Thursday, 15 June 2017

It says nothing to me about my life ...

When you're 13 or 14, the only way to start your weekend was by settling down on the sofa and switching to Channel 4 to watch The Tube.
The jump from Top Of The Pops to Whistle Test (it had only recently lost it's "Old Grey .." moniker) was perhaps to great to take in one step, and so The Tube offered an alternative route.
A music show that didn't take itself too seriously, placed the bands and the music at the forefront (not what they were wearing, or what their favourite sandwiches were), and didn't come over like a glorified Youth Club party fronted by Radio DJs that were virtually ancient, and despite their enthusiasms really showed no great love for the music on offer (John Peel and Kid Jensen are exempted from this observation, as they seemed to spend their allotted half hour subtly ripping the p*ss out of everything)

It was on The Tube that I first heard and saw The Smiths.
The song was "This Charming Man" - it was genuinely exciting on first hearing.  Certainly compared to the relatively lame opposition.  It had that added frisson of excitement being an Indie record (when being "indie" meant being independent not having a guitar and sounding like a pile of other bands).
But I wasn't so taken with the pillock of a lead singer - all hearing aids, National Health Specs and flowers.  What's that all about?  Is he trying to be a northern version of Neil from The Young Ones?

Good song (nay, great song) but my boat remained well and truly unfloated.

School days in 1983/84 is split into distinct factions when it comes to music (and this is a sweeping generalisation):
  • The "girly pop" of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet
  • The Reggae bods - serviced by UB40 and Bob Marley
  • The scruffy metal heads, pretend punks and part time goths - Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motorhead very much to the fore
  • Goths and Indie kids - 4AD, Bauhuas and The Cure.  When it wasn't dark, it was all a bit maudlin and student-y
  • The cool kids who probably read books, wore polo necks and were likely to go to university - U2, Simple Minds and maybe some jazz seemed to be permanently playing on their Sony Walkmans.
The Smiths straddled these last two groups bringing together hitherto un-communicative tribes
Despite owning, and playing to death, a copy of U2's 'War', defending the greatness and importance of the Human League, flexing my "classics of history" chops by listening to The Shadows, and defending the vocal prowess of Rod Stewart, I fell firmly into the scruffy sod category - a designation I felt entirely comfortable with.  Having a predilection for very loud guitars, thumping drums and a general air of chaos meant my occupation of this group was probably pre-determined.  Citing Worzel Gummidge and Compo as fashion icons and only added to the confirmation.
(Hence the title: at the time, it really did say nothing to me about my life - or at least no reference that fully fitted (I had never seen a punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate, nor was I the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar)

Now, this wasn't quite the open warfare of Mods and Rockers or Punks and Skins, the battle lines were only shakily sketched and there was great tolerance - or at least "some" tolerance (usually) of each other musical choices (although anyone who declared Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon as the greatest song ever written was likely to get serially duffed up).

I had a sneaking admiration for Morrissey's anti-popstar stance - the moody pictures in Smash Hits, the difficult interviews, a glamourisation of an unglamorous past that I didn't understand, and the use of big words.  And all that was underpinned by Johnny Marr's jangling, insistent guitar.
And whilst the songs I had heard always made me think "mmm ... bloody good that" it never translated into a single or album purchase.

But you can't resist forever, and in early 1987 I finally succumbed and purchased a copy of the compilation 'Louder Than Bombs' on import from my local, friendly Our Price.
The singles "Shoplifters Of The World Unite" and "Sheila Take A Bow" had burrowed their way into my head, and I was now at the point where I had to have more Smiths material - the compilation (despite it's increased cost due to being an Import) was a necessary purchase.
OK, I could've saved myself 3 or 4 quid by buying 'The World Won't Listen' (the UK version of the expanded US release 'Louder Than Bombs'), but this ignores the snobbery of owning an Import, and the fact that the US version had extra tracks, including some earlier material.

I bought this, listened to it, digested it and returned it to the shelf - "Yes", I thought. "there are good songs there.  It ain't half bad.  But it's still not me".
And then over the next few weeks I would find odd tunes or a lyric popping into my head for no apparent reason - I may have become infected (except that was by The The - another band beloved of the Indie Kids and the beatnick-chique Cool Kids)

Yes, I had been bitten - Louder Than Bombs was pulled from the shelf and re-played - this time the jingly guitar and (apparently) downbeat lyrics were going in.  I wasn't a born-again Smiths fan, but I could certainly now appreciate what was going on there, and wanted to hear more.

And then in July 1987, the NME (my paper of choice at this time (with a side order of Metal Hammer) carried the headline: Smiths To Split.
Typical - a band I've just got into, and will spend my hard earned cash diligently buying new releases from are calling it a day.
Timing was never my strong point, and as per usual I'm late to the party ... again

September 1987 saw the arrival of the new (and final) album, and in my state of new found fandom I bought it on the day of release.

'Strangeways Here We Come' is an album, I have come to learn, that divides opinion among Smiths aficionados.  Indeed, 'The Queen Is Dead' is often cited as their masterwork, and this album usually props up the list of  their 4 studio albums.
Some bemoan the stretch, or adoption of different stylings and influences, others cite the glossier, richer production at play.
Me, I had nothing to compare it to in 1987, and all I could find here was an absolute cracker of an album.
From the opener "A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours" to closer "I Won't Share You", Morrissey and Marr supported by Rourke and Joyce are presenting their best work.
OK, "Unhappy Birthday" don't quite cut it, feeling a bit forced and smells a bit of padding.  And "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" almost outstays it's welcome (and all goes a bit Pink Floyd-y), but 2 (not total) clunkers out of 10 tracks aint a bad hit rate for an album recorded in the midst of personality clashes and breaking relationships.
Previously, I would've added "Death At One's Elbow" to the list of "nearly, but not quite", but having re-listened to it, it is a great rock-a-billy workout, almost pointing the route was Morrissey would initially embrace.
"Paint A Vulgar Picture" deserves a mention as lyrically it is a bit of a diatribe against record companies reviving, re-issuing and re-packaging.  It maybe tounge-in-cheek, but it can also be read as a bit rich bearing in mind that The Smiths already had 2 compilations (3 if you include 'Louder Than Bombs') in their catalogue, and would ultimately have their entire output re-packaged several times over in the next 20 years (OK, that was more WEA trying to maximise their returns, rather than the band sanctioning constant re-releases).  To date their are 5 compilations available, and a complete box set of all the albums.

Over the next 12 months or so, I bought the rest of the albums, including the 2 compilations (most of which I already had on the Import copy of 'Louder Than Bombs'. (with the exception of 'Rank' which didn't arrive in my ownership until about 2006)
After listening to them all, I can understand where the doubters are coming from, but can only confirm that 'Strangeways Here We Come' was, and still is, the best Smiths album out there.

"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"

"I Started Something I Couldn't Finish"

Friday, 2 June 2017

How Not To End A Bands Recording Career - The Clash: Cut The Crap

If one's history of The Clash is learnt by compilation albums and documentaries, you would believe that once the US Tour of 1983 was over, and Mick Jones left the band, The Clash ceased to exist.

The demise of the band can be (initially) traced back to the 'Combat Rock' album of 1982.
Relationships between band members, notably Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were fraught, and Topper Headon's increasing drug habit didn't help matters.  The 'Combat Rock' album was initially conceived as another double album statement, and unable to agree a particular style, format or presentation, Glyn Johns was called in to salvage the best of what was available.  The resulting album was a pretty clear statement of were the band were at the time, and possibly deserving of their moniker "the most important band in the world".  The album was also their breakthrough into the US market.

The Clash toured America supporting The Who, but the increasingly unreliable Topper Headon was replaced by original drummer Terry Chimes, but by the end of that tour he also left the band being replaced by Pete Howard.  By May 1983, Mick Jones left (or perhaps more correctly, was sacked) and The Clash (according to popular belief) were no more.

I previously stated that the bands demise can be initially traced back to 1982.  There is another factor here which may push the beginnings of the demise back a little further - original manager Bernie Rhodes returned to in 1981.
Bernie Rhodes was an associate of Malcolm Mclaren, and followed the lead of McLaren by finding and nurturing a band.  The Clash formed and were housed at Bernie's Camden Rehearsal studio.  The Clash concentrated on the music, whilst the non-musical Rhodes concentrated on managing, positioning and marketing the band (his links with McLaren no doubt helped, including ensuring the The Clash were on the bill for the ill-fated 1976 Anarchy In The UK tour).  He departed (or was sacked, there are conflicting accounts) in late 1978, but was to return at Joe Strummer's request in early 1981.
Can it be just a coincidence that Bernie's return sparked a period of increased tension and eventual falling apart of the band?

