Sunday, 21 December 2008

Kate Rusby and a Christmas Tale.


It never ceases to amaze me how music seems to play such an active part in some of the big decisions in my life. Take the folk singer Kate Rusby, for example. I’ll bet she never realised that she was instrumental in my last major life choice.

To cut a very long and tedious story short, during the latter part of the 1990s my life was spiralling downwards into uncertainty and boredom. For various reasons, things just weren’t right and it was beginning to bug me big time.

By Christmas 1998, I had become extremely weary of all the monotony and tedium and there was no getting away from it - my life was in a rut. This all came to a head when, in order to meet a work deadline, I had left my family visiting relatives and found myself home alone on Boxing Day afternoon working on some client reports. In the decorated tinsel-land of the silent house, I felt depressed and irritated so to sooth my temper I played a newly purchased CD, ‘Sleepless’ by Kate Rusby.

At the time I was rediscovering my love of traditional English folk and had discovered Kate through some glowing reviews in the music press. ‘Sleepless’ is her second album and at the time of its release she was just beginning to make a name for herself as a unique talent in the folk community. Her mix of traditional and self-penned songs delivered in her trademark Barnsley accent seemed a breath of fresh air in the often-stultifying atmosphere of the music industry.

However by track 4, the haunting and melancholic ‘Unquiet Grave’, Kate’s beautiful northern vowels and understated piano were too much for me in my then state of mind and I slumped on the sofa with tears in my eyes. Something had to change. With so many beautiful things in the world, and Kate’s voice was one of them, why was I inflicted such misery on myself? It was the kick up the ass that I needed. Who’d have thought a struggling folk singer and her music could wield such power?

But actually they can. Folk music can be incredibly powerful as it carries with it centuries of human achievement and struggle. There is a certain gravitas that accompanies songs that are so old as to impart a sort of world-weary wisdom and I needed some just then.

A year later, I had found a new position at work, sorted out some other issues and felt much better. For Christmas 1999 I took a long holiday and it was bliss. Life’s too short. Thanks Kate.

I’m going to take a short break over this Christmas holiday as well, so Christmas greetings to all my readers and best wishes for the New Year. I’ll be back sometime after New Year’s Day with yet more musical musings. See you then but in the meantime enjoy Kate's 'The Wild Goose'. Oh, and if you want to read more about my theories about pop music don't forget my book!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Cool, Mann!


Reviewers eh? Don’t you just love ‘em? But seeing as I pontificate about all sorts of stuff here in this blog, I suppose I shouldn’t complain (as per the stones and glass houses principle). The person who reviewed my book for a local newspaper concluded that ‘...in short, it is more like a decent Manfred Mann album than a Sgt Pepper’. At the time I resented this appraisal but on reflection, it is rather a back-handed compliment.

OK, so Sgt Pepper is an historically crucial album which is musically inventive, blah blah blah. But how many people actually listen to it a lot? I don’t...but I have just purchased ‘A World of Mann – the best of Manfred Mann’ and what an interesting listen it has turned out to be.

It comprises a double CD collection which gathers together the 1960s Manfred Mann (the Paul Jones era) singles on disc one and the later 1970s Earthband configuration selections on disc two. Listening to disc one in all its blues/pop glory it is difficult not to get carried away by that peculiar 60s naivety as represented by ‘Do Wah Diddy’, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ and ‘Mighty Quinn’. On moving to disc two, however it is amazing how Mann reinvented himself as a hairy earnest progrocker (well, hairier than normal) once the decade of innocence had ended.

Whilst the Earthband were undoubtedly a progrock band of their time, they were perhaps unique in that they wrote very little of their own songs but rather tended to reinterpret others’ material in their own style. Two regular providers of material for them were Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen whose American vignettes were given a very English progrock treatment. Unexpectedly, this seemed to work very well. It was the stuff they did write that let them down and remains the reason why they were never really fully integrated into the accepted progrockers club with Yes, Genesis, ELP and the rest.

Yet tunes such as Springsteen’s ‘Blinded by the Light’ and Dylan’s ‘Father of Day, Father of Night’ are classics of the genre, the former even giving them a respectable chart hit. My favourite, though, is Springsteen’s ‘Spirits in the Night’ from their ‘Nightingales and Bombers’ album where the incongruity of Bruce’s all-American tale of teen lust and debauchery set against the early 1970s Englishness of the arrangement just doesn’t seem to matter a jot. It’s powerful stuff.

I remember that copies of their 1974 album ‘The Good Earth’ came packaged with title deeds to a square foot of some Welsh hillside. I wonder how many people are still proud owners of a tiny plot of Welsh grass?

All things considered, I’m quite proud to be a Manfred Mann album!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Dance Mission: Impossible!


Imagine the scene. You are a DJ at the office Christmas Party where, let’s be frank, your punters are not exactly talented dancers. What’s the worst thing you can possibly do? Apart from snog the boss’s secretary. Top of the list will probably be to play one (or all if you’re really wanting to visit the job centre the next morning) of the following:
‘Living in the Past’ – Jethro Tull
‘Money’ – Pink Floyd
’15 Step’ – Radiohead
‘Four Sticks’ – Led Zeppelin
‘Solsbury Hill’ – Peter Gabriel

Leaving aside the various artistic merits of the songs and artists, the real reason why these songs should never grace a social occasion where amateurs stalk the dance floor like primeval beasts (after a few stiff gins) is that they are virtually impossible to dance to - unless you happen to have trained with the Bolshoi Ballet during that summer season in Europe. And the reason why George from accounts will have difficulty with them is that they do not have simple time signatures, or to put it another way, a consistent, danceable beat.

The majority of pop/rock songs march along in 4/4 time (4 beats in every bar) and a lesser number waltz around in 3/4 time (3 beats in the bar) and these are relatively easy rhythms to understand and thus dance to. The songs in the list above have complex time signatures with either 5 or 7 beats to every bar for at least 50 % of their playing time and this makes them very difficult to decipher on a dance floor. Believe me, as a non-dancer myself I am particularly sensitive to this sort of thing and sympathise entirely with the hapless George.

Nevertheless, whilst not great for the disco, songs or music with complex time signatures can be thrillingly different. The progressive bands of the early 70s experimented with odd time signatures endlessly with greater or lesser success, but my favourite by some distance is the theme to Mission: Impossible, the 60s TV spy thriller series featuring self-destructing tapes and lots of false walls. Written by Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin, it rampages along in 5/4 time giving it a slightly ‘lumpy’ and syncopated feel which really suits the inventiveness of the programme itself. Over the years, this piece of music has rather taken on a life of its own and is now used constantly as background accompaniment to any daring deed (unsurprisingly, Shrek 2 used it in a rescue scene) and is probably recognised by most people even if they are unaware of the original TV programme that spawned it.

All in all, a truly iconic piece of music. Just don’t try and dance to it.


Saturday, 6 December 2008

The Boy From U.N.C.L.E.


It is a little known fact that for a short period in the mid-1960s, I was secretly a member of U.N.C.L.E - and I have papers to prove it.

In a fit of childish glee, I had applied through a magazine article to join the organisation and was duly rewarded with a small parcel containing a membership document, ID card and a coveted triangular badge. Although this was quite exciting as it went, I admit I was a tad disappointed to have been assigned to Section 5 (Communications) rather than Section 1 (Operations and Enforcement) like Napoleon and Illya but I suppose you can’t be choosy in such a high powered set-up.

I also collected the full set of 55 bubble gum cards Рthe only time I have collected the full set of anything in my life Рand joy of joys, on one particular Christmas morning unwrapped an U.N.C.L.E attach̩ case complete with pistol (plus attachable shoulder stock, telescopic sight and silencer), cigarette packet radio (but disappointingly not the famous radio pen), a(nother) badge, a pen with invisible ink and set of handcuffs (no sniggering at the back).

Could life ever be any better? Actually, no, but that’s another story. Every week I was glued to the TV to see the next episode which was then devoured and regurgitated in the school playground the next day. It was a golden time and no mistake.

But since those far off days of childhood bliss, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has been a notable absentee on the shelves of well-known DVD sellers. The spin-off films have been available for yonks and whilst every other two-bit production has been released either on video or DVD or both, the original TV show has remained unavailable and forever buried in my memory – until now. I see at last that you can now buy the complete series on 41 discs in a spy-proof attaché case for the princely sum of £145 – on an all-or-nothing basis imported in region 1 coding only. Hmm.

This is so disappointing; anybody would think THRUSH was behind it. Why a region 1 release only? Why the whole lot in one go? All I want is to be able to buy say, a season at a time, on region 2 discs so that I can wallow in a bit of nostalgia for an hour or two. ‘Mission: Impossible’ has managed it, so has ‘Moonlighting’ and ‘Star Trek’ and so have countless others so why not U.N.C.L.E?

