘Solo One’ or any of its associated pledge packages, follow the link below.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Side 4 - Was it Really Necessary?

How exciting!  In April, I am going to meet up with some old friends to see the Genesis tribute band, ‘The Musical Box’ play the whole of the ‘Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ show, complete with costumes and back projection, at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Our little band of gig-goers first met up in the mid-1970s during the Genesis prog years but never saw them in their original line-up with Peter Gabriel, so this should be an interesting exercise in nostalgia.  Watch this space.

In fact, the anticipation prompted me to dig out my Genesis Archive 1967-1975 Box Set and listen to the live version of the Lamb recorded at the Shrine Auditorium, LA on their ’75 tour of the USA.  I say ‘Live’ but many of the vocal and some guitar parts were re-recorded to replace indistinct or error-strewn originals.  Egos eh?  As a double studio LP, I always felt that ‘The Lamb…’ was a bit front loaded, with all the good stuff on the first 2 sides and the remainder waning towards side 4 where it ends on the less-than-impressive ‘It’.  Which got me thinking about other studio double LPs – those much maligned products of the vinyl age.

Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ suffers from the same malaise whereby each of the first three sides has an ambience and continuity all their own but the fourth is a bit of a dumping ground for a rag-bag of left-overs.  And don’t get me started on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ which is great for three sides then after ‘Run Like Hell’ descends into pseudo-operatic boredom on side 4.  Some doubles are a little short of material, full stop.  Joni Mitchell’s ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’ is barely 16 minutes a side and those Dutch instrumentalists’ magnum opus, ‘Focus 3’ runs out of steam on side 4 with just the drum solo and reprise continuing from the previous track on side 3 and an old unrelated song (left off the CD reissue!) bolted on to make up the running time to about 14 minutes.  Hmm.

Even The Beatles weren’t immune from the falling off side 4 syndrome as the inclusion of ‘Revolution 9’ on side 4 of the White Album shows.  In fact, barring ‘best of’s’, I can’t think of a single double album where side 4 is the best.  It may be a deliberate ploy by the record companies, knowing that no-one ever gets as far as side 4 so why put all your best stuff there?  It begs the question: is the natural length of an extended musical work is nearer to three sides than four?  Since the advent of the CD this assertion has legs, as many albums issued since the mid-80s have a running time of 50-55 minutes, approximately equivalent to three sides of vinyl.  Q.E.D.

Friday, 1 March 2013

A Cherished Moment

Today is my 'sort of'' birthday.  When there is no 29th of February, I usually opt for 1st March as a substitute.  It is a time for getting a bit misty eyed and nostalgic for the ‘old days’.  Actually most of the old days were rubbish but with my newly acquired age-related rose tinted eyesight that matters not and amongst the wealth of good times one or two fond memories sit above the rest.  Most of my best moments have a music based foundation but not the one I am about to relate.  This has to do with football and no rose tinted sight is necessary here.

I am about 10 years old and it is roughly 2 o’clock in the afternoon.  I am sitting on the cold parquet flooring of my junior school classroom by the shoe racks putting on my football boots.  Why?  Because it is a school match day and I am captain of the rabble we call our school football team, about to take on another rabble from the local school a mile or so away.

My heartbeat is quickening and my breathing getting shorter as adrenalin floods through my body.  The anticipation is almost unbearable and I love it.  If I was to pick the best feeling in the world it would be this moment.  Not only am I about to miss French/English/Maths on offer that afternoon (strike out those that do not apply), I am about to do the one thing I love most in the world – play football for my school.

Outside, it is late autumn and a watery sun tries in vain to penetrate the mist that hangs around the football pitch, now carpeted with autumnal leaves from the towering Elms that line the school field.  The morning dew still clings to the grass and sends up a halo of wetness as the sodden leather ball zips across it.  I am proudly wearing a school football shirt (with real cuffs and collars – that dates me) of pillar-box red with white sleeves, the same as the Arsenal in those days and feel a million dollars.  We line up and the match starts…

We probably won that day – we normally did, having a half decent team which finished top of Division 3 that year and won promotion to Division 2.  It was a time of youthful exuberance and a certain naivety about life to come.  No baggage, no regrets.  Whilst I can still feel the heady exhilaration of those times, I know that I will never recapture them.  It was a time that only the young can experience.  When I look at the 10 year old me now, I see an enthusiasm that I no longer have and a head full of dreams of playing forever.