Pete Howard had joined on drums in 1983, and now following Mick Jones departure a new guitarist was needed to breathe life back into the band.  Whether it was an attempt to expand the line-up, or the size of the hole left by Mick Jones, guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard were recruited.
This newly convened line-up headed out on a self-financed tour in early 1984, and by the start of the following year commenced recording of The Clash's 5th album.
In need of a writing partner, Bernie Rhodes assumed the role, and also that of the records producer (remember this is the bands manager and non-Musician Bernie Rhodes - what could possibly go wrong?)

If I'm being honest, cracks were beginning to show on 'Combat Rock' - fine album though it is, and it is saved by the singles drawn from it, it does feel a bit "aimless".  But the again, it is sort of understandable as each of their albums moved the band into different areas and styles - maybe this was just too far. or alternatively not enough of a stretch to create any "wow factor".
With 'Cut The Crap' those apparent cracks moved to almost yawning chasms.

Here's the headlines:
  • some of the songs sound like they've not fully evolved from their demo state
  • at points on the album, it feels like Joe Strummer has lost interest and is just "going through the motions"
  • the vocal track is buried so deep on some tracks its virtually inaudible
  • an over reliance on drum machines - drummer Pete Howard never actually hit a drum skin in anger throughout the recording
  • the production adds too many synthesiser splashes and effects - just because you can, you don't have to put a horn part into a song, and similarly a chorus isn't always improved by mass chanting
As a result, the album feels (a) half-finished, and (b) over-produced.
It was released in 1985 - there were many records around that time that were products of the studio and therefore have a similar sound and reliance upon technology.
However, the architects behind these records - prime example being Trevor Horn - were musicians at heart (or at least understood how music worked).  Bernie Rhodes lack of musical nouse renders 'Cut The Crap' as sounding a bit amateur-ish.
With recording complete, Joe Strummer disappeared to Spain leaving Bernie Rhodes to finish the production and mixing.  When he departed, I think Joe took the "Quality Control" button with him, because it seemed to be missing when the album finally came out.

An album is only as good as the songs it contains - all these songs, good and not so good, need to sit together in a way that makes (or breaks) the whole album.
It is perhaps telling that when the first post-existence Clash compilation was release ('The Story Of The Clash' in 1988, it contained no tracks from 'Cut The Crap'.
Of the 12 tracks on the album, only "This Is England" properly passes muster and has now been included on latter day compilations.
Of the other tracks, it's all a bit hit and miss (mostly miss) only "We Are The Clash" and "North And South" properly stand out.  "Cool Under Heat", "Movers and Shakers", "Three Card Trick" and "North And South" nearly cut it, but are hampered by the aforementioned bad production.
The rest of the tracks, in my humble opinion, are not fully formed and no amount of post-production, overdubbing, political posturing or marketing spin can pull them through.
In short, The Clash's legacy lies in tatters - is it any wonder that it has been effectively written out of any officially sanctioned histories of the band.

There is however one bright spot to report from this - whether it was as a result of this albums disappointment, or his recuperation/re-evaluation in Spain (or both), when The Clash finally called it a day in 1986, Joe Strummer sought out his old sparring partner Mick Jones.  Together they co-wrote 6 tracks, and co-produced Big Audio Dynamite's second album ("No. 10 Upping Street").
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but having made this re-connection you just wonder if the tensions in the band could have been diffused, would "This Is Big Audio Dynamite" (or something similar) have been the sixth Clash album (maybe with "This Is England" tacked onto it)?

For better or worse (mostly worse) 'Cut The Crap' was the bands fifth album, released in 1985.  Not a great way to finish off you recording career as a band, but it did give the world the last great Clash track (it also gave Shane Meadows a title for a serial drama 20 years later)

This Is England

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Oasis - From Nowhere To The Biggest Band In Britain In 5 Years

1991/92, and Grunge was taking hold of the UK musical landscape.
Nirvana's 'Nevermind' (released in late November 91) was doing big business.  Pearl Jam's 'Ten' (dating back to late spring/early summer 91) was selling in similar quantities, as were releases from Soundgarden, Alice In Chains with Mudhoney and Stone Temple Pilots also joining the party.  Indeed, if you were in anyway related to Seattle or the SubPop label, or employed the "quiet-loud-quiet" technique then you were probably onto a winner.
American Alternative Rock/Indie was doing pretty well for itself in the UK - Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Pavement, Smashing Pumpkins et al, all doing pretty well for themselves.

From within the pages of factions of the Rock Press (primarily Select Magazine) a reclamation of national pride had begun.
Madchester, and the whole baggy-Indie dance scene had come and gone, and the patience was wearing thin waiting for the next Stone Roses album.  Blur had failed to crack America and returned home to record a mod-ish inspired second album, and Suede were busily soundtracking bedsit/student angst.
The groundwork had been done, all it needed was a snappy name and a "scene" could coalesce around it.
1993 saw the name "Britpop" appear in print for the first time - a name (allegedly) coined by Stuart Maconie, gave an identity to this collection of bands with the express intention (and media backing) to repel US imports and make Britain musically great again (not that it wasn't already, it just needed to be written about more and giving it a snappy name (albeit a slightly rubbish one) would help give it a raison d'etre.

Around the same time, a Manchester band landed an opening slot at a Glasgow club.  Alan McGee, the boss of Creation Records who was in the club to keep an eye on one of the bands he was managing, was so impressed by what he heard, he offered them a record contract on the spot.  Or so the legend goes ... - in truth it was another 3 or 4 months before the deal was finalised, including worldwide distribution with Sony (via Creation)

Oasis had originally formed two years previously.  Called The Rain, they consisted of  Liam Gallagher, Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs, Paul "Guigsy" McGuigan and Tony McCarroll.
Liam's older brother Noel had previously been a roadie for the Inspiral Carpets didn't believe that his "dopey kid brother" was in a band and went along to see an early show.
One can assume that he must've been (at least) vaguely impressed by what he saw, as he took the opportunity to approach the band with a stash of songs he'd been writing, a work ethic, and a healthy dollop of ambition.
Local gigs, serious rehearsal, a demo recording followed.  They were then invited to Glasgow by another group they shared rehearsal rooms with on the off chance of playing a support show.

The band entered the studio in December 1993 to record their debut single for Creation.  After some time trying to capture the song "I Will Believe", the band started idly jamming and Noel created "Supersonic" (apparently on the spot).  "I Will Believe" (albeit in a previously recorded live version) was relegated to the B-Side, and "Supersonic" released in April 1994.
Second single "Shakermaker" followed swiftly in June, and August saw the release of "Live Forever".  This single was the first to crack the Top 10 and set the band up nicely for the release of debut album 'Definitely Maybe' at the end of the month.

Opening with a statement of intent, a manifesto in 5 minutes, "Rock 'n' Roll Star" ushers in 48 minutes of high energy raw attitude (plus 3 minutes of acoustic reflection).
Right from the start, there's a swagger to the album, a certain lairyness and a simmering danger.  But this is all underpinned by a stack of tunes that are both comfortably recognisable and also brand new.
Alongside all the previous singles, is the first outing for Creation (in the guise of a White Label demo) "Columbia" and a batch of other songs equally as urgent and snotty as the singles.
And then at the end is a change of pace with "Married With Children" showing (a) Noels ability to write a song with more than just barre chords, and (b) that Liam can actually sing (rather than just sneer.
Third single "Cigarettes and Alcohol" arrived in October with the album selling by the bucketload.

The final single of the year "Whatever" arrived in December.  This continues the acoustic-y nature of 'Definitley Maybe' closer "Married With Children", and led to a plagiarism suit from Neil Innes claiming (and rightly so) that the vocal melody and portions of the tune are nicked from "How Sweet To Be An Idiot".
The nick of the strings melody from Johann Pachelbel's Canon (or to give it it's full title:  Canon and Gigue for Three Violins and Basso Continuo), passed by un-noticed (or at least uncontested).
The B-Side was "Half The World Away" - this too had a reminiscent melody from Burt Baccharach's "This Guys In Love With You" - but no charges were brought.

And this wasn't the first time Noel G has been accused of "borrowing" - the band had already stumped up $500,000 for nicking portions of the lyric and vocal melody from "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" for "Shakermaker".

