Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Record Collection Random Choice (RCRC) - H

Hanoi Rocks - Oriental Beat

After Nokia, Finlandia Vodka and a plethora of Heavy Metal/Black Metal/Death MetalDoom Metal, the next biggest export from Finalnd is probably the precursors of US Glam Metal, Hanoi Rocks (maybe more by reputation than actual sales).

Formed in 1980, and touring any Finnish club they could find, the band struck lucky when one of the punters turned out to be the one of the foremost Finnish promoters who had brought some big names to tour and play Festivals in Finland.
With Management support, the band re-located to Sweden (probably having exhuasted every bar and hall in Finland), and in another stroke of luck got themselves a record deal with a Swedish label.  This soon led to the release of their first single, swiftly followed by a lengthy tour of Sweden and Finland.
Their first album soon followed, doing well in Finalnd and Sweden, but making very little impression outside Scandanavia.
With the tour complete, the band re-located again.  This time to London, and according to some contemporary reports "took The Marquee by storm" *
* possibly journalistic hyperbole, as they were still pretty much unknown outside Scandanavia, and would probably have trouble getting arrested
Whilst in London they set about recording their second album 'Oriental Beat', which would again go to the top of the Finnish chart, but more importantly provided a taste of international recognition.

The Pop landscape of 1982 was a mix of the manufactured, Eurovision, burgeoning synth music and middle of the road pop.
The Rock landscape was emerging from the end of NWOBHM and began looking to America (or America began looking into the UK) for the next assault on the pages of Kerrang.
Quite where Hanoi Rocks sat in the UK wasn't clear, but they'd obviously found some niche, and no little support from the Music papers who followed them on tour and briefly touted them as "the next big thing".
Further albums, a relocation to the US, a big deal with CBS, virtually ensured success in Japan and Asia, amounted to little and they never did achieve the success that was suggested for them.
Success may not have come for them first time round, but reputation ensured that they sold (at least) twice as many records after their demise than in their pomp.

'Oriental Beat' is hailed by "those who know" (or do they?) as Hanoi Rocks best album.
Well, it's pretty good (in a raggedy-arse way), and is a step up from their debut.
(the only other Hanoi Rocks product I have to compare to is 'Up Around the Bend: The Definitive Collection', and I'll be honest that is probably the best)

Don't go looking for meaning or depth, this is 11 songs of bar-room rock n roll about having a good time and living life to it's hedonistic limit.
The music is competent, if simplistic, and delivered with confidence and swagger.  Vocally, it doe sound very much like Billy Idol fronting The New York Dolls (right down to the phrasing of the word "baby" (a direct echo of David Johansson) on "MC Baby")).
There is a nice sax break on "Don't Follow Me" which sits well with the song, and is almost (but not really) up there with Clarence Clemons break on "Born To Run".  But the sax break trick never really works when they try again on other songs, and can get a bit wearing like it's levered in there.
They even extend their musical chops a bit with the track "No Law Or Order" being built over a regaae skank riff.

There are no really "turn that sh*t off!" tracks on here, but by the same token they are no "classics in waiting" either.
And hopefully I'm not doing the album a dis-service (because it is actually eminently listenable), but I think the best of the 11 is a cover version of US Folk Singer Hoyt Axton's "Lightning Bar Blues"

And OK, it's not on the album (it came a couple of years later) but everyone likes a cover version don't they.
Here's ver Roxx doing Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Up Around The Bend"

Monday, 5 March 2018

Record Collection Random Choice (RCRC) - G

David Gray - White Ladder

OK, this album may be viewed by some (many?) as all that was bland or homogenous about music at the start of the 21st Century.
Vying for attention alongside Coldplay and Dido for the right to sit on every coffee table, be played at every dinner party, and be uploaded to every new fangled iPod thingy to be played at the gym.

