Sunday, 28 October 2007

See Me, Hear Me

There are some musicians that I listen to and some that I watch. Equally, there are some that I can’t bear to watch even though I like their music and some that I can’t bear to listen to at all, but that’s another subject.

In category 1(a) are those people whose music I like but I just can’t stand watching them perform usually due to facial gurning (yes you, Robin Trower) and various other irritating personal mannerisms. I think I’ve inherited this gene from my father who had a whole list of people that he couldn’t stand to watch. Top of his list was Dusty Springfield – something to do with arm waving, I think. My very picky list is also quite long so I won’t dwell on it here – let’s move on.

In category 1(b) is first and foremost, Jimi Hendrix. Whilst I can listen to a CD of his music reasonably happily, I would always prefer to watch him play for the simple reason that the music takes on a higher significance when you can see the manner in which it is being produced. Hendrix was always a relaxed and playful performer, safe in the knowledge that he could do virtually anything he chose without any discernible effort. It was almost without exception, mesmerizing. The sheer audacity is still awe inspiring even today when years of technical achievement have jaded our palettes. Those old snatches of film can be watched and re-watched and he still seems to catch you out with his dazzling innovation.

Also in category 1(b) is Cyndi Lauper whose live performances are something else again – an almost life or death intensity that holds you spellbound and which doesn’t really translate to the listen-only medium of CD. I’m sure, dear reader, you can reel off a dozen more performers who fall into the ‘better live than in the studio’ club. These are the natural performers who need an audience to produce their best.

A recent addition to list 1(b) for me is Allison Crowe of whom I have already
spoken. I have recently been presented with a DVD of her ‘Tidings’ album (thanks, Adrian!), which has shown me that to appreciate her at her best you really have to watch her perform. Each song segment is little more than a fixed camera shot framing her singing and playing her grand piano but the emotion and intensity of the performance is captured perfectly. I would recommend all her albums, available from her website, but if you ever get the chance to see her live, even though here in the UK that might be a rarity, please do.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Women Rock...Again!


Hurrah! The girls are back in town! Well, women anyway.

Those of you who read my previous post, ‘
My Heroine’ will know that one of my favourite bands is the little remembered all-girl rock quartet, Fanny, who shook the male dominated establishment between the years of 1970 and 1975 to its core. As is usual with true pioneers, they picked up little recognition at the time but those that followed, the Runaways, GoGos, Bangles and all the rest reaped the benefits of their breaking down of the gender barriers with success in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Well, the good news for fellow Fanny fans is that they now have their own official website at created in conjunction with the original band members where you can find out more about them, including never-before-seen photo galleries, video clips, an authorised biography and details of all their albums as well as stuff contributed by fans. Yours truly is making a small contribution by supplying the album track descriptions and some fan stuff.

This follows an event earlier this year when Fanny were honoured by ROCKRGRL at Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA for their contribution to music and then three members of the original band, June Millington (guitar), sister Jean Millington (bass) and Alice de Buhr (drums), played a short set, the first for over 30 years (fourth member Nickey Barclay is now resident in Australia and was unable to attend). Judging by internet traffic, interest in this band has been growing ever since Rhino Handmade released a limited edition 4 CD box set comprising their first four Reprise albums plus a load of live takes, demos and rehearsal tapes a few years ago. Their new website is being masterminded by my good friend in the US of A, Byron Wilkins in association with drummer Alice de Buhr (pictured c1973), pianist Nickey Barclay and the rest of the band. (OK, so he gets to meet the band members – I’m not jealous!)

Not before time, I say. They were a great little band who deserved better than the wholesale condescension from the industry and public alike who treated them as little more than a manufactured novelty act. In fact all four members were seasoned musicians who had been playing since their early teens and were so much more than just a novelty. But that’s show business for you.

What are you waiting for? Go check them out!

Monday, 15 October 2007

Jim Shoots Again

In the early 1960s I was a passably normal sort of a child and read ‘The Eagle’ every week to see how Dan Dare was getting along like many other young boys (and girls for all I know). I loved British comics and would read as many as I could from ‘Beano’ to ‘TV Comic’ and beyond – usually at the barbers whilst waiting for a haircut in the days before appointments. Note - Why don’t barbers supply comics to read any more?

By the late 1960s I chanced to meet the elder brother of a school friend and he introduced me to American comic books, as they like to be known. He was a fan of the DC stable of acts (Superman, Batman etc) and I became addicted to them as well as they seemed terribly grown up compared to the Beano. My particular favourite was a team of teenage heroes known as the Legion of Superheroes whose escapades were printed under the banner of ‘Adventure’ comics between 1958 and 1969.

At about the time I started reading The Legion, the brilliant stories were being written by a precocious upstart, Jim Shooter who unbeknownst to DC was only 14 at the time he was sending in his scripts from home. Predictably, he rose rapidly through comicdom and eventually went on to be President of Marvel Comics. In 1969 the Legion lost their slot in ‘Adventure’ to Supergirl and languished as a back-up feature in ‘Action’ comics for about a year before they were cancelled. I gave up reading American comics at around that time.