I must complain to someone at the highest level...err...'Open channel D...’

Monday, 1 December 2008

The (Un)Original Artists


A recent post on Jeff’s Imagine Echoes got me thinking. He describes buying a Donovan LP only to find on playing it that his favourite song was not the one he expected but an alternative version. Things like this can ruin your whole day.

For example, in 1968, the budget label, Pickwick, started to release a series of ‘Top of the Pops’ LPs through their Hallmark subsidiary. One of these records was released every 6 weeks throughout the late 60s and 70s and was the forerunner to the ‘Now’ CD series now currently up to volume 77 or thereabouts.

At about this time I was accompanying my mother to Tesco in St Albans. In those days Tesco was not the mega-supermarket chain that it is now, but a small ground floor grocery with clothes, home equipment and other bits and bobs on the first floor. Also to be found on the first floor was a box containing scruffy ex-jukebox singles and a rack of budget label LPs and it was here that I discovered ‘Top of the Pops Vol 12’ boasting hits of the day all wrapped up in a sleeve with a slightly surly looking young women on the cover in model pose. Not only that, it retailed at about 14 shillings - considerably less than the normal cost of an LP record. I was suckered in and bought a copy.

Of course, it was only when I’d got it home and played it that I began to realise that something wasn’t quite right. All the songs sounded a bit different and in order to placate my growing anxiety I persuaded myself that they were demo or unreleased versions of the songs that I knew so well from the radio. But the feeling of disappointment wouldn’t go away so I can sympathise with Jeff on this point. It was only later that I discovered the truth of the matter and it was that all the songs were imitations done by session musicians, not the original artists and this was why it was so cheap.

I no longer have TOTP Vol 12 in my possession, which is a shame because discs from this series are now something of collectors’ items. Some of the session musicians used in the replicas are now well known names. On my copy of volume 12 was the Stevie Wonder hit, ‘Signed Sealed Delivered, I’m Yours’ which was actually sung by an unknown Elton John so it would’ve been worth keeping for his passable Wonder impersonation alone. Also the rather chaste cover girls look incredibly kitsch by today’s standards but have a period feel that proclaims the times.

You can still buy them on eBay for £10+ a shot but I don’t think I’ll be bidding...unless it’s volume 12.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Moon Turn the Tides...Gently Gently Away


Hearing the news about the recent death of Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell when my mind was in an unguarded moment prompted a deluge of sadness and two immediate thoughts. First, all I ever seem to be doing these days is recording yet another Rock ‘n’ Roll death on this blog and second, is this the first time that a death has permanently consigned a major 1960s band to that great live date in the sky?

In answer to the first thought, it does seem as though time and tide has waited for no man and we are now well and truly into a period when deaths are apt to follow in rapid succession. With the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, most of the early pioneers are now likely to be in their 70s or older. Discounting premature demises as a consequence of the inherent lifestyle it seems that that most unnatural of rock ‘n’ roll deaths, natural causes, is now upon us and will not be going away any time soon.

The second point is more poignant. With Hendrix himself gone since 1970 and Noel Redding eventually following a few years back it was only Mitch who held the baton for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. But with his recent death, the band is gone and as far as I am aware this is the first time that every member from a major band (rather than individual artists, obviously) from that early period has passed away.

Despite deaths in the camps of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who, The (Small) Faces, The Doors, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones (albeit, interestingly, only Brian Jones in 1969), there is at least one member of each outfit still flying the flag. Even more amazing, there are still bands out there that have all members still living like The Kinks and Fleetwood Mac. There is something rather comforting to know that all these old men and women of rock are still around even if they are no longer throwing TVs out of hotel windows (got to look after that bad back these days) but when the last of a band succumbs you know it is all over.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience is now consigned to the annals of that dusty subject, History, as surely as the Beatles and the Stones will be some day and future generations will only know them from books, memories and through their recorded legacy. Who ever thought my generation would be in the position, like our parents before us, of recommending long dead artists to our children and grand children?

Friday, 21 November 2008

The Gender Gap


Nurture or Nature? It is a question that has exercised the brains of psychologists and educationalists since political correctness was in nappies. Do children follow certain paths because of their inherent gender or their treatment during their formative years? I may have mentioned that my wife is a primary school teacher and it is her view after 20-odd years teaching the little brats...er dears, that in general, Nature usually wins, no matter what the trendy educationalists and the government will try to do to load the dice. In other words ‘Boys will be Boys’ and vice versa and there’s not much you can do about it, or should do about it except work with the fact.

Earlier this year, there was a news article dealing with a report from The Institute of Education on the subject of which musical instrument children chose to learn that tends to enforce the view that nature has taken a firm grip when it comes to Rock ‘n’ Roll. Looking at which instrument is favourite when it comes to individual choice, it seems that the boys rush to the guitar whilst the girls are picking up a flute or, gulp, the harp. Try getting that in the back of the car for home practice!

So, surprise surprise, whilst boys are fighting for the guitars, drums and brass instruments to make as much noise as possible, their feminine peers shut the door to get a bit of peace to practice that difficult D♭ arpeggio on their oboes and flutes. It must’ve made school a very confusing place for the likes of Joan Jett, June Millington, Nancy Wilson, Vicki Peterson and every other guitar totin’ woman. Or indeed, Ian Anderson, Thijs Van Leer and their flautist brothers.

Seems to me that actually, instruments pick you rather than the other way around. Looking at most bands, the drummer is always the mad restless one, the keyboards player is studious, the bass player laid back and the guitarist the extrovert. Each instrument then picks their player from across the sexes. Of course, more men than women are aggressive extroverts but more women than men are relaxed and socially inclusive. Note how many more female bass players there appear to be than raving lead guitarists.

Two fundamental truths arise here. One – men and women are, thankfully, different and there’s no use saying otherwise. They will always be drawn to different pursuits despite what any ‘expert’ may tell you. Two – there are always exceptions to any rule and holding back boys and girls who desire to be ‘different’ is as damaging as forcing them to act against their nature. Now, where did I leave my Bagpipes?

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Rock 'n' Roll (part 547)


Ha! I’ve just seen that Gary Glitter’s 70s hit ‘I’m The Leader of the Gang (I am)’ has been removed from the UK education’s GCSE Music syllabus where it was recommended ‘related listening’!

I’m not sure which amazes me most. The fact that it has taken all this time to remove the work of a convicted paedophile from our children’s learning curriculum, or the fact that pop music was in the curriculum in the first place. When I was slogging through ‘O’ Level Music (an earlier incarnation of GCSEs for younger readers) in the 70s, popular music just did not exist. It was never, ever mentioned by teaching staff whose world revolved around Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and other worthy works and if any student dared to utter words like ‘The Beatles’ it was met with the vacant stare of someone who found the concept of any artist/composer being alive and well to be utterly incomprehensible.

Thus my state-provided musical education centred on studying four classical pieces, the lives of various (dead) composers and trying to learn the Bassoon. Luckily much of the musical theory I picked up in this endeavour is directly transportable to the popular music world and having left school that is where it strayed...permanently. So quite why popular music has crept into state education is beyond me. Must be all those trendy new teaching methods.

But back to G Glitter or Paul Gadd as he is known in legal circles. I can say here and now, without fear of contradiction, that I never rated him - much to the derision of many of my mates who thought glam was a huge laugh and should lie at the centre of a good night out. To me, a dyed in the wool progger, the glam-rock of the mid 1970s was the wart on the face of a noble art and when The Sweet, The Rubettes, Mud, Alvin Stardust, Gary Glitter and all of their ghastly peers ruled the singles charts during that period I was in hiding making do with a meagre diet of Eagles, Steely Dan and even Supertramp until punk arrived and I could emerge, blinking into the daylight again. The only band I had a sneaking regard for was Slade (and T Rex at a stretch) but to admit to that was tantamount to accepting the whole ghastly glam-rock scene, so I kept quiet. But if I met Noddy Holder in the street today I wouldn’t shy away from a friendly handshake. Just don’t let me ever meet Les Gray...

So I have no time for Glitter and as far as I am concerned he is not only guilty of paedophilia, he should’ve asked for several other offences to have been taken into consideration including ‘Hello Hello I’m Back Again’ and the stomach-churning ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me? (Oh Yeah)’. Good riddance I say.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The Ones That Got Away


The trouble with being a bit of an obsessive and following a broad spectrum of bands and artists is that it is not financially, or indeed physically possible to own everything they release unless you have several storage rooms lying vacant in the East wing. I don’t even own every Beatles album. Luckily, some of my favourite bands have not produced a huge amount of material so it is relatively easy to collect the whole set but my general rule is that I tend to start buying from the early days and then tail off unless they are very special indeed.

Over the years, I have accordingly ignored many later albums from those artists I once followed and it often comes as a bit of a shock to stumble on one of these ‘passed over’ albums much later and find that they are blindingly good.

