Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Jesus Christ Superstar

Ever since my father died just over a year ago, my stepmother has been involved in the long process of clearing out his stuff (I didn’t realise what a hoarder he was) and passing on family possessions to me and my sister. Recently, I was asked to look through his meagre collection of old LPs and take what I wanted. After a nostalgic 20 minutes or so I came away with about half a dozen 1950s discs in their battered sleeves that I remembered from my childhood. They comprised mainly jazz and swing from that era together with my mother’s proudest possession, ‘The Best of Pat Boone’.

But amongst these relics of a by-gone age was a slightly younger relic, a copy of the original ‘concept’ recording of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ from 1970. I remember buying this for Dad when it came out and being rather shocked that he wanted it in the first place as it was a million miles away from Sid Philips, Winifred Atwell and the Clark Sisters.

I have now transferred it to MP3 and had a bash at removing the worst of the scratches and pops (of which there were many) and have listened to it anew after 30 odd years. We all know Andrew Lloyd-Webber from his West End shows but this recording reveals him as a young 20-year-old composer caught between wanting to be either Led Zeppelin, Rogers and Hammerstein or the Berlin Philharmonic and contriving to be all three at the same time. It is an intriguing mixture. JCS has all the hallmarks of his later musical theatre leanings with typical ‘show’ songs and orchestral flourishes yet it is infused with a streak of real rock ‘n’ roll (or rock ‘n’ funk to be strictly accurate) which is now missing presumed dead in current work.

The muscular backbone of this album has been achieved by installing Joe Cocker’s backing band, the Grease Band, as house musicians, a bunch of hairy rockers including guitarists Henry McCullough and Neil Hubbard, bassist Alan Spenner and drummer Bruce Rowland, who seem to revel in the complexities of the shifting time signatures (lots of 7/4 – eek!) and modulating keys. It also benefits enormously from the vocal talents of Murray Head, Yvonne Elliman and Barry Dennen and the inspired casting of Deep Purple’s Ian Gillian as Jesus, who lends real weight to the part yet still manages to bring the looseness of popular singing to a table usually inhabited by stiffer ‘classical’ singers. In short, this album rocks. You’d be hard pushed to guess that it came from the pen of Lloyd-Webber if you didn’t already know. The later film and stage show soundtracks have mellowed JCS and stripped out the rawness but the original concept album still retains it in spades.

Predictably, it doesn’t quite escape from its time and place. The young Tim Rice’s thought-provoking lyrics have a vaguely late 60s hippyish tinge to them, (as does some of the music - think Hair) but are clever and astute as well, telling the story, which ends with the crucifixion, in very human terms and giving each character a legitimate voice and motivation. He steers clear of any ‘faith’ issues – there are no ‘miracles’, nor resurrection – thus allowing agnostics like me and those of non-Christian faiths access what is a compelling, yet darkly moving tragedy. Although dated, the whole thing has an irresistible aura to it and it never fails to leave me buzzing with emotional turmoil.

I’m very glad that this LP has come back into my possession. It could well be a modern classic and irrespective of what you think of Lloyd-Webber today, I would recommend that everybody listens to it at least once.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Tales from Topographic Oceans

Back in the early 1970s, I was a self confessed lover of earnest progrock and owned all sorts of peer-approved albums by Pink Floyd, Genesis, Curved Air, Jethro Tull and of course, Yes. In those days, no one would accept your music credentials unless a) you sported a beard or b) you had a least a working knowledge of ‘The Yes Album’, ‘Fragile’ and the then Holy Grail, ‘Close to the Edge’ with their far-out Roger Dean covers and increasingly complex musical contents.

But a rift was opened up in 1973 with the release of ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’, the album that split the music industry and fans alike and probably single-handedly paved the way for the punk invasion in 1976. For starters, TFTO was a double album and even for Yes, this was overstepping the mark. The double album was almost universally derided as an indulgence and for a prog band, which already walked a tightrope between being inventive and indulgent, to issue one was an act of suicide. Even worse the album contained a single twenty minute piece on each of its four sides - no snappy 3 minute singles here.

At the time, I quite liked it but I was in a minority and driven by the mood of the day, stopped buying Yes albums. I remember lounging around in a fellow student’s room at University in about 1976 listening to ‘Relayer’, the follow up album and thinking then that I’d made the right decision. I haven’t bought a Yes album since.

But over the years, my initial appreciation of TFTO has grown to a real love of the work and these days would consider it my favourite Yes album. It has a certain individual grandeur that no other ‘pop’ work exhibits. Let’s face it, can you imagine any of today’s bands conceiving, arranging and executing four individual twenty-minute pieces of music based on the Shastric scriptures? Most of them struggle with a decent three minute song. It is the sheer singularity of its design that appeals to me and the fact that there is some damn fine music contained within it. Even after all this time, there are few ventures that have sought to equal its audacity.