But ...
In early 2000, I was in the middle of a divorce and found myself back in my old bedroom at my parents with not much more than a Playstation, a radio alarm clock and 4 CDs.
These were:
  • Richard Ashcroft - Alone with Everybody
  • Oasis - Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants
  • Toploader - Onka's Big Moka
  • the High Fidelity soundtrack
  • and David Gray - White Ladder
Most evenings were spent playing Gran Tourismo 2, drinking (probably) too much, and listening to these albums.
'White Ladder' struck just the right tone (wrong tone?) of melancholy to suit my surroundings at the time.

It came from seemingly nowhere.
David Gray had released a couple of albums previously to critical acclaim (ie the sold next to nothing), and self-financed this release as a last roll of the dice.
Still no airplay and no big sales, but a US Tour saw the album re-released on various labels, finally securing a release/distribution through EastWest records.

10* tracks of inoffensive folky-rock, mixed with a pop tinge.
5 singles ("This Year's Love", "Babylon", "Please Forgive Me", "Sail Away", "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye") were drawn from it over a 2 year period, and sales remained high for those couple of years.
And of the other 5 tracks, any of these would probably have done a job as a single too.
It remains the biggest ever selling album in Ireland, and sales in excess of 3 million place it in the Top 30 Best Selling albums for the UK.
* 11 on the original release where a hidden track was in the CD pre-gap (effectively Track 0)

If I'm honest, there's nothing big or clever going on here.  But by the same token, there is nothing disagreeable either.
It may be "bland" or "safe", but when it contains a track as epic (or dramatically epic) as the closing cover of Soft Cell's "Say Hello Wave Goodbye"(which weaves in lyrical reference to Van Morrison's "Madame George" and "Into The Mystic") then I reckon it might be forgivable.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Jean Oliver - Little White Feathers

The phrase "recorded at home" either fills the prospective listener with dread that the CD they are holding is filled with demo takes of songs where all the vocals and instruments fight for attention, and the general feeling of being recorded in a cardboard box or a barn with no acoustic worth.
Or the recording may have gone through several computer-based doctoring processes (Pro Tools et al) fleecing it of any honesty or reality.

In this instance, Jean Oliver's wholly honest recordings were done in a home studio, but a very well appointed home studio, and produced by someone who knows how to drive the sliders, buttons and blinking lights in front of them.

This debut album is a collection of songs from a (sometimes deeply) personal perspective of life, love and loss.
I am not going to explain the gestation of these songs, because the author tells the story far better than any reductive tone I may place upon it.


The 10 songs here all adopt a similar style and tone - one that I identify to be rooted in the folk-ish singer/songwriter mould.
They are a collection of thoughts and feelings with an bit of autobiography underpinning them.
In some places, you feel like you are intruding on a personal moment.

I'm going to go reductive again (confusingly reductive?) and try to identify the musical comparisons I'm hearing here are:
A bit of 60s/70s folk-y stylings (Cat Stevens meets Sandy Denny?), with added Country and Western/Alison Krauss-ish inflections, topped off with a bit of All About Eve and a bit of The Unthanks-ish-ness.

And that may be a bit unfair, because what you have here is a group of songs with no particular root other than the personal, emotive desire to provide some form of cathartic outlet.

The acoustic guitar is firmly positioned as the lead instrument, with Jean's plaintive voice laying over the top.  Where there are other instruments involved, these are not intrusive and do compliment the musical landscape.
Weirdly (or maybe by design?), some of the other instruments chosen (recorder, dulcimer, cor anglais) set an almost medieval, madrigal tone to the songs.
But this is not about layering on the instruments to create a full, tight sound - this is basically the thoughts, feelings and musings of a girl and her guitar.

Opening track "Never Have I Felt This Way" is a strong start and sets the tone for the album.
"I've Cried You A River" is a fine tune and rawly emotional song.
The fuller sound of "Because You're Gone" lifts the album - it's still plaintive in tone, but just sounds more "present" in the latter half of the album.
If  anything, to my un-trained cloth-like ears, this is the best track on the album.

Apart from ...
the closing track "Little White Feathers" is a change of tone.
This track is not as closely personal in tone, but seemingly written from an empathetic view point.  It's almost like a third-person tale of hope and re-assurance, and closes the album with a good feeling.
Because it is less personal, but still personal in statement (does that make sense?), it is perhaps the easiest to listen to, and the one I would choose if someone asked me "what does this album sound like then?"