Such an album is ‘Ultraviolet’ by All About Eve.

I always felt AAE were a cut above the rest when I first heard ‘Our Summer’ on an Indie compilation back in the 1980s and this view was ratified after having purchased their first two albums in the late eighties when they presented a face which matched Julianne Regan’s cut-glass vocals with the then prevalent goth metal/mystic folk sound. However, I became a lapsed fan after guitarist Tim Bricheno left and never looked back, so it was with no little degree of trepidation that I approached their ‘Keepsakes’ 2CD compilation which boasts large chunks of later albums that I failed to buy.

But I needn’t have worried. Whilst all the best moments from the first two albums ‘All About Eve’ and ‘Scarlet and Other Stories’ are present and correct, it is the later material from the albums ‘Touched by Jesus’ and the much maligned 1992 effort, ‘Ultraviolet’, the ones I didn’t buy and now wish that I had, that have really surprised me. The dense, dreamy, shoegazing-meets-psychedelia style tracks from the latter are magnificent slices of post Pink Floyd aural architecture, particularly the trance-like ‘Phased’ and ‘Infrared’ which could be the offspring of a coupling between Syd Barrett’s ‘Astronomy Domine’ and ‘Echoes’. And to think I nearly missed out on this stuff.

Unfortunately, ‘Ultraviolet’ was an unmitigated disaster in the shops and MCA dropped AAE and promptly deleted the album from their catalogue soon after its release (thus keeping eBay in funds for years after). More fool them for it is an enjoyable listen and even Julianne jokes that AAE were a great band ‘70% of the time’. The 70% must cover this album. It is still unavailable, but 6 of the 11 tracks are available on ‘Keepsakes’ which certainly is available, so give ‘em a listen.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Sam Phillips...No, Not That One!


Fate moves in a mysterious way. You just never know how one thing will lead to another – but sometimes you can have a pretty good guess.

It was in 1991 that I accompanied my wife, a registered Elvis Costello addict, to his concert at Hammersmith Odeon, London. Let me state here and now that whilst I like a lot of his early stuff (and particularly his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet on the ‘Juliet Letters’) I am not his greatest fan so I wasn’t expecting too much from the evening. Anyway there we were watching the support act, a rather gawky female singer, and I was thinking, actually she’s quite good in a very left field sort of way. She had some quirky songs, indulged in a bit of self-deprecating patter between them and couldn’t dance for toffee. I’m a bit of a sucker for odd people as my record collection will attest and so rather than shun overt marketing in my normal manner, I accepted her free cassette, exerpts from 'Cruel Intentions' by Sam Phillips, being handed out on our way out of the building at the end of the evening and played the three songs it contained the very next day.

Much as it pains me to admit, this simple marketing exercise had the desired effect and I subsequently bought ‘Cruel Inventions’ and liked it a lot. It is produced by her husband-at-the-time, T-Bone Burnett and comprises a series of catchy, unusual melodies with slightly kooky, yet acutely observed lyrics. The production is sparse and rings with treated guitar figures and percussion giving a slightly edgy, spooky aura designed to complement the dark lyrics. I still like it to this day, but as with so many others, never bought anything else by her so thought I’d check her out.

A bit of research reveals that she began life as Leslie Ann Phillips and was well known in Christian circles before changing her professional name to Sam and moving record company to avoid being promoted as the ‘Christian Cyndi Lauper’. With future husband T-Bone, she then fashioned several well received albums in the 1990s which is where I came in. It’s probably just as well that I didn’t know about her previous existence as religion and I don’t often see eye to eye and she was probably justified in distancing herself from the ‘Cyndi Lauper’ promotion. No wonder the devil has all the best tunes.

The reason she has risen to the top of my consciousness is that I became aware of a new album ‘Don’t Do Anything’ coupled with a retrospective best of ‘The Disappearing Act 1987-2008’ advertised on Amazon. I might just investigate both.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Live and Unexpected


Unbelievably and perhaps inevitably, The Spice Girls beat Led Zeppelin to the ‘Best Reunion’ prize at the Vodafone Live Music Awards. Where will it all end eh? Said Emma Bunton, ‘The thing is, when you go to a gig, you go for fun and entertainment and a night out.’ Clearly, it’s not much of a fun night out going to see Led Zep!

Funny old things, live dates, you never quite know what you’re going to get. I remember some high profile gigs that I busted a gut to get to turning out to be the worst night on record (you know who you are, T’pau, Monochrome Set etc) and others, where I was dragged kicking and screaming, which were magnificent. Leaving a comment on Layla’s blog recently prompted a memory of one of my most enjoyable live music experiences.

Having left University in the late 1970s, I move home to St Albans for a short period. St Albans boasts one of the best Live Music Pubs in the district in the Horn pub (or Horn of Plenty as it was then). I used to walk there in the evening once in a while for a pint and a bit of rock ‘n’ roll. On one particular evening, I turned up to see a local band (sorry boys, can’t remember the name) and settled down with my beer to watch the show. They were OK in a competent-but-a-little-uninspiring sort of way. Until about half way through their set when an older balding man shuffled on stage and strapped on a guitar. I did a double take and thought to myself, ‘That bloke looks a bit like Andy Powell. No, can’t be. Bloody Hell! It is!’

He played with them for the rest of the set and it was mesmerising. It was the combination of low expectations being wildly exceeded and the fact that there was the Wishbone Ash axe-man playing to a largely disinterested audience of regular pub-goers and their dogs that made it such a great event. And it was free!

These types of experience are all to do with expectation. The bigger the star and the bigger the venue, the greater the expectation – and the potential for disappointment. I always liked to frequent the smaller venues when I attended gigs regularly in order to see second division acts as they always tried harder and often were unexpectedly good. I remember being blown away by an unknown college band playing a note perfect version of Yes’s ‘Roundabout’ at a Hall bash during my University years. Much cheaper than the real thing but virtually as entertaining!

I don’t get to live gigs much these days but I still reckon I’d go for the smaller venue complete with second division band and hope that I’d discover another pearl.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Levi Stubbs (1936 - 2008)


And so another one departs this life. Levi Stubbs, lead singer with Motown evergreens, The Four Tops, died this week. Once upon a time, popular music stars only died young because they were young whereas now many of them die naturally of old age and you begin to realise that time has caught up with us all.

My personal musical memory starts around about 1963 and it was then that Berry Gordy’s Motown enterprise was gathering speed. Even here in the UK, the ‘voice of young America’ was on our radios and on our TV screens fighting for airtime with the Beatles and the Stones. Holland, Dozier and Holland were churning out great pop hits and Levi was very much a part of that revolution. ‘I Can’t Help Myself’ and ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ were touchstones to my youth which fuelled my burgeoning interest in popular culture. But the acceptance of black American music into my largely middleclass white society is an interesting case

I look back with much amusement to my schooldays around the early 1970s when there was a war raging between my peers as to which was better; ‘Soul’ or ‘Prog’. There were two main protagonists in this divide and the one rarely saw eye to eye with the other so quite how the great LP swap experiment ever got off the ground is a minor miracle. Nevertheless, it was agreed that each would choose a representative album for the other to borrow. In the red corner, weighing not very much and sporting a finger-in-the-electric-socket hairstyle was the prog devotee. His choice was ‘Close to the Edge’ by Yes. In the blue corner, having a considerable height advantage and floppy blonde hair was our soul expert, whose considered choice was ‘Cloud 9’ by the Temptations. Albums were duly exchanged on the Friday and the multitude waited in hushed expectation on the Monday morning for the verdict.

In books, each would agree that the other’s choice was tip-top and they would tousle each others’ hair and depart for tea and buns, firm friends. But real life has a habit of getting in the way and after a nervous few minutes when neither would admit to anything concrete, the insults started to fly and only the end-of-break bell headed off what could have escalated into a nasty incident. Frankly, I doubt either got past track 1 so the whole experiment should’ve been declared null and void. Kids eh?

But the fact that this discussion arose at all shows that Motown held its own in exalted company and the likes of the Temptation, Supremes and Four Tops were recognised as international acts of stature. It is a rare achievement and one which Levi should justifiably be remembered.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Lush, My 100th Post...and an Apology.


Sometimes time can show you just how wrong you can be and hold you up as a solid gold liar. No matter how sure of yourself you were once upon a time you can virtually guarantee that the passage of time will come and bite you where it most hurts, in the ego! I am and always will be, a huge fan of so-called shoegazers, Lush, a band who operated between 1989 and 1996. As this is my 100th post, I felt they ought to feature. Their first recorded effort was a 6 track EP named ‘Scar’ and it just blew me away with its jagged rhythms, soaring harmonies and endlessly modulating melodies. After a few stunning singles and what seemed an eternity their first proper album finally arrived in 1992 – ‘Spooky’ and I was straining at the leash to hear it.