When it comes to nicking stuff (re-appropriating) Noel has form - there are pages across t'interweb suggesting most Oasis songs are in some way stolen:

Then again, as Noel says (admits?):
"We ripped about two songs off The Beatles and the rest off Slade."

Despite all the thievery, continued sales and media attention ensured that their next single release "Some Might Say" delivered their first Number 1 single.

Following the recording of this single, the drummer Tony McCarroll was replaced by Alan White.  There were reports of deteriorating relationships and punch-ups between band members, but the official announcement cited McCarroll's "technical limitations" as a drummer.

This period of time was the early days for Britpop (ie before the media got hold of it and sanitised it to mean "any two bit indie band with a guitar and attitude"), and Oasis, with their attendant lairyness and F**k You attitude became sort of anti-poster boys.  Indeed, the bands early recording career trajectory can be measured against Britpops rise and fall.
Their prime competition was "apparently" Blur, and the media wet-dream was duly delivered by the fact that both bands released new singles (Oasis: "Roll With It", Blur: "Country House") on the same day in August 1995, and their later albums were released within a month of each other.  Was there really any competition?  If there was, who won? and does anyone actually care?  These were 2 separate bands who just happened to find themselves releasing records in a similar style, to similar public and critical acclaim, at the same time.
Although there is something perversely pleasurable about the fact that the "biggest chart battle since The Beatles and The Stones" (copyright: just about every media outlet with little or no interest in the actual music) featured two bands releasing probably their worst singles.

Anyway, back to Oasis ...

Their second album titled '(What's The Story) Morning Glory' was released in October 95.  This album shows a softening of the sound (if not volume - the post-production compression makes it very loud) with more focus on the anthemic (holding lighters aloft sort of thing), and more instrumentation ( strings, piano, acoustic-y intentions) than the debut.
When it rocks, it rocks.  When it is downbeat, orchestral and anthemic, it does that too.  But, it just feels like it's peppered with filler ("Hey Now", "Cast No Shadow", "She's Electric") - almost like they were saving their best tracks for the B-Sides (and they probably were).
It is a thoroughly competent and easily accessible set of songs, and you can understand why after selling a third of a million in it's first week, it continued to sell for the next couple of years (current figures sit around 5 million in the UK, and 22 million worldwide).
But it just feels like "instant gratification", with no real lasting appeal.
Mind you, as with everything there's always an exception.  This albums exception goes to the epic closing track "Champagne Supernova".
OK, lyrically it's a bit vague and has one or two touches of "never be scared of a rhyme", but the atmosphere it builds (especially when performed live) is tremendous - I doubt that it would work so well if sung by anyone other than Liam though.

To be brutally honest, '(What's The Story) Morning Glory' is not a truly great album.  But it was the perfect album for the time, and the fact that it sold massively in many ways proves this point.

And talking of massive sales ...
The next single "Wonderwall" was released in November 95 and ensured that the album kept selling.  It hit number two, kept off the top by Robson & Jerome, but would go on to become one of their best known songs, and biggest selling singles.
A month after release, a claim was bandied about that the song was a cover of a little known 60s easy listening tune - all the talk of Noel Gallaghers magpie songwriting had some people convinced when Mike Flowers Pops released their lounge version.
If there was a prize for "the most over-played Oasis single", this one would probably win it - it is also their biggest selling single, achieving in excess of 1,250,000 sales (some 250,000 greater than their next best).

Oasis were now probably the biggest, or certainly the most known, band in Britain.
The massive sales continued in 1996 with further plundering of the parent album resulting in big seller number 2 - "Don't Look Back In Anger" (sung by Noel) hit number 1 and hung around the charts for most of the spring and summer.

In the spring, the band played 2 nights at Maine Road, followed in the summer by two nights at Knebworth in front of 250,000 people - demand was so high, it was conceivable that they could've done 10 nights.

Too much, too soon?
Could they sustain this adulation?
The next album must surely be the greatest slab of vinyl ever produced to begin to meet these expectaions ...

Album 1, Side 1, Track 1 - "Rock n Roll Star"

They kept their best stuff for the B-Sides - "Fade Away" (B-Side of "Cigarettes & Alcohol")

"... all the rest we nicked off Slade" (and Gary Glitter) - "Hello"

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Third Album

Whilst not a 100% true rule, there is certainly in the thought/belief that a bands third album marks a sort of tipping point.
As a general rule of thumb (with some obvious exceptions), most bands early years follow a similar pattern:
  • Debut album - consists of the tried and trusted setlist from the past years before getting a record deal
  • Second album - often described as "difficult" as the band has run out of songs and the record company demands product
  • Third album - this is where it is make or break time - and most bands will have a milestone third album leading to either world domination or abject failure
Because this is not a 100% true-ism, there are various sub-categories and caveats that need to be applied to support this theory.
And as there is always an "exception that proves the rule" (I really do not understand the logic of this phrase?), those that suffered Third Album damnation also need to be considered, as do those who thrive on consistency and it matters not if it was the first, third or twelfth album that is considered the high point.