Jean Oliver on Bandcamp

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Record Collection Random Choice (RCRC) - F

6 posts in to this ongoing activity, and we arrive at the first compilation album

Hocus Pocus - The Best Of Focus

But first .. a musing on the purpose and/or greatness of compilation albums

A compilation album tends to be viewed in two ways:
1.  An introduction to a band you may have a fleeting interest in (ie one or two songs)
2.  A Bit of a cop-out, and not necessarily the way the artist intended their art to be consume

Me?  I'm firmly in the former camp, and do love a good compilation.
It's a way in, a path if discovery, and when they're good may lead to open wallet surgery as you seek to fill your shelves with the entire catalogue.  Alternatively, a compilation may also lead to disappointment where the couple of tracks you do know remain brilliant, but the rest is all a bit "meh!".

At the risk of sounding like an old fart, the compilation album used to appear at the end of a bands career, or if they moved labels at the end of their tenure, often as a simple easy method of (a) signing off their career, and/or (b) fulfilling contractual obligations.
Fancy a bit of time off?  That used to signal a Live album as a "space filler" whilst the band had a rest and then re-grouped for a new assault on the listening public.
Now it seems the compilation can appear at any time, often bulked out by new and exclusive tracks, and often early in a bands career, so the title "Greatest Hits" really doesn't apply
(If you can find it (I can't find a link), Dave Gorman in Series 2 Episode 7 (I Like Hot Bananas) does a good job of explaining this using Scouting For Girls as his reference text)

Whether you consider compilations good or bad, there are 3 or 4 which are pretty much essential, and every home should have a copy.
These are:
  • The Beatles 1962-66 (Red Album)
  • The Beatles 1967-70 (Blue Album)
  • The Jam - Snap
  • Buzzcocks - Singles Going Steady
  • Squeeze - 45s And Under
(and according to recent(ish) research, every home does have a copy of Abba Gold and Queens Greatest Hits *)

I've got 3 (4 if you include the copy bundled in the CD Box of Greatest Hits I II & III (The Platinum Collection))

Anyway, back to Focus ...

Holland hasn't produced that many BIG bands - Golden Earring being perhaps the best known.  Also mentioned in dispatches are Bolland & Bolland (writers of and original performers 'In The Army Now') and Jaap Eggermont (of Stars On 45 fame).

Focus formed in 1969.  Their early career included time as the band for a production of Hair in Amsterdam.  As a result, the first commercially available recording of Focus is on the soundtrack album of the production.
When the Musical ended, Focus had enough local gigs and a following to warrant a publishing deal and the chance to record their debut album ('Focus Plays Focus' (revised title in UK and US: 'In And Out Of Focus'). The album sold little outside of Holland, until the single "House Of The King" hit the Top 10 in the UK.
The single was added to the album, and relatively respectable (if not massive) sales achieved in the UK and US.The next single was "Hocus Pocus" and provided the commercial breakthrough.
Parent album 'Focus II / Moving Waves' sold in large numbers, and was followed by 3 more albums ('Focus 3', 'Hamburger Concerto', 'Mother Focus') before band relationships deteriorated, and the creative element of  vocalist (yodellist?), organist & flautist Thijs van Leer and guitarist Jan Akkermann parted company.

This compilation draws tracks from their five 1970s albums, and opens with their best known track "Hocus Pocus".
This is the full album version, and not the 3 minute single edit I knew previously, and contains more mad, possibly unhinged yodelling, flute blowing and Hammond organ interludes beneath the insistent guitar riff - a riff that will pummel it's way into your head.

16 instrumental tracks entrenched in moods of Prog, Jazz, Blues jams, more yodelling (the closest you'll get to lyrics on this wholly instrumental album).  A bit of a curates egg affair - something grabbing your attention, and then floating off somewhere in the middle of the next track, and then returning again at some random moment of listening.
In a neat circular thing, the album closes with the single version of "Hocus Pocus", but for me the key track (and the best they've done, if not the best instrumental rock track ever) is "Sylvia" placed slap bang in the middle of the album.