The dream ended abruptly the following September when I transferred to secondary school.  A rugby playing school.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Joni Mitchell - The Studio Albums 1968 - 1979

Oh dear!  It is becoming increasingly apparent that I have reached the sort of age where the attractions of the Box Set are almost too much to ignore.  Despite the slightly grim aura of marketing hanging over such offerings I have now succumbed to both the Argent and Pink Floyd sets as described in this blog earlier.  In my defence I would contend that at the right price, this is a good way to pick up complete collections after the event (especially if they are all remastered).  The latest addition is from Joni Mitchell and comprises her first 10 studio albums from the 60s and 70s starting at the beginning with ‘Song To a Seagull’ and ending with ‘Mingus’ (leaving out the live double set, ‘Miles of Aisles’).

Whilst I have vinyl versions taken from the middle of this run (‘For the Roses’, ‘Court and Spark’ and ‘Hissing of Summer Lawns’) I have only dabbled with her early work and have nothing after ‘Lawns’ save a couple of below par 80s efforts, so this purchase was a good opportunity to review what I believe to be her best period.  Perhaps predictably, there were no real surprises.  The early folk albums are very fine but when compared to her subsequent work, not the ones I’d rescue from a burning building.  ‘Ladies of the Canyon’ is an unexpectedly welcome return to my collection (since I sold the original vinyl in the great late 70s clearout) but I still find ‘Blue’ curiously inconsistent despite what everyone else says.

The best stuff is undoubtedly contained within the albums I already own and the remainder is interesting but not essential.  I still can’t really warm wholeheartedly to ‘Hejira’ or ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’ and I don’t like Jazz enough to appreciate ‘Mingus’.  Nevertheless, the Big Three (‘Roses’, ‘Court’ and ‘Lawns’) are giants in the pop Parthenon and no mistake.  Genius is an overworked word but I’m tempted to use it here.  These are albums that everyone should hear – especially ‘For the Roses’ which to me is a work of unparalleled depth.  Coming between the confessional folk of ‘Blue’ and the blossoming pop of ‘Court and Spark’ its hybrid folk/pop arrangements cradle a set of lyrics that sit in your soul forever.

So where does this leave me?  What this series of albums does do is show the remarkable musical progression from folk through pop/rock to jazz.  These albums form the links in a ten album unbreakable chain where each individual work contains elements of both its predecessor and its successor in a way that reveals a relentless drive from one genre to the next.  It makes me struggle to think of another artist who has managed this feat with such dexterity and mastery of each form and over such a long period.  Perhaps Bowie?

One other thing – lyrics.  Has there ever been anyone else who has such mastery of song lyrics?  If nothing else, Joni Mitchell showed how it was done to the extent that a lyric sheet was an essential part of her albums.  They are still albums where I actually listen to the lyrics with rapt attention.  In the history of popular music, these albums are probably essential.

Friday, 1 February 2013

The Legacy of HMV

Whatever the eventual future of HMV, you can’t help feeling that it brought a whole load of trouble down on itself.  I have sat on the sidelines and watched with mounting frustration as the monolith that is HMV first, put all the independents out of business and then having achieved a monopoly position, it slowly but surely cocked it up big time.  For example:

Stock – there was a time back in the dim and distant past when the London Oxford Street flagship HMV store sold music above all else and stocked virtually everything.  No matter what I went in to buy, there it was, nestling in the racks.  As a compulsive buyer of music for over 40 years, I am in a group of consumers that doesn’t only buy in the mainstream, we look at the fringes both past and present.  HMV catered for my gang, but not now.  Its stock has contracted massively and the space has been turned over to the attempted sale of gadgets and T-shirts.  No-one has been persuaded that HMV is the number one stop for Gadgets and T-shirts hence it has both alienated my gang, its original core consumer and failed to lure any new ones with extended stock lines.

Price – This really bugs me.  I am prepared to accept that there is a premium to be paid for the benefit of leaving the store there and then with your purchase rather than waiting days for the post to arrive.  But not double (or treble) the on-line price.  HMV has been massively overpriced for years – even its ‘sale’ items are above on-line prices, for heaven’s sake.  Also, I am not prepared under any circumstances to pay £10 (or above) for 40+ year old albums.  Don’t tell me they are ‘re-mastered’ and therefore cost more.  Re-mastering should be done as a matter of course when the CD is first released.  LPs were RIAA encoded to make best use of the width of the vinyl groove and the potential length of a disc. Similarly, why shouldn’t the master-tapes be properly prepared to make best use of the CD medium on day 1?  Not 30 years later.

And another thing: there is no pricing consistency.  I found a 10cc album (‘How Dare You’) the other day at a reasonable £4, yet ‘The Original Soundtrack’ was in the racks at £10.  Same label and release date so what’s the difference?  It drives me potty.  The heart-breaking irony is: despite the pricing and convenience of the internet, I would still buy from HMV if only it sorted out its stock, chucked out all the gadgets, remainder books, T-shirts and other paraphernalia and priced things sensibly and consistently.  In other words; became a music store.