Side 1 is probably my absolute favourite (‘The Revealing Science of God’) and has one of those spine-tingling moments about mid-way through (the ‘Overhanging trees’ bit). Side 3 comes next (‘The Ancient’). This comprises some aggressively atonal soloing from guitarist Steve Howe interspersed with moments of real harmonic beauty and finishes with some astonishing acoustic guitar playing. Sides 2 and 4 are not quite as good but very listenable nevertheless. Funnily enough, my least favourite is side 4 (‘Ritual’) which is generally thought of as the most acceptable, commercially and is often played live by the band. Perhaps it’s just me!

I can’t help but feel that enough topographic ocean has passed under the bridge to allow a sober reassessment of this album and that it will not be found wanting a second time around.
Read more about Yes in my book 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive'

Saturday, 17 January 2009

It's Number One, It's...

OK, I confess, I used to be a serial watcher of Top Of The Pops. From its black and white inception in for-off 1964 to its recent demise in 2006, I very rarely missed an episode. You may almost say, I was an addict hanging on for a fix of the perfect pop single. Admittedly, in its latter incarnation it would drive me crazy virtually every episode by unerringly picking out every toe-curlingly awful song in that week’s chart and mixing them up with some half decent stuff, but that seemed to be part of the fun. I think.

By the time of its hideous death in July 2006, the singles chart didn’t really know what it was supposed to be, what with downloads and multiple-format issues, hence the TV format was driving me even more crazy than usual so I didn’t really think I’d miss it and didn’t really give it a second thought. For the most part this state of mind has prevailed and I thought I’d weaned myself off it forever. But that was before the Christmas holiday.

Over this holiday, I watched the Christmas special on Christmas day and then the New Year’s special on New Year’s Eve – and I’m hooked again. Damn! Nothing has changed. The mix of songs ranged from the dreadfully crass to the really rather good. I even enjoyed Take That and Girls Aloud but worst of all, I am finally warming to Fern Cotton. If truth be told, there were some decent performances. The Kaiser Chiefs were better than they had a right to be and last year’s X-Factor winner Leona Lewis’ interpretation of Snow Patrol’s ‘Run’ left me quite emotional. Others to be mentioned in despatches were the ever reliable Duffy and new-comer Sam Sparro. On the downside there was Peter Kay, who missed badly with this year’s comedy record and the cast of Mama Mia, who struggled through their karaoke Abba routines (no-one can sing Abba songs except Abba).

Worst of all was the number one record, a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ by this year’s X-Factor winner, Alexandra Burke which was desperately disappointing. ‘Hallelujah’ is a bit of a sacred cow of a song and has been covered by artists too numerous to mention but hers was pretty awful, having neither the passion nor the delicacy that it deserves. I’ll go with John Cale’s world weary take and Allison Crowe’s powerhouse of intensity as my yardsticks. The music community got so indignant about a talent show winner taking it to number one that several other existing versions were released ensuring that the end of year chart was full of ‘Hallelujah’s.

But by the New Year’s Eve edition of TOTP (which wasn’t much different to the Christmas edition) I was left feeling that even with all the irritation and exasperation that come packaged with the rare gems, I’d quite like TOTP back again. But quite for how long is a moot point.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Hocus Pocus

One question I find that I am being asked more and more these days is: ‘Which was your favourite live gig?’ Actually I find this very difficult to answer as my memory of numerous gigs stretching back to 1972 is getting dimmer by the minute (how I wish I’d kept my list of gigs attended to help jog a few reminiscences) and I’m pretty sure there were more than a few great concerts – if only I could remember them all properly in order to give a meaningful answer.

However, the one question I can answer with any certainty is: ‘Which was your most disappointing gig?’ The award for this one goes to Dutch band, Focus and it went like this. I had been a Focus fan since the days of ‘Moving Waves’ when ‘Hocus Pocus’ had burst, yodelling, on to the singles market and had followed them right through the sprawling ‘Focus 3’ and the pseudo-classical ‘Hamburger Concerto’ albums. By this time I had become a lunatic fan of Pierre, Thijs, Bert and in particular, Jan Akkerman and his blisteringly fluid guitar style, so when the 1976 UK tour was announced I, an impoverished student at the time, was first in line to buy tickets for their Reading University Student Union gig.

The weeks leading up to the gig were a frenzy of playing my old Focus vinyl and counting down the days so by the evening in question I was suitably hyped up to enjoy the event to the fullest. The walk across campus to the Union brimmed with anticipation but then disaster! On reaching the entrance, a scrappy piece of paper fluttering from the door met my eyes. It read, ‘Jan Akkerman has left the band. Ticket refunds will be given if required.’ Aaarrgghh!! Who on earth leaves a band on the eve of a sell-out UK tour? Well, Jan Akkerman, obviously. He’d probably remembered that he’d left the iron on. In Holland.