Third Album successes that effectively "made" the band - after disappointing second albums (which have since been re-appraised and are (generally) no longer considered "disappointing"):
  • Iron Maiden - Number Of The Beast
    Their debut album was a landmark of NWOBHM and features songs which are still included in their live set today.  The follow-up was the slightly disappointing 'Killers' which seemed to be leftovers from the previous and din't really move the band on.
    With a new vocalist in the ranks, their third album was several steps ahead in song construct, sound and delivery, and laid the foundations for Iron Maiden to become the biggest Heavy Metal band in the world
  • The Jam - All Mod Cons
    The sheer adrenaline of their debut 'In The City' could not be maintained on 'The Modern World'.  Like Iron Maiden above, the album felt like leftovers from 'In The City' (possibly even the padding of a double album).
    With Record Company expectation tested, this album really was "Shit or Bust" - and was the starting point for 4 years unbroken success including 4 Number One singles, a level of popularity which allowed 2 Import only singles to enter the Top 20, and a real feeling of "loss" among fans when they split up (if you go to The Jam Appreciation Facebook page, this loss and non-acceptance of anything they did afterwards is till very much in evidence)
  • The Clash - London Calling
    Their debut is one third of the unholy trinity of Punk album (along with 'Never Mind The Bollocks' and 'Damned Damned Damned').  The second album 'Give 'Em Enough Rope' was a polished affair, giving a bigger, almost embryonic stadium rock, sound than the debut which was perhaps at odds with expectations.
    London Calling was an ambitious affair being a double album and pulled in all their influences.  The delivery matched their ambition, and the album remains perfect to this day, and never bettered by the band
  • The Damned - Machine Gun Etiquette
    The first Punk band to release a single and album.  Their second album ('Music For Pleasure') arrived in November 1977, and it lacked the urgency and sheer abandon of the debut.  As a result,of the failure, they were dropped by their record company and split up a couple of months later.  When they reformed it was without guitarist and songwriter Brian James, and yet they created this absolute Punk-Garage-Pysch-Pop masterpiece.
  • Blur - Parklife
    Their first album ('Leisure') was OK, if nothing special, and their second ('Modern Life Is Rubbish') a re-invention of themselves as 1990s Mod-ish Brits, and had sold relatively poorly.  'Parklife' built on this British-ness and hit at the right time to perfectly capture a moment in time.
  • U2 - War
    The debut 'Boy' was positively reviewed by the critics and sold pretty well.  Second album gremlins crept in when (a) the band were having trouble aligning their religious beliefs with being in a Rock band, and (b) Bonio had a briefcase full of lyrics stolen just before recording commenced.  As a result 'October' was a bit of a hit and miss affair.  'War' on the other hand was the first indication of the true international potential of the band.  It's sales no doubt enhanced by the release of 'Under A Blood Red Sky' 8 months later - but this album is the point when U2 started being U2 rather than just another rock band.
  • Dire Straits - Making Movies
    Dire Straits debut is probably a collection of of songs performed by one of the greatest pub bands you're ever going to see.  The playing, the songs, the technicalities - all top notch.  Problem was when it came to 'Communique' they tried to produce a carbon copy, and the songs weren't all there.
    Making Movies expanded the horizons - a perfect blend of long songs ("Tunnel of Love"), straight rock songs ("Solid Rock") and downbeat semi-acoustic balladry ("Romeo and Juliet").
    Although "Les Boys" was a terrible way to finish the album off. 
  • The Who - Who Sell OutTheir debut was effectively their live set, and second album ('A Quick One') was, I feel, diluted with each of the band getting publishing deals an contributing their own songs.  In truth, Roger Daltrey aint a songwriter, and Keith Moon certainly isn't.  The closing track on the second album does begin to show Pete Townshend's ambition with the mini-Opera "A Quick One While He's Away".
    'Sell Out' was conceived as a (sort of) concept album in tribute to pirate radio - hence the inclusion of advertising jingles, and unbroken track links.  A strong set of songs re-inforced the bands ambition and belief and gave rise to the milestone (millstone?) that was the fully conceived Rock Opera 'Tommy'.
where the band "went to another level" (third album breakthrough)
  • Rod Stewart - Every Picture Tells A Story
    His first two album garnered minimal sales and no chart placing in the UK, and it was the same story for the few singles released.
    And then something happened ...
    Was it his linking up with the Faces that freed him up to concentrate on the folkier, soul-ier side, knowing that all his rock needs (and partying needs, I'm sure) were taken care of?
    Whatever it was, something gave him the kick to run parallel careers of equal greatness, and this album was the start of his imperial phase where (for the next 4 years) everything he touched turned to gold - even a song recorded to get him some car seat covers (Python Lee Jackson: "In A Broken Dream")
  • Blondie - Parallel Lines
    Debut album ('Blondie') was pop infused NY Punk, but not world-shaking.  Second album ('Plastic Letters') set the template, but was still lacking killer songs.  A make-over by Mike Chapman set this album apart from it's predecessors - was it really the same band?  Undoubtedly it was the same band as all the hooks and traits seen before were there, but now there was more.  A masterpiece of production and songcraft (including two cover versions).  It was even OK for Punk and New Wave fans to like Disco.
  • Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run
    Signed to Columbia in a wave of glory and expectation in 1972, the debut and it's follow-up ('Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ' and 'The Wild, the Innocent & The E Street Shuffle' (both 1973)) just didn't sell, despite critics wetting themselves.  This was make of break time for Bruce, and whilst he was preparing 'Born To Run' he became pre-occupied with making it ever more cinematic and bombastic.
    And then cam "the moment" - journalist Jon Landau wrote: "I have seen the future of rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen".  Landau steered Springsteen to finish off 'Born To Run' and upon release (bankrolled by Columbia's marketing budget), Springsteen's epic found an audience and a place on American Rock Radio, and has sold pretty consistently ever since.
  • Metallica - Master Of Puppets
    Along with Slayer and Anthrax, Metallica were identified as one of the "Big 3" Bay Area Metal bands - their first 2 albums had found a solid and loyal audience, and in line with their status there were hailed as leaders of the Thrash movement.
    'Master Of Puppets' added more to the armoury, and would/should have found a bigger audience if it weren't for the reach of indie label Megaforce/Music For Nations (the album fared better in the US where it was released on Elektra), massive sales would surely have followed.  From a worldwide perspective, massive sales would have to wait until the follow-up - sadly the follow-up was the "sonically-challenged" '... And Justice For All', and world domination would have to wait another couple of years until 'The Black Album'
  • Queen - Sheer Heart Attack
    The first Queen album came out in mid 1973.  Despite backing from EMI and it's proggish affectations in tune with the period, it failed to find a massive audience.  Unperturbed, they tried again with 'Queen II' preceded by a Top Of The Pops appearance alongside The Wombles with "Seven Seas Of Rhye".  The success of the single pushed it's parent album into chart contention, and also saw the debut belatedly sell enough to warrant a chart placing.
    Buyoed by critical acclaim, responsive tours and, no doubt, sheer ambition.  Their third album hit the racks in late 1974.  It blended the proggishness, straight rock and a dollop of camp.  Lead single "Killer Queen" ensured their "breakthrough" - this was the album the fully defined the band and laid the confidence for what came next.
high point, then it was downhill from there (ever diminishing returns):
  • Marillion - Misplaced Childhood
    OK, trying to do Prog-Rock in the 80s was always going to be a tough choice.  Fair play to Marillion they didn't bend from the choice, and ploughed a fairly lonely furrow (even getting namechecked on The Young Ones as one of hippy Neil's favourite bands).  'Misplaced Childhood' is perhaps their masterwork - a fully fledged concept piece released in the summer of 1985.  It spawned two Top 10 singles and sat at the top of the album charts.  A vindication of sorts that it wasn't such a daft idea to "do" Prog in the 80s after all.
    The follow-up 'Clutching At Straws' very nearly sustained it, but Fish's departure eventually led to a downturn in the bands fortunes.
  • T.Rex - The Slider
    Marc Bolan went from cult-ish hippie to Electic Warrior in a little under 4 years - he also invented Glam Rock along the way.  By 1972, he was in a position to virtually dictate the terms of his record deal with EMI  -this album marked the absolute peak of his popularity.
    Always more focussed on the 3 minute single tha the whole album, later albums sounded confused and un-focussed - sadly, so did the singles.  1976s 'Futuristic Dragon' had the feeling of something about to happen for him again, and 1977s 'Dandy In The Underworld' just about kept this going.  Unfortunately, we never got a chance to find out if he had it in him to push on and equal 'The Slider'.
  • Boomtown Rats - Fine Art Of Surfacing
    The debut album was like The Rolling Stones on speed - properly revved up R&B.  Second album had more pop sensibilities in line with Geldof's ever burgeoning media celebrity.  By this album they'd refined the music and performance, even getting a bit of social comment in with the never to be avoided "I Don't Like Mondays".  Sadly, this was it for the Rats and later albums just sound confused, like they're trying too hard
  • Pogues - If I Should Fall From Grace With God
    Taking steps froward with each of their previous albums, they arrived at this album with confidence and audience at a high.  Songs like "Fiesta" became a memorable part of often ramshackle live performances.  The presence of "Fairytale Of New York" ensures there will always be interest in the band, and possibly this album too.  However, the "fragility" of Shane MacGowan ensured that this was a high point they never reached again.  Subsequent albums are OK and often contain great tracks, they just never hang together as well again.

third Album Success rule applies but is (probably?) not their greatest album:
  • Def Leppard - Pyromania
    Although they continually deny it, Def Leppard were one of the prime exponents of NWOBHM (OK, they were out at the same time and followed the template of a self-financed EP, a Kerrang front cover, and a fine debut album.  By the second album (' High n Dry'), they made no secret of their transatlantic aspirations.  And for this, their third album, the Mutt Lange button was fully pressed - perfect for the rockier interludes of MTV.  Be-decked in Union Jacks, Def Leppard became (for a period) the biggest British band in America.
  • Carter - 1992 '101 Damnations' and '30 Something' were mainstays of any self-respecting Indie Disco of the late 80s/early 90s.  The signing to a major label (Chrysalis) seemed like a natural progression, and Chrysalis were ostensibly an Indie-Major, so everything should be fine.  Shouldn't it?
    Maybe the pony had run out of tricks, but all the rough edges were cleaned up and some of the songs began to sound laboured.  It may have sat at Number 1 in the album charts, but it was all downhill from here.
a masterpiece, but took so long to arrive the audience had gone:
  • Dexys - Don't Stand Me Down
    Constant re-invention was Kevin Rowland's game.  From the street gang look of 'Searching For The Young Soul Rebels' to the Soul Revue of Dexys Mark II (sadly with no real major label backing, so bar the odd single there was no real product), to the Celtic Soul Gypsies of 'Too-Rye-Ay' - 3 distinct looks, 3 different incarnations, 3 years.  They disappeared for 3 years, returning with a sort of yuppie-stockbroker look (business suits, groomed hair) and an album of meticulously created, and seemingly laboured over, songs that took the band somewhere different again.  There was little, if any, promotion of the album and no lead single upon release, and the take-up was minimal.  The album has since become recognised as a true masterpiece (and re-configured at least a couple of times), but spelt the beginning of the end - next stop was the theme for BBC sit-com Brush Strokes, and then dissolution.
    They did return in 2012 with the superb 'One Day I'm Going To Soar'

trying too hard to create a masterpiece, and end up with an overblown lump of stodge:
  • Oasis - Be Here Now
    It's good - but is it really the definitive statement of the band that was promised?  There is plenty of good stuff here, but suffers from over-producing (kitchen sink theory?), and would've benefited from a bit of editing.