However, a few years back, I noticed that all those comics I bought and subsequently trashed in the 1960s have been reprinted in hardback form by DC Archives and that has got me interested in buying comics again. And boy, have times changed. In fact it is a whole new world. For starters, they cost £2.25 per copy instead of 2 shillings and you can’t buy them in newsagents from those circular wire framed racks, you have to go to specialist comic shops which make you feel like even more of a nerd than you would’ve done anyway.

Also, the quality of the pages has changed out of all recognition. Today’s comics have an almost photo-like quality of block colouring on glossy paper rather than the dot matrix style colour on cheap paper of the 1960s. This makes the pages somehow darker and drabber and I’m not sure I really like it that much. I think I prefer the lighter texture of the old colour system that gives a brighter page. However the stories are quite good and I still love the comic format. Interestingly, most of my favourites titles are still going forty years later – Superman, Supergirl, Flash, Green Lantern, even the Legion has been re-booted (meaning all past continuity swept away and the story ‘re-imagined’).

Unlike the British comic industry, which with the exception of the Beano, seems to have died a death, the American comic book lives on, albeit as a specialist commodity. But what has really got me excited is that from the December 2007 issue, the Legion of Superheroes comic book is to be written again by none other than… Jim Shooter. This can’t be coincidence and sadly, I can’t wait!

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Memory: Deleted

Hands up who remembers Nirvana?

No, not that one, the other one, the UK based band that produced some typically tripped-out psychedelic singles in the mid to late 1960s? No, me neither, until I heard ‘Rainbow Chaser’ on the radio the other day and I experienced one of those ‘Oh, yes!’ moments as it unlocked a forgotten area of my memory.

In fact, now that that area of my brain is available for recall, I do remember being a wee bit obsessed by this single when it first came out in the spring of 1968 as it was one of the first to feature the heavy use of phasing, that whooshing effect that sounds like your balance is seriously upset after a night on the sherbets and it sounded weird.

Of course, some of it sounds a bit twee now with hippy lyrics and girly backing vocals, but the huge phased chorus still sounds wonderful as the melody rises over ascending chords to an apocalyptic climax. They don’t make singles like that anymore.

But the problem of forgetfulness stems from the fact that 1968 was a time when I was too young and impoverished to buy singles and the cassette recorder and illegal recording was still a few years away, so I have no hard physical reminders of this particular single, only soft memories and these, as we all know, can be overwritten as we get older.

All this makes me wonder how many other treasured moments there are locked up in my head from the distant past that I will never relive unless a catalyst brings them out. Spooky! There are probably hundreds of memories of really interesting stuff squirreled away that I will probably never remember and that is not only a bit scary but also a bit poignant.

Perhaps, someday in the future, medical science will be able to remove these hidden memories like some hard disk engineer looking for evidence of deleted files on seized computers. I’m not sure whether this is a future I like the sound of or not – a bit too Harry Potter and the Pensieve. But if it comes up with things like ‘Rainbow Chaser’ then bring it on!

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Adverts & Soundtracks

I’m a real stickler when it comes to the purist aspects of music and one of the things that sticks in my gullet is the use of pop music in adverts. Quite why this should gall me so much is perhaps due to my pernickety nature but I suppose I hate the idea that people are using others’ art to sell their own product.

This argument also applies to music videos. There is something in the way of condescension about spoon-feeding us a prearranged story so that we understand what the music is trying to say – just in case we missed it. Whatever happened to imagination? Some of my favourite music requires no visuals to tell its story – its just there – and it may not be the same story that you or anybody else ‘sees’. But does that really matter? Music becomes personal rather than generic and all the better for it.

Then there is the film industry who have cottoned on to the fact that if they stuff a movie full of great pop tunes they can sell the soundtrack to a vast audience as a separate money making exercise. And it is here that I have to admit that I’ve been had - but it’s not all bad.

In the film ‘Shrek’ (the first) there is a portion of the plot that equates to the standard ‘boy loses girl’ device and the sequence is backed by John Cale’s version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ to admittedly good effect. Anyway, I thought I’d like to track down a copy of this song and turned to to provide me with some examples. There were many, including an epic rendition from Cohen himself, but it was there that I discovered Allison Crowe.

Allison’s simple piano and voice rendition was by far the best and I googled her to find out a bit more about her. It transpires that she is a 25-year-old Canadian singer songwriter blessed with a voice of tremendous power and range who has been active for the last couple of years. I bought the album ‘Tidings’ directly from her
website and very good it is too. It comprises a collection of ‘Christmas’ songs, some carols, some not (like ‘Hallelujah’, ‘River’ by Joni Mitchell and ‘Let it be’) recorded in one take thus giving a very live feel. Apparently, a film of this album is shown every Christmas on Canadian television.

I’m glad that I have been introduced to Allison but I still don’t like the idea of filmmakers hijacking perfectly good pop songs for their own designs. Luddite or what?