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?