And that’s where the trouble started. The difficulty with ‘Spooky’ stemmed from the fact that it had been produced by Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie and he had given it an effects-drenched maelstrom sound close to that of his own albums. There immediately followed a wave of fierce criticism from critics and fans alike directed at Guthrie’s dense, impenetrable production on what should have been, after all, Lush’s first triumphant foray into the world of albums and when I first bought it back in ‘92, I was one of the most vociferous. How dare he mess about with one of my most favourite bands? Why were the vocals drowned in the mix? Where were the dynamics of the band? I was so disappointed that the potential of Lush had been utterly ruined that I pontificated about how crap Guthrie was as a producer and how I’d never look at a Cocteau Twins album again. So there!

However, it pains me to admit that from a perspective of over fifteen years now, my view has mellowed somewhat and on continued listenings, I find that actually, this is a very fine album indeed.

Its dizzying dream pop, so characteristic of the prevailing shoegazing genre of that time now sounds nostalgic and exhilarating. Whilst many reviewers bemoan the fact that Lush’s contrived atmospherics were inferior to the efforts of others such as the aforementioned Cocteau Twins and the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Ride, I think they are missing the point. Lush were primarily a band that created great pop songs and then submerged them in swathes of effects, rather than following their peers and developing aural landscapes for their own sake.

‘For Love’, ‘Covert’, ‘Untogether’, ‘Fantasy’ – pop songs all. Add to the basic premise of a good song their effortlessly intricate vocal harmonies and their lightness of touch despite the layers of guitar noise and you have a concoction that sounds a bit like The Beach Boys meets The Cure at a Trance workshop. Or, in other words, music that satisfies both the head and the heart.

In retrospect, it’s stunning stuff from one of the most underrated bands in the history of underrated bands. Sorry Robin.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Authors Promoting Authors


Take it from me as an impoverished author, trying to sell a self-published book is akin to pulling teeth so when I chanced upon a comment from ‘Authors Promoting Authors’ whilst perusing one of my favourite blogs, A Novice Novelist, I was intrigued.

Further investigation revealed that APA is Tina-Sue Ducross, an author promoting her first book, ‘No Shadows Left Behind’ and her blog has been set up to publicise books from self-published and independently published authors. To cut to the chase, she agreed to post my book details and in return, I am promoting her site with this post.

So if you fancy reading a selection of up and coming new authors, check out ‘Authors Promoting Authors’ and have a browse. To get you in the mood, here are details of Tina-Sue’s book and the most recent post on her APA blog:

NO SHADOWS LEFT BEHIND by Tina-Sue Ducross

'Broken lives can be mended; joy can be found.Terrorizing dreams, panic attacks, and everyday interactions bring back a past this teacher thought was dead and gone. And now, Melissa sees signs that one of her eighth-grade students, Christy Kade, may be in an all-too-familiar situation... of incest.
Christy lives in silent fear, dreading her father's "secret, special games."As she gains a desperately-needed friendship, Christy begins to believe in herself and to find the courage to reach out for help. The school year progresses and both Christy and Melissa make attempts at trust, each of them drawing on inner strength to navigate their lives. As our heroines open themselves up to the lessons taught to them by their loved ones, they grow in ways they’d never thought possible.
Ugly things do happen behind closed doors, but help—and hope—exist.'




DAYDREAMS IN MERMAID GRASS by Natalie Williams


'Daydreams in Mermaid Grass began in its conception in a dream. What happens when we sleep, before we fall into those deep moments that we cannot wake from, where we have no recollection of what has taken place but awake with a heightened sense of something, something that cannot be defined? This uniquely transcendent collection of poetry offers a peak into an imaginary world where the wildest dreams and nightmares culminate into a whirlwind ride where all else is forgotten.The title is metaphorical for a dream state; when all time stops and you enter before sleep unimagined things reach from another world to take you and you slip, floating, softly into the unknown.The fantastical world of Bracken written in poetic verse spells a hypnotizing read for all. The world, populated by fantastical creatures mesmerizes the reader from beginning to end. Serpent dragons with mirror hides that reflect all wrongdoing journeying on quests, princesses clothed in darkness and only lit by the creature known only as Speaker are only some of the treasures that await you inside. Hold my hand and let this magical sleep take you into the world of Daydreams in Mermaid Grass'

Buy 'Daydreams in Mermaid Grass'

Visit Natalie Williams' website

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

White Wedding


To date in my long career as a certified rock-bore...er..critic, I have been known on occasion to buy one or two LP/CDs. In fact, if truth be told, it is probably closer to one or two hundred and not far short of one or two thousand and it would be safe to say that I enjoy listening to the majority of them. Of course, there is a small proportion that represent mistakes that never get played, but as a rule, I have a copy of all my favourite songs. However, it struck me the other day that there are many albums or individual songs that I like immensely but yet I have never owned.

One song that immediately springs to mind is ‘White Wedding’ by peroxide blonde, Billy Idol. I love ‘White Wedding’ but have never owned a copy of it and am at a loss to explain why. It is all the more strange because my first inkling of the late seventies punk invasion was carried my way by Idol’s band, Generation X and their debut single ‘Your Generation’, a rumbustious anthem which renewed my interest in the singles market after years of ‘albums only’ mentality. I actually snuck out and purchased a seven-inch picture sleeved vinyl copy of ‘Your Generation’ and hid it from my earnest music peers which is why I still have it today. I saw Generation X play live twice – once at the cramped, sweaty and now defunct Marquee Club in London – but somehow never got around to buying anything else from the Idol stable, including his subsequent solo releases. Why does this happen?

Could it be that I have the attention span of a goldfish (allegedly)? Well, this is always a possibility, as the late 70s and early 80s was a golden time for me when my LP buying rate went through the roof on the back of my first proper employment and a multitude of great product to choose from. During this heady period of solvency linked to the delights of Punk, New Wave and New Romanticism, I was bit like a child in a sweetshop, scampering backwards and forwards from one counter to the next. Much of the stuff I bought generally didn’t get the attention it deserved and much was ignored altogether especially by 1985 when the feeding frenzy was sated and ‘White Wedding’ appeared.

But the more I think about it, the more there are; ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ is another song that I don’t own and if I thought harder, I’m sure there are others.

Anybody else got any favourite songs that they never bought?

Friday, 10 October 2008

Garage Rock


The end of the 1960s signalled many things, the end of The Beatles, the first falterings of the hippy dream and the beginning of an extended period of the most tasteless period in fashion ever, but for me it signifies moving house for the first time. In the winter of 1970/71 our family moved out of the house I grew up in and moved to a newer, chalet style semi not half a mile away. The reason for all this inconvenience was that the new house had a sheltered, sunny south facing aspect which was infinitely superior to the dark, windy north-east facing old one and for my mother, in her last 6 months of a losing a battle with cancer, a warmer sunnier last few months on this earth.

The house also boasted an integral garage which was eventually converted to a bedroom for me thus saving me from having to share with my brother. I’m sure he felt the same. A new stand alone pre-fab garage was built on land to the side of the house to compensate for the loss of facility. The new garage was fundamentally a long thin tube of grey granite blocks with a flat roof and an up-and-over door. Usually, it housed our car and a load of junk but during the school holidays it was devoid of the car during the day and it was then that it served as a base for garage cricket (2 players only – pat pending).

My younger brother and I had devised the rules for our 2-hand garage cricket a year or so before at our previous house, but this newer, longer garage was perfect for its execution. Basically a batsman’s wicket was set up inside at the closed end and the bowler bowled into the garage from the driveway. The batsman could be out by being bowled or caught or LBW if we could ever agree, in the normal way. Scoring was achieved by hitting the ball against certain items along the interior walls of the garage such as the lawn mower (2 runs), the garden spade (3 runs) and a pair of wellingtons (4 runs). To hit the ball back past the bowler into the road counted as a six.

Luckily, the new garage had a power line run from the house terminating in a single socket on the wall. Into this could be plugged my portable record player thus we could also have music whilst we played. Thus my abiding memory of these games is linked with Argent’s ‘In Deep’, their forth and in my opinion best LP and I can remember rockin’ along to ‘God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll To You’ and ‘It’s Only Money (parts 1 & 2)’ whilst racking up yet another unbeaten half century score with a spectacular on-drive against the lawn mower.

Who said sport and rock don’t mix?

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Keep on Drummin' (part 2)


There has been much chat about drummers and drumming following the anniversary of John Bonham’s death and if his passing has done anything at all, it has increased the stock of drummers everywhere. As a generality, most people tend to ignore drummers and talk about their favourite singer or guitarist. But now we have reason to pause and think about their skills and what they bring to the mix.