when it doesn't work:
  • The Quireboys - Bitter Sweet & Twisted
    The long awaited and not wholly disappointing (although a bit shiny) debut ('A Bit Of What You Fancy') followed by a big selling Live album.  Their third album (or second album (proper)  arrived just as grunge was taking hold and the band found  their Faces-esque blusey-wailings no longer had an audience.
    (I admit to "stretching" the rules a bit, as their second album was a Live album, but ...)
  • Buzzcocks - A Different Kind of Tension
    Should've been massive - a better album than the previous releases, but the public disagreed.  Maybe the change was just too instant, and like many Punk/New Wave bands, their original audience wasn't quite as quick to move on as they were
  • Specials - In the Studio
    With half the band departed, this re-invention was too much for the great british record buying public to pallette.
  • Stereophonics - Just Enough Education To Perform
    The band sort of ran out of steam midway through Performance & Cocktails, and seemed to spend the third album either repeating themselves or trying to re-invent themselves - neith of which happened successfully here.  They would spend years re-inventing continually themselves and, save for the odd track ("Dakota"?) never got anywhere near the output of their first two releases
  • Guns n Roses - Chinese Democracy
    Overdid it with 'Use Your Illusion I & II', and were unable to replicate success of 'Appetite For Destruction' (be honest - were they ever liklely to?), too much tension led to their split despite promise of third album in production.  When it did arrive it was GnR in name only - the record is absolute dogsh*t!

does it matter whether it is the third, fifth or twenty-seventh album - consistency is the key:

These third albums are often held up as the artists key work, or spoken of in hushed tones.  The truth is that these are (pragmatically) no better or worse than what came before or after.  OK, everyone suffers a dip in fortunes once in a while, but this lot kept it at a consistent level of brilliance
  • Beatles - A Hard Days Night
    The first Beatles album comprising entirely of Lennon & McCartney songs.  Some cite The White Album as a sprawling, unfocused mess, others say Let It Be  was the death throes writ large.  As far as I'm concerned (and I may be wrong, but I doubt it), there was no let up in energy or craft right to the very end.
  • Radiohead - OK Computer
    If I'm honest (and others are too), no-one could really foresee the future for Radiohead at the time of their debut - it was good, but wasn't really earth-shattering?  A similar argument could be levelled at 'The Bends' too although you could see the stretch, the development and the desire to be unique.  'OK Computer' was a different beast altogether. Some said they would never surpass - well, they probably did (if only on artistic terms) by being the same, yet different on every subsequent release.
  • Paul Weller - Stanley Road
    A second appearance on the list for the bloke from Woking.  But this time he didn't have a disappointing second album behind him.  On the contrary, 'Wild Wood' sold ny the bucket load.  By the time you get to 'Stanley Road' there is the definite feeling that Paul Weller has reconciled himself with his opast and his influences, and can now stop experimenting with different aspects of his influence, and create a whole that is (a) immediately recognisable, and (b) because of when it was released, it assured his position as the Godfather of Britpop.
  • Led Zeppelin - III
    Led Zep I & II were stuffed full of dirty,heavy, blues-y rock.  Was it the template for Heavy Rock and Heavy Metal?  Was it the devil's work a la Robert Johnson?  Was it the perfect chemistry of 4 musicians, a forthright manger and a very powerful record label?
    Whatever it was, people bough the records by the ton, and continued to do so, even when the band took a sharp turn around in sound, or when the quality control went a bit screwy towards the end ('Presence', 'In Through the Out Door').

And spare a though for those that never get to number 3:
  • Stone Roses
    A magnificent debut followed by a critically panned second album (which took 5 years to see the light of day), and then ... nothing
    (Note: 'Second Coming' is the better of the two albums.  It just is ...)
  • Joy Division
    Mitigating circumstances here (obviously), but the reception of their two albums, and the reverence they are held in today, does make you wonder what would've came next.  It is wholly possible (although can anyone be 100% sure?) that the band would've followed the trajectory of New Order, which would then put them in the "consistent" bracket above.

OK, it doesn't bear too close a scrutiny, and if you cut a sample size down to small enough numbers you can prove anything (which I think I might've just done), but there must be something in it ....

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Saturday Record Shopping Run

There is often talk of how much better life was in the past, and how it would be a dream to return to those halcyon days.
Really? A return to power cuts, 3 day weeks, strikes, smog, ricketts ...
Maybe that's taking it a bit far, but the one thing the past did do better was Record Shops.
Last week, HMV Canada announced that it was closing it's stores nationwide.  Now, I don't know about the competition or record buying habits of Canadians, but do recall in the UK when it looked like HMV was going down the pan, it was close to having very few outlets for Music on the High Street - bar the independent stores (which are always worth a visit), buying music on the High Street is a tricky affair.

Not so many years ago in the time of my youth (yes, I feel very old writing those words!).

I was about 11 (maybe 11 and a half, detail is important at that age) when I started to buy my own records.  These purchases were always parent-accompanied, and enabled by pocket money and any other cash gifts that came my way (grandparents, birthday money, a sudden rash of parental indulgence/benevolence).
Just before my 14th birthday I landed a paper round - I was now earning my own money, and was granted enough trust to go into the town by myself (or at least with friends).
A couple of months later, I got a second paper round - I now had one in the morning and one in the evening - and also delivered, and collected money, for Charity booklets once a month.
All this income (well ,nearly all of it) went over the counters of the Record Shops of Reading.

Saturday Mornings involved a strict routine of counting up the paper round collection money, extracting my wages, going up the road to the newsagent to get paid for the other paper round, bus into town and start shopping.
After a weeks research of Radio 1, Smash Hits, Record Mirror, Sounds, Kerrang (or whatever music magazine I had bought) and recommendations from friends, I had a pretty good idea of at least one single and album that I wanted to get my grubby mitts on, but the joy of browsing and discovery cannot be ignored for the sake of firm plans.

Being a creature of habit, I always alighted from the bus at the same stop and went straight to the nearest shop - a small, but perfectly stocked branch of Our Price.
This was the first stop on a habitual route march around all the record shops - noting prices and stock, and then a return run making the preferred purchases.
The route was always:
  • Our Price (Butts Centre)
    Small, but rarely full and usually turned up a few surprises not seen in the other shops
  • Listen Records (Butts Centre - upstairs)
    Independent shop - specialists in Rock and Heavy Metal.  Always busy, always loud and a 14 year old felt very "grown up" going in there.  Brilliant shop - sadly it closed down in 1992 as a result of the Rough Trade distribution collapse
  • Our Price (Broad Street)
    Bigger than the Butts Centre branch over 2 floors, yet conversely seemed to carry less depth of stock, and the people that worked there didn't seem as knowledgeable about what they were selling
  • Woolworth
    Was there ever a time Woolworth didn't have a sale on?  Always woth a look, especially around the time of stock-checks when they'd cleared their storerooms out
  • Boots
    Not famously known for their music retailing, but often had cheaper prices for chart stuff than anywhere else
  • NSS Newsagents
    Another not known for its music retail prowess, but plenty of odd / interesting stock, import records and brand new old records (ie stuff still in the shrinkwrap from about 1978).  It was also the first record shop in Reading that I can remember selling these new fangled CD things.
  • WHSmith
    Magazines at the front, Record section at the back.  This meant you could pick up a copy of the NME and a shaped picture disc in one shop, and emerge on the other main shopping street of the town - if feeling peckish, there was also a McDonalds next door (and/or a Burger King 3 doors down)
A quick right turn and a quarter of a mile walk would bring me to the shop more responsible than any other for (a) giving me a musical education, and (b) feeding an ever growing vinyl addiction.
  • Pop Records - a second hand shop, with 2 branches (and if it wasn't raining or the specific record I wanted was in the second shop, a detour would be incorporated into the route).
    The shop was best described as "organised chaos", coupled with the aroma that will fever be defined as "the ideal record shop smell" (musty vinyl, slight whiff of damp, coffee and cigarette smoke).  The usual A to Z browsing racks surrounded the walls, one central island for 7" singles, boxes and crates placed under these racks, and piles of unpriced and unsorted records all over the counter and around the floor space leading to the counter.  Of course, this was a time before Fire Safety Regulations meaning a clear evacuation path had to be left at all times.
    Prices were set at Albums for £1 to £4 (depending on condition (obviously), and singles ranged from 25p to £2.  At either end of this pricing spectrum were the collectable items - usually stored behind the counter, or hung in the wall inside PVC sleeves, or the disorganised crates where albums and singles could be found for as little as 10p.

Starting work brought more money to spend than 2 paper rounds, but the route remained the same.
Over time, the traditional route shortened as Our Price consolidated into one shop, WHSmith and Woolworths underwent refurbishment and re-opened with smaller record sections, Boots went back to flogging make-up and hairdryers, and NSS Newsagents closed down.