This left me in a state of shock with something the size of a brick weighing in my stomach. What should I do? Get my money back (and probably spend it in the bar) or see the gig? In the end, I decided to go see the gig and it was probably the wrong decision. Jan’s last minute replacement, Philip Catherine, played his guitar parts from sheet music propped up on a chair and the entire set comprised new, unfamiliar material with a half-hearted ‘Hocus Pocus’ tacked on at the very end.

It was an unmitigated let-down for which I had laid out a significant portion of my student grant. So you see, I can remember all this like it was yesterday yet can’t tell you what my favourite gig was due to lack of recall. Funny, that!

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Time and a Word

‘But you can’t hear the words!’

How many times did I hear that from my parents when I was about 9 years old or thereabouts? This was the finger-in-the-dyke cry from a generation who were desperately trying to hold back the tide that was the newly imported popular music, but it cut no ice with the young me.

I had no difficulty whatsoever in hearing the words and just to prove it, I would fill exercise books with lyrics from pop songs of the day so that I could sing along with them when they came on the radio (or wireless as my dad would have it). It must be the sponge-like mind of a child that is ever receptive to all kinds of junk that allowed me to do this and much of it I can still recall today. Whether I can hear and recall any of today’s lyrics are moot points and the jury’s still out.

I was reminded of all this recently when my 8 year-old daughter sang the whole of Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ on a car journey. Not only was it just about word perfect (as far as I could tell), she knew every verse. But where did she learn it all? It’s not a song I tend to play at home and we don’t generally have the radio on in our house, so where did all this knowledge come from? It’s frightening to think that she has pieced this together from bits and pieces heard at school, in shopping malls and other public places. What else has she been absorbing?

However, on closer scrutiny, it is clear that what she is regurgitating is a sort of verbal facsimile. There are parts where it becomes apparent that she doesn’t really know what the words are but just makes the sound of what she thinks she is hearing – leading to some amusing misheard lyrics. It also means that she doesn’t really understand what she is singing about half the time, which is of some comfort given the content of some rapping material available to minors. But is does show that perhaps we worry too much about what children are exposed to. Real understanding only comes with education and experience.

In the meantime, I will continue to be amused by some of her facsimiles. After all, as I was reminded by my American friend, Byron Wilkins (see TR-1 Guy link), Creedence Clearwater Revival claimed in 1969, ‘There’s a bathroom on the right’!

Friday, 2 January 2009

The Hand of Dooom!

I'm back! Happy new year to everyone.

To look at me, you wouldn’t think that I possessed the Hand of Doom, would you? I’m an ordinary bloke, I don’t have any nasty vices – well, not many – yet everything I start to enjoy seems to turn to dust the minute I discover it.

Long time readers may remember a post I did some time back about DC Comics. I had been a lapsed reader of comics for over 35 years but have been tempted back to the fold by the fact that Jim Shooter, the guy who wrote my favourite title in the late 1960s when I (and probably he) was a nipper, was back in harness to write some brand new stories for that self-same title (The Legion of Superheroes, since you ask). So there I was, happily enjoying each issue immensely when, guess what? Yes it’s been cancelled. Axed. Why? No idea. It has a monthly circulation of about 25,000 copies which is not stellar but is double the figure for several other DC titles and are they being axed? No. They have also cancelled Shooter’s run 4 issues short of the agreed term so that the plot arc has to be foreshortened and everything rushed to a conclusion. Great!

This also happened to a TV programme I liked called ‘Tru Calling’ which starred Eliza Dushku (‘Faith’ from Buffy, for those who know) as Tru Davies, a morgue assistant who relived days on the request of dead people in order that she save them from their fate. Sounds weird, I know, and is probably why it got the chop, but I liked it and so did many others judging by the comments on Amazon. This series ran for 20 episodes in its first season and was then 6 episodes in to its second, just as it was getting into its stride, when it was removed from the schedules leaving most of that season’s plotlines hanging. Thanks Fox! Couldn’t they just let the series run for a bit to tie up all the loose ends?

There are more instances but I won’t bore you with them. Actually, it is amazing how some things we take for granted struggled initially. Star Trek only managed three seasons and then only because of concerted fan demand that a third season be made. Yet today we are overrun with the Trek franchise and can’t seem to escape the damn thing.

The burning question is, where will the Hand of Doom strike next? I daren’t interest myself in anything these days in case it gets the old heave-ho. On the other hand, if you wish anything removed from the schedules, let me know and I’ll see what I can do...