OK, let me state upfront that ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘The Mule’ are maybe not my favourite ways to spend 10+ minutes of my life, but two examples always spring to my mind and they are probably not the obvious ones. The first is the role of eighties heart-throbs A-ha. The eighties was a lean time for drummers as their position as timekeepers in bands was seriously under threat from the dreaded new chip on the block, the drum machine whose upkeep was minimal and whose timekeeping was relentlessly metronomic. Most of the electro-pop outfits of the day like Yazoo, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and even megagoths, Sisters of Mercy dispensed with a live drummer in favour of the much cheaper and easier-to-control-on-a-night-out drum machine. But not A-ha. They deliberately employed a real live drummer (albeit playing an electronic drum kit) to back up their generally keyboard driven sound to inject some human excitement into proceedings and the result was awesome. Try imagining what ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ would sound like with a plodding drum machine instead of the existing exhilaratingly human drum track.

It is interesting to note that some of the biggest ‘technology’ bands of that period refrained from booting out their drummers (and guitarists come to that) and instead embraced them wholeheartedly. In particular I am thinking of New Order who rose from the ashes of Joy Division to create an epic synthesized dance/rock sound which embraced new technology like there was no tomorrow yet still found room for Stephen Morris’s pounding rhythm work. Again try ‘Sunrise’ from the album ‘Lowlife’ and imagine no Stephen in the mix.

The second example is Blondie, whose drummer; Clem Burke has always impressed me as one of rock’s finest skinsmen. Listen to most Blondie songs now and you are struck by the lack of emphasis on harmony playing from guitar and keyboards. The main thrust of much of their work is based around Debbie Harry’s vocals and Clem Burke’s drumming and on occasion, very little else, which propels their material along at break-neck speed. Perhaps drummers are the heart of rock ‘n’ roll and not guitarists?

Let's face it, all the best bands have a proper and talented drummer. In fact the more I think about it, there are many drummers I love to death. The list would include Terry Chambers (XTC), Keith Moon, Budgie (Siouxsie & The Banshees), Bill Bruford, Stewart Copeland, Ian Paice, Mick Fleetwood, Phil Collins and many more.

Drummers. I love ‘em.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Saint Julian


I love contrasts in music. I love the way that songs have internal conflicts such as minor key melodies set against pounding dance grooves or slow moving tunes melded to busy rhythms. It’s what makes music so fascinating. The knack seems to be to assimilate the weird and wonderful into a recognisable structure. It is for this reason that I like Julian Cope, who is a whole host of contradictions himself, and his music.

Outwardly eccentric and in many ways completely bats, Cope also possesses a mind that can research and catalogue ancient stone circles and write a massive authoritative tome on the subject (The Modern Antiquarian) and that can write, at his best, exhilarating music. Given his general demeanour you would expect his music to be scatty and uncoordinated – but not a bit of it. He understands musical structure and dynamics and can produce a pure pop hook with the best of them. Many of his best tunes, like ‘World Shut Your Mouth’ are irritatingly hummable. But what he does best is wrap up those melodic hooks in epic musical dramas that unfold in front of you or weird facsimiles of his beloved Krautrock.

In the late 1980s he produced one of his best and arguably most mainstream of his albums, ‘Saint Julian’. This comprises a series of rocky, generally aggressive songs backed by a slick traditional rock trio. But in amongst the rousing choruses, he plants little oases of calm where a fragment of melodic beauty is allowed to flourish. A bit like a rare alpine flower revealed momentarily by a rampaging avalanche. This is what makes ‘Saint Julian’ such a gem of an album. The later ‘Jehovahkill’ would attempt the same trick but in a slightly different way. Both are essential listening.

Much as I admire Cope, I cannot get to the bottom of his complex character. He seems to blend a sharp analytical mind with strange philosophies and an almost hippyish glee in being unconventional and I can’t quite work out whether this is the real Cope or whether it is all an act. Even a trawl through his rambling and utterly eccentric autobiography, ‘Head’ gives no real clue. Whatever, he embodies what for me is a real rock star, someone who is completely bonkers and unique yet still has a firm grip on how to create and structure great music. You have to be mad to be different but you have to have understanding to be mad, different and good and Cope embodies this in spades.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

The Karaoke Age


I was discussing music with a colleague the other day, as you do, and our thoughts turned to cycles. No, not those two wheeled things that require far too much energy to operate but as in repeating patterns. And our probably horribly flawed analysis led to a rather disturbing conclusion. This is how it came about.

We started our conversation on the subject of Jazz and how it was the dominant musical force in the 1930s and 1940s but how it began to lose ground in the 1950s so that by 1960 it levelled out to existence as another genre competing for favour with other forms. In the meantime, the roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll had germinated in the mid 1950s and grown to be the dominant force in the 1960s and 1970s. Thinking about the trajectory of each wave allowed us to hypothesize that maybe each dominant genre has a 30 year shelf life after which it just rumbles on as a minority interest. In addition, these 30 year cycles overlap by, let’s say 5 years at each end.

After much debate we came up with the dominant forces (those that were substantially different from the last) as Jazz, Rock and Hip-hop/Rap. In between times there were numerous sub-genres such as Swing, Trad, Beat, Psychedelia, Prog, Punk etc etc but we ignored these and looked at the high level plan. I’m sure there are gaping holes in our thinking here but you don’t get much time at the water cooler so bear with me for the moment as there is a point. So, applying the 30 year rule with 5 year overlaps we have:
1930 – 1960 Jazz
1955 – 1985 Rock
1980 – 2010 Rap/Hip-hop
2005 -?

And this is where the problem arises. According to our shaky predictions, Rap is on its last legs and a new genre should‘ve taken root in about 2005. But what is it? Has anybody noticed an earth-shatteringly unique form of music rise through the ranks? No, me neither and this is the worrying point. Has popular music finally run out of steam? Is there nothing left to do? Whilst our predictions may be completely awry, there does lurk a genuine question about where music goes next. Dad-rock can’t just stumble on forever – even Mick Jagger will be forced to retire eventually.

The only recent trend that has become noticeable is the rise of ‘talent show’ stars that are spawned by television’s ‘Pop Idol’ and others and then assault the music world. Examples would be Will Young, Hear’say, Liberty X, Girls Aloud, G4, Leona Lewis in the UK as well as Kelly Clarkson and so on in the US and a whole host of others worldwide. Clearly this is not actually a new type of music, but more a new type of artist recycling old songs. And if this is all music has to offer in the future, it’s very very depressing.

Surely the next 30 year cycle cannot be the ‘Karaoke Age’?

Saturday, 20 September 2008

All Taped Up


You know what memories are like – a bit temperamental. But I’m pretty sure it was late in 1971 when I first owned a portable cassette recorder, that wonder of 1970s technology and I was immensely proud of it. It was of indeterminate Japanese origin, had a naff plastic microphone, a small tinny speaker and an automatic record level that took at least 5 seconds to sort itself out so that the beginnings of recordings were always distorted.

Owning one of these machines was like a science fiction dream come true for after a short period of recording myself, the dog and various family members, I finally twigged that I could record music off the radio, initially by using the mic, (‘your tea’s ready’, ‘SHHH!’) but later by using a direct record lead and it would save me a fortune in not having to buy stuff. This was a real revelation.

The event was so momentous that I can almost remember; track for track my first taped songs even now. They were:

Wishing Well –Free
Heart of Gold – Neil Young
You’re So Vain – Carly Simon
Meet Me on the Corner – Lindisfarne
Tomorrow night – Atomic Rooster
Sweet Caroline – Neil Diamond

As we all know, there was a bit of a problem with this enterprise and it was over-loquacious DJs. Not only can I recall all those songs, I can recall the truncated chat that embedded itself into the beginning and end of every one of them. You suspect that this was done on purpose to discourage home taping but it didn’t stop me.

The next problem was that you always got bored with one song and it was always located in the middle of the tape so erasing it either left a gaping hole in proceedings or provided a home for a new song that didn’t quite fit in the space. Either way, I always ended up with a bunch of songs that were distorted at the beginning and truncated at the end with a load of trivial DJ chat over the best bits. Nevertheless, it was still better than buying them.

But wasn’t all that a tiny bit illegal? Well, up to a point. Because the inevitable drawback with tapes is that they deteriorate alarmingly with age so none of these gems exist today and those that do just deposit a deluge of iron oxide onto the playback head whenever I try and play them, so they have had the last laugh after all. If I really want them back, I’ve got to buy them.

Sadly, cassettes have all but vanished now and with the advent of recordable DVDs, Videotape is also fast disappearing. The Tape Age (like the Bronze Age before it) has passed into history but for our generation it was a real lifeline to holding on to those musical memories.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Richard Wright (1943 - 2008)


As the world now knows, Pink Floyd’s enigmatic keyboardist Richard (Rick) Wright died on 15 September of cancer, aged 65. He now joins Syd Barrett in the Great Gig in the Sky.