And then came some dreadful news - Pop Records was closing down.  It's two shops were to be demolished as Reading town centre underwent a major re-vamp (one shop stood on the intended site for the Oracle Shopping Centre, and the other was a victim of road re-organisation.
As both these shops were (sort of) out of the town centre, the rent was presumably lower, but with nowhere else to go the owner decided to sell-up and close down.

Fortuitously, as Pop Records closed, another second-hand goldmine opened.  The Record Basement was another second-hand shop which had been opened for a few years at the other end of the town.  I visited it a couple of times, but it's main stock was Dance music (not my thing) - but when it moved premises near the Station, it sub-let the back of the shop to another trader who carried stock more to my taste (indeed, some of the stock bore the recognisable Pop Records price tags.

Record Basement became an integral part of the itinerary.  But with many of the old haunts now closing, the route was destined to become shorter, and possibly not so fruitful.

But wait ... by this stage, Reading had got it's own HMV store.
Yes - HMV the stuff of pre-planned expensive trips to London.  These trips would also involve visits to Virgin Megastore, Tower Records and the record shops of Berwick Street and surrounding areas.  I even bought a CD once in Harrods, just so I could say I bought something in Harrods.
And now Reading had it's own proper store. HMV had been in Reading before, opening as the HMV Micro shop selling computer games, and then as a relatively small store, but now here was a much larger store over two floors with stuff on the shelves never seen before in deepest Berkshire.
And to top things off, in the next couple of years, a Virgin Megastore opened too.

The Saturday Record Run remained, however there was one big problem for me: a new family meant there wasn't quite enough disposable income to (in the words of my wife and family) pointlessly fritter away on un-necessary items - most of my purchases came from the supermarket.  HMV and Virgin did get a visit, but this was probably (at best) monthly.

The Saturday Record Shopping Run was consigned to history - it still happened, but not with enough regularity to define it as a "tradition" anymore.

The rise of the internet, and the ease of purchasing from Amazon further consigned the Record Run to the past.  The final nail was probably the collapse of Zavvi, and the continuing diversification of HMV into a retailer that didn't seem to have a clue what it's core product was anymore.
With the high street market free from competition, it was really difficult to understand why HMV became such a shadow of it's former self.  OK, it couldn't truly compete on pricing with on-line retailers, but it had the presence and visibility, staff were often knowledgeable and helpful - what went wrong?
It went into administration in 2013, but was saved from complete closure and went through a period of restructuring, downsizing and streamlining.
I can happily report that the HMV stores I have visited recently are not quite as laughable as they were in the recent past, and do seem to be getting back to being a "must visit" shop, not just a "must visit for old times sake" shop.

Most of my purchasing is now done from the seat that I am sitting in at the moment - it's quick, easy, and usually cheaper than HMV can offer it for.  This is supplemented by (at least) monthly visits to the three local independent stores near me, and regular visits to Charity Shops (in the hope (rather than expectation) of finding something interesting.

But I do miss the traipsing up and down the same streets, through the same doors, seeing the same faces and idly flicking through the racks looking for inspiration and that unexplainable moment of joy when you find something new, interesting, or something you've been looking out for for months (or possibly even years, or decades)

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Is it possible to grow up without knowing who The Beatles were?

The Beatles never existed in my lifetime.
If we cite the end of The Beatles as Paul McCartneys announcement in April 1970, then this was still 3 months until I appeared in the world.
(OK, the "exact" date is open to debate, and arguably the dissolution may not come until Paul McCartney's law suit issue on 31 December 1970, or even the final ruling to dissolve the partnership in January 1975.  If we take either of these dates, then my opening statement is absolute bunk)

Did this mean anything?  Did it make a difference to my life?  It seemed that the break up of arguably the biggest band in the world was met with an almost instant consignment to history.  I don't think I heard a note from the band or indeed even knew they existed until late 1977, or more likely even later.
It's fair to say that I didn't grow up in the most musical of households - my earliest musical memories are Jimmy Young on Radio 2, Abba, The Carpenters and not much else.
But I still think it odd that 5 or 6 years after the biggest, best selling, most popular band in the UK split up they were rarely (if ever) heard on Radio or TV.
My own daughters younger years soundtrack included Sex Pistols, T.Rex, The Jam, The Who, and many other bands long since demised (although this probably says more about what their father inflicted upon them, rather than their choice).

I recall seeing a late 1977 episode of Top Of The Pops featuring the massive selling "Mull Of Kintyre", but no connection to The Beatles was mentioned, or even understood.
Scroll forward 3 years, and news reports were all over the TV about the shooting of a bloke called John Lennon who used to be in The Beatles.
This was probably the first time that I'd:
(a) heard the name The Beatles
(b) heard a note played by the band
(c) seen what they looked like
(d) recognised the bloke playing the bass as the one wandering around a scottish beach being followed by bag-pipers.

So now I (sort of) knew who The Beatles were, and thanks to a Teacher at school (we were talking about the News and she was explaining who John Lennon was) and knew a bit about their history too.
All good to know, but my mind was pre-occupied by West Ham's current performance in the league, trying to score my 100th playground goal of the season and Roy Race's unexplained dip in form for Melchester Rovers.  As a result of my busy schedule (I was also learning to ride my bike with no hands), this knowledge was not pursued any further.

On holiday in 1981, I'd seen a TV Film called The Birth Of The Beatles, so knew a little bit more about them, but still rarely (if ever) heard their songs on the radio (apart from some brief excerpts as part of "Stars On 45").
But that changed in May 1982 with the release of the single "The Beatles Movie Medley".  This single was a mix of the songs  "Magical Mystery Tour", "All You Need Is Love", "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away", "I Should Have Known Better", "A Hard Day's Night", "Ticket to Ride" and "Get Back", strung together in a Stars on 45 style (of which there were about 9 million variants doing the rounds in 1981/82).
I was now a seasoned single buyer having been buying them (at least) monthly since January the previous year and I proudly owned more than 20 7" singles, and one album.
On hearing the Movie Medley, I was determined to add this to the already impressive collection.  Having saved pocket money, and as part of our family's bi-weekly trip to Town, we went to WHSmiths so I could spend my money on the only things that mattered - a copy of Shoot! and a 7" single.
I chose the single and showed my mum my choice before I went to pay for it:
"Why do you want to buy that old music for?  I've got that at home on an album"
"What? ... You've got a Beatles album?  What is it?  What's it called?  What else is on it?  Can I borrow it?" (I think I got a bit excited).
We went to the album racks and found the album '1962-66' (aka The Red Album).
26 tracks which I'd never heard, and never even knew the album existed in the same house as me.
And then, in a typical act of childhood belligerence, I said something like "Ahh ... but this album hasn't got 4 of these tracks on, so I'd better buy the single too". And I did, despite my mum probably muttering something like "OK, you waste your money if you want to.  I've tried to help, but you think you know better ...."

Returning home, I extricated the Red Album from the records under the sideboard, and went to my bedroom for some listening time.
I'm sure I played my new single first, and was no doubt as thrilled to finally own this piece of plastic.  I do honestly remember the feeling of disappointment though when I dropped the needle on Side 1 Track 1 of the Red Album - "Love Me Do" just didn't seem as exciting as "Magical Mystery Tour" or "I Should Have Known Better".  Never mind, this was soon cured by the sound of "Please Please Me" and "From Me To You".
I played that album so often I knew every word, every scratch, every note.  I would walk around telling people I was a Beatles fan, even though I only knew about the first phase of their career and even then probably less than 10% of their catalogue.

And one of those unexplained, moments of coincidence occurred - my new favourite band were approaching the 20th Anniversary of their first single release.
"Love Me Do" was re-released in August 1962, 20 years to the day of it's original release.  Now, "Love Me Do" was still my least favourite song by the band, but the singles re-release meant I had to buy it.  And I did - this being the 80s, it was available as a Picture Disc so I bought that one.

And then (or at least according to my memory, around the same time), BBC2 had a Beatles Night showing footage and film of the band (one of the films may have been the US Compleat Beatles, but I can't honestly remember)

My record buying habit increased at a pace the following year as a result of Paper Round(s), increased Pocket Money, and the freedom to visit Town on my own (ie not relying on parents to transport me and accompany round the steaming metropolis of Reading Town Centre).
Jumble Sales also became a key activity to the extension of the record collection.  The Jumble Sale visits, combined with a well stocked second hand record shop brought more and more Beatles singles into my ownership (many were the 1976 re-issues in green sleeves, some where US versions on Capitol).  I now realised there was more to this band than 1962-66.  The Red Albums sibling (1967-70 (aka The Blue Album) was purchased for the pricely sum of £1, and like my introduction via the Red Album, I played this one to within an inch of it's life too).
I really was The Beatles biggest fan, and knew everything about them.  Or did I ...