Personally, I prefer compilations with a chronological track listing.  This one isn't, but what the track , something as snappy and direct as "House Of The King" comes along and you're salivating for the next slab of Dutch invention.
I only own one other Focus album ('Focus 3') which I have not listened to for some time, but do remember it being "quite hard work".
Is this the best way to consume Focus?  In my limited experience, Yes.
It's a bit of a roller coaster, with some moments of lost interest or distraction, but like White Water Rafting, or Charity Volunteer work, it's ultimately rewarding.


Sunday, 11 February 2018

Record Collection Random Choice (RCRC) - E

Eurythmics - Revenge

'Revenge' was the sixth album by The Eurythmics, and was released in 1986.
Their first album (1981s 'In The Garden').  The album was a statement of intent by the ex-Tourists, and marked the direction where they (are possibly more correctly Dave Stewart) believed they should be heading.
A co-production credit for Conny Plank and guest appearances from Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit (Can) sat the band firmly in the synth-pop/electronica/BritKrautrock camp.

Seemingly unconcerned by previous failure, RCA continued to sponsor the band, and after 4 more non chart or low chart placing singles, 1983s 'Sweet Dreams' proved to be the turning point.
Helped in no small part by the sales of the single "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" (UK Number 2), and it's accompanying video featuring Dave Stewart looking like a mad hippy professor-boffin, and Annie Lennox resplendent in a black suit and orange cropped hair.
Building on the breakthrough, a second album ("Touch") followed in late 1983.  Tracks from the album were remixed as "Touch Dance" in early 1984, and they also produced the soundtrack for the film Nineteen Eighty-Four.
All this activity was accompanied by regular appearances in the singles chart.
Their next album ('Be Yourself Tonight') saw the band moving to a more "conventional band", with the electronics taking a bit of a back seat.

By 'Revenge', the mutation was pretty much complete.
Here the Eurythmics are sounding like Blondie Meets The Beatles, and the album is an exercise in 80s studio sheen coupled with some very well written, well performed songs.
The only downside to this is that it does at times feel a little clinical.  It becomes the acceptable side of (slightly raucous) yuppie music, like it would sit comfortably in a loft apartment alongside Dire Straits 'Brothers In Arms' and Phil Collins 'No Jacket Required', or placed on a coffee table alongside Madonna's Sex book
(I know this album and Madonna's book are about 6 years apart, but hopefully you get the point of my inane ramblings)

The main focus of the album is the 4 singles lifted from it ("When Tomorrow Comes", "Thorn In My Side", "The Miracle Of Love" and "Missionary Man").  Of the remaining tracks, only "The Last Time" comes close to hitting the same spot.  That's not to say the other tracks are throwaway filler, but they just never really jump out of the speakers.

Building from 'Be Yourself Tonight', 'Revenge' reveals what a fine Rock voice Annie Lennox possesses.  She is equally adept at the slower, emotive, ballad-y stuff, but one forgets (certainly in the light of her chosen output in later years) just how strong her voice is.

Last Eurythmics album proper?
Later releases became more of a vehicle/showcase for Annie Lennox's voice (and why not?  she has a very, very fine and clear voice), and a production exercise for Dave Stewart - all competent, but just don't seem to have "it"

I've not heard this album all the way through for about 15 or 20 years.
There is no doubt it falls into the "thoroughly competent" category, but it may be a similar time before it's pulled from the shelf again.

When Tomorrow Comes

Thorn In My Side

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Record Collection Random Choice (RCRC) - D

Dexys Midnight Runners - Searching For The Young Soul Rebels

Despite it's avowed intention to destroy all that had gone before, Punk Rock always had a "back-to-basics, looking back to the past for inspiration" element.
The basics were three chords, and if thats all you've got then Chuck Berry, and those that followed in the 60s are going to be your guides.

The original set of the Sex Pistols included The Who's "Substitute", The Monkees "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone" and Dave Berry's "No Lip".
The Jam's adrenaline fuelled output had it's roots in 60s R&B, The Who, The Small Faces and The Kinks.
Although not part of the initial explosion, The Specials and Madness updated Reggae and Ska for the late 70s/early 80s listeners.