I wonder how many of us who watched the Floyd play the Live8 concert in London’s Hyde Park in July 2005, when Roger Waters joined the remaining three to play as the original line up for the first time in 25 odd years, realised that this would be the last time we would see them as a complete unit.

I have fragmented memories of Richard, mainly because he was slightly in the shadow of the Waters/Gilmour axis, but nevertheless he had his moments. One of my favourite Pink Floyd albums is the oddments collection, ‘Relics’ which I bought very cheaply when it was originally released on the budget Starline label in the UK. It comprises a strange assortment of tracks and includes two Wright compositions, ‘Paintbox’, originally a ‘B’ side to ‘Apples and Oranges’ and ‘Remember a Day’ lifted from ‘Saucerful of Secrets’. Both these compositions are overtly memorable; being snapshot examples of late 1960s post psychedelic Englishness. They stand easily against Waters’ solid musicianship and Barrett’s brittle genius and I was impressed.

Another memory involves his trademark single line keyboard ‘noodles’ which pepper the live versions of both ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ and ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’ from ‘Umma Gumma’. Mike Oldfield once said that it was this technique that inspired parts of ‘Tubular Bells’. It is their spiralling invention that keeps you listening even though it is essentially a very simple idea.

But of course, Richard’s lasting legacy will be the melancholy grandeur of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ with its beautifully evocative chord progressions under Clare Torry’s wailing vocals. It is music of the highest order.

Farewell Richard, we’ll miss you. And say hello to Syd for us.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Kate and Joni


If there is one aspect of pop music that really, really gets me climbing up on my high horse, it is the perception that because anything is created under the banner of popular culture, it is automatically labelled as throwaway and worthless.

Whilst I would be the first to admit that there is a fair amount of produce around that fits this category, there is also some that transcends the run of the mill and enters the realm of the timeless. It is the sort of stuff that becomes art history. The difficulty with identifying such art is that by its very nature it becomes very personal and therefore subjective. It is generally the sort of album that speaks directly to the listener and they just know that there is something special about it without necessarily knowing why. And accordingly it is difficult to reach agreement with others as to its objective merits.

As I tend to reserve the highest status for the very best, I only have two such albums that give me that special feeling and they are both by extraordinary women. The first is ‘For the Roses’ by Joni Mitchell and the second is ‘The Dreaming’ by Kate Bush. These are albums that to me drive a coach and horses through the perception that all pop music is lightweight rubbish. These are albums created by massively talented artists at the peak of their powers and just ooze quality. You can almost feel the genius.

In the case of Joni Mitchell, it is the emotional depth of the lyrics that really gets me. The fact that they are allied to more than acceptable tunes is just the icing on the cake. Every song conveys a vivid picture of life that invades your soul and could only come from a true poet. Kate Bush, by contrast brings an almost unrestrained passion, a form of ‘madness’ if you like, to the whole process of music making. The melodies, the use of technology, the voice as an instrument are all right on the edge. It is not an album for the faint hearted and was far too much for the buying public in 1982 who backed away in alarm.

Interestingly, both these albums are the predecessors of what is generally considered the ‘best’ (read; commercial) work of each artist. In Kate’s case it foreshadowed ‘The Hounds of Love’ and in Joni’s, ‘Court and Spark’. This is not an unknown phenomenon as ‘Revolver’ is now considered on a par with ‘Sgt Pepper’ and ‘Off the Wall’ has been cited as at least as good as the following ‘Thriller’. But whatever their place, they are truly great albums.

Just don’t let anyone tell me they are throwaway pop.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Killers For Free


‘Are the youth of today as obsessive about music as previous generations?’ muses Jennifer K over on Popcorninmybra. It’s a fair question. If you apply it to those generations that grew up in the 1960s and 1970s it will probably yield the answer, ‘No’.

In my young day, the only distraction which kept me away from music was a bit of cult TV (Gerry Anderson, Man from UNCLE etc) but these days, there are all manner of alternatives ranging from computers, DVDs, Wiis and playstations to cinema, bowling alleys, indoor skiing, paintballing and numerous other pursuits. Despite the fact that to some, music will always be their prime passion, there is no doubt that it has slipped down the list and will probably not recover. To be realistic, it’s not new anymore, there is too much diversity diluting the market and there are too many other leisure pursuits competing for your time and money.

A further symptom of music’s place in society was recently demonstrated by my niece, who having left teenagehood behind a month or so back, decided to give away a fair proportion of her CDs on the basis that they were all ripped to MP3 anyway and what did she need with all those discs cluttering the place up?

This is where my age shows, as this is incomprehensible to someone like me who still cherishes his huge LP and CD collection and would never sell, let alone give, any away. My collection represents me and my life to date and you can trace the evolution of my questionable taste over time if you really felt like it. I’m sure musicologists would have a field day. The other aspect is that CD represents a significant increase in sound quality over MP3 and to sacrifice this is such a seemingly off-hand way is, again anathema to me who has already squandered the GDP of a small town, putting together a stereo system that will squeeze the last drop of performance out of a CD (and LP come to that).

However, the upside to my niece’s clearout was that I got first dibs on her castoffs and amongst the CDs I got my mitts on is the second Killers’ album, ‘Sam’s Town’ which despite owning their debut ‘Hot Fuss’ I never got around to buying. I felt that ‘Hot Fuss’ had some really good tracks on it but overall was a little patchy. ‘Sam’s Town’ on the other hand is more consistent and boasts a collection of hi-energy rockers with proper tunes. Generally, second albums tend to be a bit disappointing but I think this one is marginally better than its predecessor so I am indebted to my niece for passing it on to me.

Anything else going free?

Monday, 8 September 2008

New Look


Just a short post to welcome you all to Music Obsessive’s new look! After a year and a bit staring at that yellow screen, I decided that a fresh new image was called for so set about checking out alternative templates. Having decided on this one, I then discovered that everyone and his/her dog uses it from Layla’s Classic Rock to TR1-Guy. So I agonised over it for a few days, not wanting to be a copycat, but in the end thought, sod it and did it anyway. It suits my layout perfectly so here it is. You can feed back through the poll on the right side bar if you wish your thoughts be known on the subject.

PS – Hearty congrats to Layla and Bloggerhythms who both feature in the top 100 music blogs as calculated by Alexa. Well deserved! Go check ‘em out.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Love is a Battlefield


Usually, I’ve got a great memory for a tune and after 45 years of listening to them I damn well should have. I may not always remember the title, but hum me a snatch of melody and I can generally place it in a time and genre even if I struggle to tell you who it’s by. But not this time.

In the early 1980s I was a big fan of mini-powerhouse rocker, Pat Benatar so not having replaced any of her albums with CDs, I set about converting my stack of her vinyl output to MP3 in the sure knowledge that when I played them back all my memories of those albums would come flooding back. Well, some did, but the majority didn’t and for someone who used to play her music constantly twenty-odd years ago this is distinctly worrying. Hmm. Have I got the right LPs? Check. Is the volume turned up? Check. Am I awake? Check! Then what the hell is happening here?!

I was first introduced to Pat by a fellow inmate of a house I shared in the late seventies just after leaving University. She had a copy of Pat’s debut, ‘In the Heat of the Night’ and I loved it. During the 80s I added it as well as the next four releases, ‘Crimes of Passion’, ‘Precious Time’, ‘Get Nervous’ and ‘Tropico’ to my collection before deciding that enough was enough. Admittedly, I haven’t played these vinyl albums for many years, but I still find it amazing that I really can’t remember many of the tracks on them. The only exception here is ‘Get Nervous’ which is still familiar as the cream of the crop. Perhaps it’s time to hang up my iPod for good and buy the pipe and slippers?

Also, somewhere on a videotape I have a recording of the promotional video for ‘Love is a Battlefield’ which kick-started her career in the new MTV era of the mid 1980s. This one I definitely can remember as it has an addictively memorable tune and an inventive accompanying video containing some slick sub-Michael Jackson dance routines and a bittersweet storyline. But as to the rest – Yikes!

It looks suspiciously as though I’m going to have to admit the truth to myself and that is I am no longer obsessed with her as much as I was. It’s a ‘time and place’ thing and I’ve moved on. We have an understanding!
‘We are young,
Heartache to heartache we stand
No promises, no demands
Love is a battlefield’
Just as well I didn’t buy the ‘Ultimate Collection’ double CD eh?

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Get The Fire Brigade


Back in the mists of time there was once an invention that promised to revolutionise motoring. It was based on the premise that hands-free music could be enjoyed by employing a cartridge with an endless tape, but it failed abysmally and will be forever remembered in withering terms as the 8-Track Cartridge. A school friend of mine once installed a brand new 8-Track player in his decrepit Morris Traveller (wooden frame version, natch) in the vain hope that it would act as a girl-magnet. It didn’t. Also, what he forgot was that displaying his shiny new equipment was not enough, you needed cartridges to play in it, so one evening he picked up two titles at a garage along with a couple of gallons of 4-star (romance is not dead, eh?).