Also in 1983, Siouxsie and The Banshees released a cover of "Dear Prudence" *,  Radio 1 Breakfast DJ bloke, Mike Read, informed me that this was a cover version of a track from The White Album.
I decided at that point that 'The White Album' was my favourite album of all-time (despite not owning it), and spoke at great length to anyone who would listen about it.
I sought out the album on a visit to Our Price soon after.  Sadly, 20 quid for an album in late 1983, on a paper boys salary was completely in-affordable.  I put the album on the list of "Stuff I MUST buy (one day)", and went back to the bluff and bluster and pretense.

* "Dear Prudence", along with Big Country's "Chance" and "Apache" was one of the first things I learnt to play on guitar (if I'm honest, my repertoire hasn't expanded that much since)

In 1986, I bought the book '100 Greatest Albums' which declared Sgt Pepper as number 1 - as I recall every other Beatles album also appeared somewhere in the list.
Whilst I owned most of the singles, and two compilations, and spurred on by some strange quest to buy every album in that there book, I purchased my first proper Beatles album.
It was number 1 in the list, so 'Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band' is not going to disappoint, is it?

Well ... it did.
Maybe I didn't get it, maybe I missed the point.  "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "A Day in the Life" were undoubtedly top tracks, but the rest of it felt a bit flat, unexpected and un-Beatle-like.
As a studio exercise, and proof of what you can do with the (admittedly arcane, at the time) technology in the studio, this album at the time was head and shoulders above everything (with the possible exception of 'Pet Sounds' (but I hadn't heard that at the time).
As a musical exercise, I don't think it was all there - time and context would change this opinion (but I still stand firm and say it isn't their best work).

1987 marked the 20th Anniversary of Sgt Pepper, and was celebrated with an hour long documentary on ITV.  This may have been the beginnings of the return of The Beatles to the public consciousness.
But still they were absent from the radio and TV.

The story goes that Glen Matlock was allegedly sacked from the Sex Pistols committing some form of musical heresy by liking The Beatles.  This suggests that The Beatles, only 7 years after their demise, were perceived as "massively uncool"
Is it any wonder then that Paul Weller kept his Beatles obsession hidden for so long - The Who and The Kinks often cited, but the Fabs were rarely mentioned.  Early photos of the band with Weller playing a Hofner bass, the choice of Rickenbacker guitars (equally a nod to Lennon as to Pete Townsend), the inclusion of "Slow Down" on their debut album (covered by The Beatles on Long Tall Sally EP), a studio outtake of "And Your Bird Can Sing".  All the clues were there, but no mention of The Beatles made.

And, in my mind, that 20th Anniversary of Sgt Pepper was the turning point.
Paul McCartney was back on stage playing Beatles songs, George Harrison was undergoing something of a commercial re-birth with the Jeff Lynne produced 'Cloud Nine' (and in particular the Beatles-evoking "When We Was Fab"), and Ringo was narrating Thomas The Tank Engine.

Granted it was a slow-ish return to omnipresence, and no doubt slightly exaggerated in my mind by buying more of their albums (and 10 years after declaring it as my favourite album ever, I finally owned a copy of The White Album).

A surprise, of sorts, occurred in 1992 when "Instant Karma" was used on a Nike advert.
This was the first time I'd heard a Beatles, or in this case, Beatles-related tune used in any form of advertising.  The years of Business confusion and protectionism seemed to be dissipating.
I quite enjoyed the personal smugness of it - I knew the John Lennon track ,and owned the album.  Friends remarked that it was "a brilliant track" and "they'd never heard it before".
Amongst my friends I adopted the mantle of Teacher (or Beatles-bore) and gave anyone who was interested (and/or not interested) chapter and verse (or as much as I knew) of the Beatles story, the music, the solo years (including "Mull Of Kintyre" which everyone knew about).

A few years later (1995), the Anthology series was released (preceded by the "Free As A Bird" single).  This documentary series, whilst not perfect, re-told The Beatles story for a new audience and ensured that The Beatles legacy was restored in the mind of the public.
1995 was also the middle of the Britpop era - Paul Weller (perceived as some form of Britpop Elder/Godfather figure) no longer hid his Beatles influences going so far as nicking the Dear Prudence riff (and/or ELO's 10538 Overture) for 'The Changingman'.
Another Britpop statesman, Noel Gallagher, never hid his influences going so far as declaring Oasis sound is made up of 4 albums: Never Mind The Bollocks, The Wall and The Beatles Red and Blue Albums.
The debt to The Beatles was further cemented when Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller and Paul McCartney recorded "Come Together" (as The Smokin Mojo Filters) for the War Child charity album 'Help'.

The Anthology series proved one thing - there is nothing left in the vaults, meaning there is no more "new" Beatles product to come.
So be it, but the ongoing re-configuration/re-releasing of the catalogue often proves to be strangely alluring.
The '1' compilation?  A collection of The Beatles Number One singles - I've got all these on '1962-66', '1967-70', and 'Past Masters Volume 1 & 2' - but I still bought it.
The 'Love' album?  Re-mixed by George Martin and featuring mash-ups and alternative takes of the various tracks used.  Yup, I bought that one too (I just "felt" I had to own it)
And the events of 09/09/09 when the entire back catalogue was remastered and re-released in both Stereo and Mono format, including the boxset versions 'Beatles In Mono' and 'Beatles In Stereo'

I sometimes wonder just what the musical landscape may have been like if Paul McCartney decided not to go to Woolton Village Fete on 6th July 1957.
It is quite possible that many of the historical landmarks would still have happened (JFK, England winning the World Cup, Man walking on the moon, Star Wars, Test Tube Babies, the fall of the Berlin Wall, a dog winning Britains Got Talent), but the musical landscape, development and lineage would, in all probability be vastly different.

Assuming the London Blues boom became the dominant force, instead of Mersey Beat, bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks would've traversed the 60s with less competition.
Bob Dylan would've still been Bob Dylan, would've still gone electric and would still be on tour.  Similarly, The Beach Boys would've spread summer happiness, but may never have released 'Pet Sounds' (inspired by 'Rubber Soul') and Brian Wilson would probably remained this side of sanity because he didn't create 'Smile' to out-do 'Revolver'.
The Soul & Reggae genres would also be largely untouched and would've developed the same way (although Otis Redding would've had two less songs to cover, and Booker T and The MGs would've released one less album).

And then there is the lineage of British Pop & Rock music:
No British Invasion
No Slade
No Jam
No Britpop

and, most likely, bands controlled and manufactured by promoters (the obvious example being Larry Parnes, and all those who would've undoubtedly followed him), producers and record companies
(at least that doesn't happen anymore ... or does it?)

Is it possible to grow up without knowing who The Beatles are?
Yes, I managed it.  I suppose that not having that knowledge in the first place meant I never actually missed them at the time.  But this also meant a lot of catching up in later years.

Maybe, just maybe (and to prevent other childhoods being deprived), The Beatles should be included in National Curriculum - everyone should feel the excitement of dropping the needle on side 1 track 1 of their debut album 'Please Please Me' and hearing "1 - 2 -3 - 4 ... Well she was just seventeen ..."
(surely a contender for the greatest album opener ever).

Saturday, 31 December 2016

It's The Only Poll That Matters - The Stuff & Nonsense Top 12 of 2016 (and other sundry enthusiasms)

Yup, I too have been struck by the general air of malaise doing the rounds in the past 12 months.
Here's hoping that 2017 will be a brighter proposition - although is 24 hours going to make that much difference.

The biggest observation of 2016 was the return of my own anti-Midas touch where everything I touched seemed to turn to sh*t.
If I'm honest there wasn't a great deal of new stuff that enthused me musically, televisually, bookularly or DVDularly.
Most of the year was spent listening to and buying old stuff that I'd either missed before, never got round to owning or taking a punt on something that looked interesting.
Most of the time it proved to be a winner, and very few of my purchases turned out to be clunkers destined to spend the rest of their existence filed away gathering dust.
The other main thing that I indulged in this year was scowling (that may be too strong a term) and becoming exasperated that supermarkets muscled in on the hipster-esque craze for all things vinyl and started stocking the stuff.  Not in huge quantities, but enough to make you stop your weekly shop and have a little browse.
Anyway after much exasperation, I too joined the throng and purchased a couple of these sought after items.  How could I turn down the opportunity to own my ninth copy of 'Never Mind The Bollocks' (eleventh if you include the 2 CD versions).
I did though avoid the copy of The Specials in Tesco where they had punctured the sleeve with the security tag - what were they thinking?