Dexys Midnight Runners joined the "looking back" party providing an update of 60s Northern Soul Revue (indeed their name was inspired by the drug of choice - Dexedrine - used at All Nighters to keep energy levels high and dancing constant).

The band was formed formed from the remnants of Birmingham Punk band The Killjoys in 1978.
Becoming increasingly disillusioned with Punk, Kevin Rowland and was listening to a diet of 60s Soul, including one of the first artists he'd seen perform live (and the soon to be more widely known Geno Washington).  With Killjoys bandmate Kevin Archer, he formed Dexys Midnight Runners.
By 1979 they had adopted their New York Docker gang look (all Donkey Jackets and Woolly Hats, inspired by the film On The Waterfront) and were being managed by former Clash supremo Bernie Rhodes
Their first single "Dance Stance" came courtesy of Bernie Rhodes independent label, which was distributed by EMI.
However, despite scraping into the lower end of the Top 40, EMI noted that the production was not great, and advised the band accordingly.  Kevin Rowland (always single minded, and fiercely protective of his band and music, wasted no time in dumping Bernie Rhodes and signing with EMI.

They had the vision, they had the sound, they had the look, and now they had the support of the big boys.
Second single "Geno" put the band at the top of the charts (despite EMI's belief that "Geno" was the weaker track, and the B Side "Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache" should've been the lead song).  The first stand-off between band and label resulted in Kevin Rowland getting his way.
The band then began recording the debut album,and on the last day of recording locked themselves in the studio in protest at their low royalty rate from EMI.
They took (stole?) the Master Tapes from the studio and returned home to Birmingham.
The Tapes were returned to EMI after an increased royalty rate was agreed, and the album finally came out in July 1980.

Opening with the sound of a radio tuning to various music stations, and then Kevin Rowland stating "For Gods Sake - Burn It Down", it really has that feeling like this is a new era dawning.
The song is a re-recording (and restoration of original title) of their first single "Dance Stance".
It's full of brass hooks, a thumping bass line, and lyrics namechecking a number of Irish literary figures.  Over this highly polished, exceedingly tight backing sits Kevin Rowland's voice - a touch of thuggery, a touch of theatricality and a soupcon of Bryan Ferry.

The brass riffing continues to form the basis and hook of most (if not all) tracks, with a couple of slower paced tracks (moments to catch a breath?).
Yes, there are a couple of points where Kevin Rowland's voice begins to sound strangulated and breaking when he goes for the high register, and depending on your mood at the time, the arty pretensions of the spoken word poetry recital of "Love Part One" is either completely disposable, or totally tolerable because straight after comes the magnificent closer to the album "There, There My Dear".

Searching For The Young Soul Rebels is a brilliantly enduring debut, and a damn near perfect melange of 60s Soul, Stax, Ska, Mod, Punk attitude and Hard Pop/Rock music - it almost "demands" to be listened to from start to finish.  And there aren't too many better ways of spending 40 minutes.

Burn It Down

There, There, My Dear

Saturday, 27 January 2018

To The Outside Of Everything – A Story of UK Post Punk 1977 – 1981

"Here's one I made earlier"

Originally published on The Afterword, October 2017

What does it sound like?
Cherry Red’s latest box set takes a tour of the time period after the snot and anarchy had subsided
But … what is “Post Punk”?
Being literal about it, it’s anything that came after the initial burst of Punk.
But nothing is that simple (is it ever?).
Angular, edgy, industrial, dark, experimental – all terms used to try and define what Post-Punk was
The genre “Post-Punk” is a retrospective term applied to bands that flourished to greater critical acclaim than perhaps commercial success, and didn’t fit the neat pigeon holes of known genres
Originally labelled in the music press as “New Musick”, bands took inspiration from the freedom offered by Punk, and expanded the template from the 3 chord thrash and re-cycled Chuck Berry riffs, to include anything and everything they felt inspired by (Berlin-period Bowie, krautrock, electronica, dub reggae, jazz, funk, disco, poetry, literature, political theory – whatever the influence or thought, it probably found it’s way onto record).
Post-Punk wasn’t a “new thing”, a reaction to anything, or a bandwagon to be jumped on – most of the bands were already in existence ploughing their own furrows.  With fortuitous timing, the initial burst of Punk energy had dimmed, and people were looking around for the next evolution.  Primarily led by the indie labels that sprang up as a result of Punk (Rough Trade, Zoo, and Fast Product being prime examples), with some foresighted majors (with indie sensibilities) joining the party (Island and Virgin, mainly), this was music from the “arty” end of punk - more concerned with making a statement, than shifting units.