One was a complete disaster. What he thought was a Jimi Hendrix ‘Best Of’ turned out to be Hendrix hits played by a tribute band called ‘Purple Haze’ or ‘Purple Fox’ or something and pretty dire is was too. The second was a compilation of hits by The Move which whilst infinitely superior didn’t really fall into the ‘girl-magnet’ category either. Truthfully, he should have gone with Cat Stevens or similar but then he wouldn’t have seen the rest of us for dust. And thus it came to pass that The Move was generally played on lads’ journeys to the pub for the next few months.

Interestingly, I own none of the Move’s output and I now wonder whether this period in my life is largely responsible for this state of affairs. However, in a nostalgic frame of mind I tracked down a few videos on the ever-present YouTube and have rediscovered the early works of Roy Wood, and what a body of work it is.

‘I Can Hear the Grass Grow’, ‘Flowers in the Rain’, ‘Fire Brigade’, ‘Blackberry Way’ - Oh God! I can hear us singing them in the back of that Morris Traveller even now. But they are wonderful slices of classic late 1960s throwaway pop which have been largely overshadowed by the appalling excesses of Roy’s next project, Wizzard. Don’t even get me started on Wizzard. I hated them then and I still try not to think about them too much now. I remember a snotty-nosed kid interviewed on TV being asked whether he liked the Beatles. ‘No’ he said. He was subsequently asked who he thought was the greatest ever band and produced the answer, ‘Wizzard’. My case rests m’lud.

So, in order to put all this behind me and make my peace with Roy Wood I am going to look into purchasing some old Move songs, just for old times’ sake. Just don’t expect me to buy an old Morris Traveller and an 8-track player. Or like Wizzard. Nostalgia only extends so far, you know.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Olympian Effort


What’s all this then? Team GB winning a shed load of medals at the Olympic Games and finishing fourth in the medal table? Whatever next? What happened to the usual noble-in-defeat attitude and ‘I’m just pleased to be here’ platitudes? What has turned us into a nation of contenders? It could be the lottery money pumped into sports so that athletes can pay the bills whilst learning their trade or it could be the hiring of proper coaching and technical staff or it could even be the public school ethos of competition in sport (heaven forbid!) But I think it is more than that.

I reckon that the real reason for all this success is down to the weather! I’ve touched on this before in my previous Cricket post, but climate is so important to the Brits, after all, 50% of conversation in this country revolves around it. Without a bit of weather to contend with, we are nothing - look at the evidence. For once, a major sporting event has been held in a country where the climate suits the average Brit. We have won countless medals for sailing in atrocious conditions with howling winds and 2 metre swells – just like the Solent on an August Bank Holiday. The road cycling was conducted in stair-rodding rain, lethally slippery roads and less that brilliant visibility - ditto. Mercifully, the temperatures have been on the chilly side, the rain has fallen with not a swelteringly hot clear blue sky and lack-of-oxygen-due-to-altitude day in sight. Just how we like it.

I have always thought that the UK’s lack of sporting prowess has always been due to a lack of proper weather. Major sporting events are always held in countries where it is consistently hot, humid and windless. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the challenge? Brits need to battle the elements more that they need to battle their opponents. It is why we are at heart an exploring, sea-faring nation.

Most of the UK’s premier sport, football, is played in freezing, rain-drenched conditions that are prevalent in our winter. If the Football World Cup was played at Scunthorpe on a miserably wet, muddy November day rather than a humid latin summer’s day when it’s 35C in the shade, we would win hands-down. I’d love to see the Brazilians play their silky skills game in those conditions.

So, an end to all boring hot, dry venues please. All international sporting events should now be held in countries where the weather is extreme and unpredictable. That would even up the chances a bit!

As a postscript, I note that some things never change. Post-event interviews with competitors from most of the major nations comprise a tediously well-rehearsed, almost robotic stream of PR speak. Brits on the other hand, waffle on about all sorts of things in a daze of ‘Gosh, have I really won something’ giddiness. Somehow, it is wonderfully reassuring that there’s a real person in there somewhere rather that a trained-to-the-point-of-oblivion android. You can’t have it both ways.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Superbird


Time capsules – those old biscuit tins crammed with stuff representative of a way of life that are buried for future generations to find and marvel at their datedness - are a bit of a strange concept. . Some posts ago, I talked about my exercise book filled with what I considered to be popular songs that, in my youth, I had spent hours deconstructing in order to find the chord sequences so that I could play them myself. This book is, in its own way, a time capsule of that particular time in my life and looking at it now reveals my musical world in microcosm.

Even then, I had peculiar tastes as few of the songs in it are truly ‘popular’ and most would be unknown to anyone finding it today. I notice that one song in the book is Neil Sedaka’s ‘Superbird’ from about 1972. This is a strange one as I cannot seem to find out anything about it. It wasn’t a hit as it doesn’t appear in any chart records, nor can I find an album which includes it so quite where I picked it up I cannot say. The only clue I can recall is that I was chasing a particular girl during that period and one of her favourite artists was Neil Sedaka, so it’s probably odds on that it came from her.

What I can say about it is that I was attracted to it by its baroque tune and its left-field lyric which is, on the face of it a bit silly, but which reveals itself in the final verse to hold a deeper meaning of sorts. The narrative follows the writer’s recollection that, as a child, he could fly and became a ‘superbird’.
‘I used to flap my arms and fly around the bed’
However, he is ridiculed for claiming to be a bird and is forced to curtail his flying activities until eventually, upon entering adulthood, he loses the ability.
‘I cried myself to sleep and never tried again.’
However, the final verse sees him glimpsing his own child doing exactly the same thing and becoming a superbird.
‘There at the doorway, you’ll never guess what I heard
Zoom, zoom, zoom, superbird.’

It is an allegory of how childhood ambition which is originally unfettered in scope by its naivety inevitably becomes crushed by reality upon attaining adulthood. However, what I like about the lyric is the glimmer of hope at the end that his unbridled ambition has lived on in his own child. My guess is that this lyric was actually written by Howard Greenfield, Sedaka’s lyricist up until about 1973 but nonetheless, it is a curiously uplifting tale despite its apparent childishness and rather belies Neil’s somewhat lightweight reputation at that time.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Lost Cat


One of the more endearing qualities of the MP3 player, be it Ipod or other, is the random shuffle facility where the machine picks tracks randomly from the entire content like a demented DJ. Assuming you are able to transfer a sizeable chunk of your CD collection to these devices, this particular mode becomes a wake up call to the owner and a voice to all those albums that were bought, listened to once and filed in short order.

Pre-Ipod, music collection owners could bask in the ignorance of their own possessions forever without a second thought and I freely admit that there are many albums that I have not touched for decades since purchase. But now, assuming we all have the willingness to give it a try, we can rediscover many lost gems without having to trail through countless substandard LP/CDs.

I very rarely delve into unknown territory these days for the simple reason that with a young family, the time available for me to sit in front of a stereo in a quiet room is virtually nil. When I do get the opportunity, I like to hear something that I know I’m going to like, rather than speculate on stuff that may be the worst album I ever bought. It’s a fact of life that we listen to that which will bring us pleasure. So for the rest of the time it’s the MP3 player – naff quality and all.

So to spice things up there is the decision to select shuffle mode and there is almost a sense of adventure in doing so as it reveals long ago forgotten songs, many of which I could’ve sworn I never owned, and offers them up for reappraisal. How many times have I had to look at the display to ascertain, “What the bloody hell’s this?” It’s a bit humbling really.

One such song that came up by random chance the other day was ‘Lost Cat’ from the 1996 album ‘Way Beyond Blue’ by those welsh rockers, Catatonia (ok, not that old but I’m making a general point here). I was sufficiently enthused by this to go back and listen to the whole album, which in retrospect, is not half as bad as I remember. In fact it rather puts ‘International Velvet’ with its knowing ‘Mulder and Scully’ in its place. And it certainly outshines the lacklustre ‘Equally Cursed and Blessed’.

Another welcome listen was ‘Nightshift’ by Siouxsie and the Banshees, a track that I played regularly in the mid 1980s but have since banished to the life of a catalogue item in my ever-growing collection. Listening to shuffle mode is a bit like buying a new album but without spending the money and with a growing family draining my precious CD budget annually, this is a welcome respite.

Now that’s what I call music!

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Small Screen Rules


Hurrah for television! Why is it that when I am asked to fill in surveys or self-profiles (and Google is no different) I am always asked about my favourite films. The trouble is: I don’t really have any. Sure, there are some films that I like but they are few and far between and what DVD has taught me is that I far prefer television, especially vintage television. And it’s so much cheaper – I can buy a whole season of most American series (22-odd episodes) for the cost of an overblown film or two.