Friday, 18 January 2013

T'was in the Year of '77

1977 was an interesting year.  It was the year that The Sex Pistols released ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ and bloated corporate rock was blown away forever…allegedly.  Just to underline the brutal military coup undertaken by Punk, Johnny Rotten sported a lurid ‘I hate Pink Floyd’ T-shirt and dared anyone to defend the old proggers.

1977 was also the year that the said Pink Floyd released ‘Animals’ and pigs flew over Battersea Power Station.  History shows that I bought and enjoyed both albums in equal measure in direct contravention of the Us And Them – Choose Your Side of the Fence Act 1976.  You see, musical genres never allow for this sort of thing.  Backed up by the music press with axes to grind, nobody with any street cred to protect was allowed to like, well, just music, you had to choose.  I definitely felt aligned with the energy that the New Wave brought and to a certain extent agreed that the mid-seventies needed a shake-up, but I still liked some of the bands that were in the firing line so I was a fence-sitter with interests in both camps – it gave you more options.

The reason for my musings on this interesting juxtaposition of styles has been brought about by the purchase of the Pink Floyd Discovery Box Set (all 14 studio albums remastered in a natty box).  Whilst I have many of the Floyd’s albums on vinyl, I never converted them to CD and have never owned, or even listened to, many of their back catalogue so a cheap eBay purchase seemed like the answer.  So here I am in 2012 listening to the Soundtrack album, ‘Obscured by Clouds’ (excellent) and ‘The Final Cut’ (dreadful) for the first time, well,  ever.

But more particularly, I have been listening to ‘Animals’, an album that I have not set on the old turntable since the 80s and my overriding impression is not one of bloated self indulgence, but one of anger.  It is a very angry album indeed, driven by Roger Waters various neuroses.  Which is somewhat ironic, for the punk movement that sought to replace the established bands was based almost entirely on anger.  Yet now by comparison, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks…’ sounds a little tame and its ‘anger’ just false political posturing.  On the other hand, the anger displayed on ‘Animals’ is very real.  The vitriol pouring from ‘Sheep’ and in particular, ‘Pigs’ reeks of a genuine hatred (especially against TV clean-up campaigner, Mary Whitehouse).  Frankly I find Waters far more scary that Rotten, and that’s before you get to Gilmore’s final solo on ‘Pigs’ which slashes at you like broken glass.

Yet, and this is the cruncher, I still find myself in the same position that I was 35 years ago and that is that really, I still like both of them.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Gerry Anderson 1929 - 2012

This is my 300th post on this blog and it is perhaps fitting that it pays tribute to a man that looms large in my childhood – Gerry Anderson, who died over the Christmas period.

Most will know his work through the iconic ‘Thunderbirds’ but my link goes back further to the dimly remembered late 50s collaboration with children’s writer, Roberta Leigh that produced the strangeness of ‘Twizzle’ and ‘Torchy the Battery Boy’, made with puppets so weird that it doesn’t bear thinking about.  Although these shows were my initial contact with Gerry’s puppet world, it was ‘Fireball XL5’ that really captured my imagination.  I was besotted with this programme and although the delights of ‘Stingray’, ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Captain Scarlet’ were to follow, XL5 remains my first love.  Even today its shiny monochrome world of space adventure still beguiles me.

There is a definable element that pervades the work of Gerry Anderson, from the scariness of ‘Twizzle’ via the live action ‘Space 1999’ and ‘UFO’ to the hand puppets of ‘Terrahawks’ (a million miles away from Sooty) and that thing is integrity.  Everything Gerry touched was stamped with the motto, ‘If you are going to do it, do it well’.  All his products had a sheen of quality, whether it was the tightly drawn scripts, the truly awe-inspiring modelling or the cutting edge special effects.  The live action 2004 ‘Thunderbirds’ movie, which Anderson had no hand in and from which he rightly distanced himself, didn’t have it – and it shows.

This reach for quality can be seen again in the 2005 re-imagining of Captain Scarlet, created using CGI technology.  The series of 26 x 25 minute episodes cost an astronomical £23M but the end result is worth every penny.  The scripts are fast paced and the visuals as inventive and spectacular as always.  Unforgivably, ITV refused to promote the new show and list it as a stand alone but buried it in amongst an existing Saturday morning kids’ show which cut it into two halves with games and adverts between them.  It sank without trace.

Anderson was reportedly furious and I can’t help feeling that it was the beginning of the end for him.  It was desperately sad because ‘The New Adventures of Captain Scarlet’ (now on DVD) is Anderson at his best and a fitting epitaph to a man who had a real pride in his work even if they were ‘only’ kids’ shows.  RIP Gerry.