The beginnings of the genre can be (sort of) pin pointed to 2 events in January 1978:
  1. John Lydon leaving the Sex Pistols
  2. The release of Magazine’s debut single “Shot By Both Sides”

This is a neat and simplistic tag – the Pistols were undoubtedly the most recognised purveyours of Punk, and Howard Devoto (or more correctly, his previous band Buzzcocks) responsible for the release of the first independent Punk single.
The opening track (Ultravox! – "Young Savage") dates from May 1977 – before these 2 events proving that Post Punk co-existed with “actual” Punk (Proto-Post-Punk?).  And Wire (represented here by "I Am The Fly" (released February 1978)) had already released their own Post Punk statement (debut album Pink Flag) in October 1977.

This 5 CD set runs chronologically through the period and includes tracks from the recognised “big bands” of the period - PiL, Magazine, Wire, Gang Of Four, Joy Division, The Fall, Gang Of Four, Throbbing Gristle (plus a host of others).  Space is also given to other (possibly, or actually) lesser known names making a great noise - Big In Japan, The Raincoats, The Au Pairs, Mo-Dettes, down to almost forgotten acts such as Fischer Z, The Past Seven Days The Nightingales and The Homosexuals.
OK, not every track is a winner (and it would be nice if sometimes compilers didn’t go for the bleedin’ obvious - The Slits released many other fine tracks apart from Typical Girls) but it is a pretty high hit rate across 111 tracks (and those few that aren’t 100% winners will not have you reaching for the skip button).
Obvious omissions to me include XTC, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure, Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire and UK Decay.  (Talking Heads, Pere Ubu and Devo were probably excluded as this is the story OF UK Post Punk).
The absence of these big hitters just leaves more space for the smaller, forgotten, but no less creative bands to shine again, and there is plenty here to entertain, even challenge and make your ears prick up in a “Bloody Hell, that was good” type way.

What does it all mean?
Unlike it’s forebearer, Post Punk never became the property of a salivating media, copycat bandwagon jumpers and record companies out to make quick profits.
It may have taken it’s lead from Punk, but Post Punk (as it latterly became known) was broad and rich with ideas, invention and experimentation.
If I was allowed to re-christen it, I think I would suggest: Prog-Punk
Post Punk is probably the missing link that explains how Punk begat more than just New Wave, Powerpop, and mohican wearing 55 year olds at Butlins.
80s genres such as Goth, New Pop, New Romanticism, Synthpop and even Indie can all trace their lineage back to John Lydon asking if we’ve ever had the feeling we’ve been cheated, and Howard Devoto was on the run to the outside of everything.
Goes well with...
The sleeve notes include an historical essay charting the rise and fall of Post Punk, and details of each band and track featured.
What’s not to like – discovering new, unheard or forgotten music (note: The Thompson Twins were pretty good once upon a time) and pouring over the sleeve notes
Once the sleeve notes are done, I further recommend Simon Reynolds book Rip It Up And Start Again as a great textual accompaniment

Might suit people who like...
Music with a bit of adventure, variety and pushing the boundaries (a bit).
Artists intent on pursuing a singular vision whether any bugger likes it or not (fortunately there is much to like)
Will definitely appeal to the type of Music Nerd (ie me) that is now building up a nice little genre history with these Box Sets (any chance of a 5CD Pub Rock set next?)

Full Track Listing:

Magazine - Shot By Both Sides