I think there are several reasons for my preference for the small screen. One of them is to do with violence and language. On TV there are certain boundaries to be observed, given that the audience is largely unknown and language and violence is tempered accordingly. Having secured an ‘18’ certificate, a film has virtually no boundaries and can be filled with bad language and horrific violence; most of it entirely gratuitous, at the expense of important things, like plot, nuance and atmosphere. The current fury over the British censors giving Batman’s ‘The Dark Knight’ a 12a rating despite the film’s glorification of extreme sadism and knife crime just underscores the attitude towards film making. It is most clearly seen when a successful TV programme is transferred to the big screen. Suddenly the language deteriorates and the plot becomes seedier to the extent where the original premise is almost unrecognisable. Watch the Steptoe and Son or Rising Damp films to see how this works in practice.

I dread to think what a new ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ film would be like with Buffy swearing and cussing her way through 90 odd minutes of graphically gory slaying. Yet the scripts for the Buffy TV series are probably some of the most inventive to grace the small screen, full of energy, wit and unbridled language invention and for the very reason that they are confined by convention. It would be criminal to mess with them.

Another reason why I like TV is that there is an enforced budget constraint that doesn’t usually apply to films. Lack of budget equals invention of necessity and this means making the most of what you’ve got. Often this translates into better scripts and tighter plotting. You can’t wrap up a poor screenplay in bank-busting special effects in TV land; there just isn’t the money.

So until somebody can convince me that films are better, I shall be watching episodes of Buffy, Dr Who, Moonlighting, The World at War, Sherlock Holmes, The X Files, Bleak House, Morse, The Avengers, Sapphire & Steel, Thunderbirds, Upstairs Downstairs, Survivors, Waking the Dead, Star Trek…

Yeah, you can keep films.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Kim Wilde - Never Say Never


‘WE’RE THE KIDS IN AMERICA..WHOAH!’ God, was it really 1981 that blonde-next-door Kim Wilde (nee Smith – no wonder she took her father’s stage name) first burst into our consciousness? Since then we have been treated to some classic teenage pop (‘View from a Bridge’), great covers (‘You Just Keep Me Hanging On’) and some infectious 1980s synth-rock (‘Never Trust a Stranger’) but then it all ran out of steam in the mid-1990s.

In fact it seemed to be all over when she retired to tend her garden – and write a book. But now, following the squillionth ‘Best Of’ compilation release in 2001, Kim Wilde is back – but not in the UK. ‘Oh fame, fame, fickle fame’ quoth the Moz and his words reverberate with meaning for Kim as her 2006 comeback album, ‘Never Say Never’ was released in virtually all European countries and Japan but not in her homeland and it probably won’t be as the UK audience has never really taken to her in the same way that our European cousins did. Her last few recent single releases all charted in various European countries, Germany especially, but if any UK resident actually heard one played in the media, I’d be surprised.

I eventually had to buy a copy of ‘Never Say Never’ imported from Germany to get to hear it and for a woman staring down the barrel of her half-century, it is surprisingly youthful. The opener, ‘Perfect Girl’, is a classic slice of Blondie dance/rock and is certainly no worse than any of Kylie’s last few efforts, so what’s the problem? The album is an aggregation of new material, sounding a bit like Avril Lavigne’s more talented aunt, and re-makes of old material , including a duet with Nena (who is German – good PR move or what?) and a cracking version of 'You Came' which are certainly no worse and in a few cases better than the originals.

The new stuff is generally excellent, real rock-chick guitars and hummable tunes –‘Perfect Girl’ now sits at the top of my iPod playlist - so check out the video at the end of this post. If this is the new (well, older) Kim, I want more!

Final thought. What all this suggests to me in big neon signs is that Kim is a perfect candidate for representing the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest. Let’s face it, no one is ever going to vote for the UK these days as voting for quality songs is unheard of and has been replaced with political block voting and we have no political allies in Europe at all. Thus we are doomed to come bottom of the pile with Norway every year. So, rather than try to gain a vote for the UK, why not try for a vote for Kim – she’s obviously very popular abroad. Just a thought.

Read more about Kim in my book 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive'.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Nobody Does it Better



Just what is it about Bond themes that compels me to listen when I hear one – well, some of them, anyway? There is definitely something in their musical make up that leaves a hook in your brain that never leaves.

There may be some truth in the contention that, at least in the early days, all Bond themes had parts of the original ‘007’ theme injected into them, which gave them a certain family resemblance. It also meant that the great chromatic chord sequence that typifies Bond is always lurking ready to grab you by the throat. My particular favourite by a considerable margin is ‘You Only Live Twice’, written in 1967 by the incomparable John Barry and it still gives me goose bumps, even now.

It just seems to ooze ‘1960s’ from every note and although it is not brilliantly sung by Nancy Sinatra (it’s a bit wobbly in places, Nancy was very nervous apparently) it has an inescapable aura of its time, which is alluringly attractive. Perhaps it’s just my age, but the sixties still have a very powerful pull – whether it be music, fashion, or culture generally. It is the decade that has aged gracefully and although it shows its wrinkles it still has class - unlike let’s say the tasteless 1970s or even the brash 1980s.

Nothing can diminish the splendour of ’You Only Live Twice’, even Robbie Williams lifting the main string figure for his song, ‘Millennium’. Its languid, melt-in-the-mouth highly ‘vertical’ melody rises and falls with ultimate precision over that unforgettable riff played, unusually for an orchestral score, by one of those new fangled electric guitars and typifies the old-meets-new philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s.

In this respect, Bond themes were actually a good barometer of what was happening at the time they were fashioned. They start with the great crooners and divas of the post war period (Matt Monro, Shirley Bassey) and end with the pop icons of the 1980s and 1990s (Madonna, Tina Turner, Gladys Knight).

Although my vote goes wholeheartedly with ‘YOLT’ as the best theme, there is no doubt who embodies the Bond spirit and it can only be Dame Shirley Bassey. She was born to sing Bond themes, as her overblown, dramatic renditions of ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Diamonds are Forever’ testify. They suit the overblown, dramatic movies to a tee. In fact the latter tune would be a good second in my list of best Bond Themes Ever for its sheer exuberance alone but ‘YOLT’ still wins by a mile.

Any other votes?

Monday, 28 July 2008

Curved Air - Reborn


There are some bands that you just can’t leave alone. I have such an attachment to 1970s classical progrockers, Curved Air, mainly because they opened up a window to a new and exciting musical world back in 1971 but partly because of Sonja Kristina (see previous post).

I have followed this band through thick and thin, I have every album they have ever released including all ‘Live at the BBC’ type compilations, the reunion albums and a cassette copy of ‘Lovechild’, the sessions that followed ‘Air Cut’ but which were never formerly released. Many of them are not that good but when you’re dealing with this type of joined-at-the-hip type band nothing is ever that bad. And so this brings me to ‘Reborn’.

‘Reborn’ is the latest release from a partly re-formed Curved Air comprising original members Darryl Way (Violin & Keyboards), Sonja Kristina (vocals) and Florian Pilkington-Miksa (drums) with guitar and bass backup and is only available from their
official website. So, have I bought a copy? What do you think?

Despite the fact that it is little more than a set of reinterpretations of old material by a band dangerously close to middle-age, I have taken the plunge and so now have a total of five different versions of ‘Back Street Luv’ in my collection (two on this album alone). Where will it all end?

Actually, I have been pleasantly surprised by ‘Reborn’. One of my grouses about the original early 70s albums is that the recording quality is pretty poor but as these re-workings stay fairly close to the originals, they show how they should’ve sounded given today’s technology. Darryl Way’s violin playing is still wonderful and Florian’s inventive drums now sound like real drums rather than soggy cardboard boxes and saucepan lids. But it is Sonja’s older, deeper register vocals that have surprised me the most. Whilst not re-capturing the untamed energy of youth, she has left behind her mid 70s raucousness and carefully not attempted to over sing. This has produced a beautifully balanced performance that sounds in part eerily close to the originals but with the added emotional weight of er...maturity.

I still can’t get to grips with ‘Marie Antoinette’ which even now drags its feet but the new versions of some of their oldest material, ‘Screw’ and especially ‘Young Mother’ gave me the shivers. Mercifully Way’s party-piece, ‘Vivaldi’ has been pared down from its previous excess and given a sort of semi-dance treatment which makes it eminently more listenable. There are also a couple of brand new songs that sound remarkably like they could’ve been recorded in about 1972 and are almost worth the price of the CD alone.

Thankfully, for a Curved Air Aficionado like me and considering some of the substandard stuff I’ve bought over the years, this is one of their better releases and one that I have been playing constantly. Yes, recommended! Go buy it now!
(To read more about my book which describes the effect of Curved Air and others in my life - see 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive'.)