As said above, musically the offerings were scant for me, but the 12 below (and other bits & bobs) ensured my lugholes were thoroughly entertained.

1. Steve Mason - Meet The Humans
Steve Mason has seemingly distilled all previous work into this one album and come up with an absolute winner.  This album matches anything he has done previously solo or with the Beta Band, and is more focussed, with a real air of joy about it (especially the opening track "Alive").
OK, the presence of Craig Potter in the producers chair does cause echoes of Elbow-ness, but this work is singularly unique but totally accessible.
Recorded by anyone else and with greater promotion the album would have, and deserves, a much wider audience
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2. White Denim - Stiff
A real "back to basics" slab of 70s American Rock with hints of ZZ Top, Cream, The Doobie Brothers and Wild Cherry, with added Curtis Mayfield and Blaxploitation moments.
The riffs are huge, the sound chunky and funky - the whole album demands to be played loud, and repeated several times.

3. Madness - Can't Touch Us Now
They're back - this is the de facto followu-up to Norton Folgate after the mis-step of 'Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da'
Opening in the comfort of their recognisable trademark "plinky plonk" piano and saxophone blasts & honks, this album shows that Madness continue to mix upbeat bouncing tunes with sometimes darker subject matter.
My only concern with Madness is that their "Nutty Boys" image may well detract from their acceptance into the lexicon of Great British Songwriters.
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4. P J Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition Project
Always took a long time to "get" Polly's out-pourings - sometime I never "got" them at all - this one was a straight in (OK, it took a couple of listens).  At the risk of sounding like a muso-journo her most accessible release.  Simplistic impressions here are a touch of Patti Smith mixed with a touch of Kate Bush - but always recognisably P J Harvey.
The combination of music and lyrics is sometimes bleak, sometimes brittle, sometimes forceful and (almost) angry, but always strikingly honest - she is saying what she has seen, with no compunction to provide a solution merely to make you think about it (or not)

5. Whitney - Light Upon The Lake
Another album with a 70s undertone - this is more in the Byrds / Band / Americana frame, with a bit of Big Star chucked in.
Melodic and sometimes melancholy, but with more ups than downs to ensure your ears are feasted.  It is bright, summery, and has a general feel good vibe about it

6. Field Music - Commontime
Here's another one of those "didn't get it straightaway" albums.  Pleasant enough on fiest listening, but maybe not a candidate for this Top 12 (or 10 or 17 or whatever number I decided on).
But wait, repeated listening and a shift of expectations proved this one not to be an ignored dust collector.  The Steely Dan comparisons seem to be a legal requirement of any review I've read, but there is more than just this - a real summery soundtrack of an album (so why did they release it in February?)
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7. Primal Scream - Chaosmosis
Bobby Gillespie continues to do what he wants and makes a near return to Screamadelica territory, and then pulling in different bits of his back catalogue, and coming up with another winner - it may not be totally coherent, or have a common theme, but it does the job.  Do Primal Scream ever release a duff album?  This album may not be "life changing" or banging on the door of the Top 100 ... Ever, but they are always satisfying.

8. Bruce Foxton - Smash The Clock
From The Jam are the foremost Jam tribute act, and when you've got the original Bass player you should be.
Made with his From The Jam band mates (primarily Russel Hastings providing the vocal and guitar) this album shows that performing on the tribute circuit cannot dampen your desire to produce something new and original.  There are moments when you feel you could be listening to a lost Jam album (post The Gift) and there is a heady mix of mix of Motown and Northern Soul with a twist of Dr Feelgood, The Kinks and The Small Faces.
[more ...]

9. Metallica - Hardwired To Self Destruct
Metallica doing what they did best make a triumphant return to their past and (hopefully) prove to themselves that they don't need to be all clever, atmospheric a, navel gazing to produce a corking album.  OK, it may be a bit overlong, and could probably benefit from some editing down to a single album, but there is plenty here to make you want to return again and again.
Easily their best since the Black album, and should win back much of the older audience (ie me) clamouring/hoping for a return to their greatest moments

10. Brian Eno - The Ship
Eno does what Eno wants - and pretty much every album he releases is different.  A mew sound here, a new collage/experiment there, and rarely does he disappoint.  Whack this album on, sit back for 40 minutes and let it wash over you - do not try an do anything whilst this is playing.  It may be ambient in intent, but is not background music to accompany your chosen activity.
At the risk of sounding like a nerdy-sheeplike-Hipster, go fro the vinyl version - there is something added to the overall experience of Side 1 and Side 2 with a little break in the middle.

11. Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression
Has Iggy released a truly great album since 'The Idiot' or 'Lust For Life'?
He has now - thanks in no small part to Josh Homme.
I'll be honest, this one took a lot of listening for the penny to drop - glad it did though.
Listening to this post-Blackstar, it sounded like Iggy's own personal tribute to his former sparring partner - perhaps a combination of both timing and a faint re-tread/re-imaging of the albums.

12. David Bowie - Blackstar
This is not propping the list up due to some sort of "Everyone else is saying it's brilliant, and he died this year so I need to make mention of it" way.
This album is sitting in position number 12 because it is the twelfth most enjoyable album I bought in 2016.
Like Iggy above, not an immediate winner, but repeated listening bore fruit.
David Bowie albums are always unique affairs giving an insight to where his head is at that moment in time.  This one was no different, and we all know what happened next ...

Disappointment: Suede - Night Thoughts
And I was hoping for so much more - proof that you can't always get what you want.  By no means a bad album, I just wasn't hooked by it.  Can't truly explain why - maybe I should give it another couple of listens

Live: Stiff Little Fingers - Best Served Loud
This recording of their 25th successive Glasgow Barrowlands show is brimming with energy - I am not being biased (honest!) when I say if you are going to see just one Live band, make it Stiff Little Fingers

Discovery (about time too): Big Star
Big Star's 'Radio City' has been an ever-present in those Top 100 Albums You Must Listen To Before You Snuff It - but beyond "September Gurls" I'd never heard anything.
Until this year when annoyed with my tardiness, I purchased the double CD ('#1 Record' and 'Radio City') coupled with the DVD Documentary 'Nothing Can Hurt Me'.
Nothing else entered the CD Player for about a fortnight.  My considered opinion is that 'Radio City' deserves it's place on those lists, but '#1 Record' is even better.

Discovery (taking a punt): Hybrid Kids
Inspired by the DIY ethos of Punk, ex Mott The Hoople keyboard-ist retreated to his Notting Hill flat and assembled tape loops and cut-ups of well known songs performed by imagined bands from Peabody, Texas.
Who would not want to hear "Macarthur Park" done by a Two Tone band, The Sex Pistols covered by Pinky and Perky or The Wurzels doing "Wuthering Heights".  Top rank silliness, and all done by hand with no sequencers or studio trickery.

Box Set: Action Time Vision - A Story of UK Independent Punk 1976-1979
A 4 CD collection of the earliest outputs the soon to be big The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, The Ruts, Angelic Upstarts, 999, Skids, Sham 69, UK Subs, Cockney Rejects, The Rezillos, The Adicts, The Boys, The Lurkers, Alternative TV, The Members, Chelsea), early outings from Joy Division, Tubeway Army, Adam & The Ants, and the "one single wonders" like Nicky & The Dots, Suspects, Steroid Kiddies, Pure Hell, The Cravats or Woody & The Splinters.
Not every track here is a gem, but every single one of the bands had the desire and want to go into a studio and record themselves for posterity (even if it was only 500 copies).
This “Time Capsule” shows that those that “made it” were once at the same level as those whose sole offering is amongst the tracks here.
Without wishing to belittle or malign any of the contributions here, the feeling that comes from this 4 Disk Set is: Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Energy

DVD: Oasis - Supersonic
A documentary of the bands early years from formation to signing to Creation to playing to 250,000 at Knebworth.  An honest appraisal of the band themselves, their abilities and their failings.
The one big surprise that you only notice in retrospect is it all happened so quickly.  I have read reviews suggesting that people may not be as interested in what happened next - if anything, the confusion, in-fighting and eventual downfall may well make for an even better film