Friday, 15 May 2020

Duncan Reid & The Big Heads - Don't Blame Yourself

Duncan Reid's first musical outings was with Punk/Powerpop band The Boys in 1977.
The Boys came together from members of the mythical London SS, The Hollywood Brats (sort of like a London equivalent of the New York Dolls), and a couple of mates from a T-Shirt factory.
Signing with Nems Records in 1977 meant, for a brief time, they weer the only Punk Band in the UK with a major label deal (if you consider Nems to be a major label?).
A share of the vocals on their first album were handled by bass player (and ex T-Shirt worker) Kid Reid.  He also provided the voice for their second single "First Time", which to my ears is one of the greatest Powerpop songs to emerge from the period.
The Boys career resulted in 4 albums on 2 different labels, 8 singles, a Christmas Album (under the name The Yobs), and little success.  They called it a day in 1982.

But, when you've toured and been on stage with The Ramones, the "feeling" probably never leaves.  And so, nigh on 30 years later Duncan Reid started his solo career.
The debut album - 'Little Big Head' - arrived in 2012, followed by (the knowingly titled) 'The Difficult Second Album' in 2014.  The sound wasn't too far removed from the powerpop template of The Boys, and the band (The Big Heads) the perfect foil to Duncan's songs, observations, and vocals.
Live, Duncan Reid & The Big Heads are a sight to behold - a real entertaining and committed spectacle.  Unfortunately, they are often found on the smaller stages and venues than perhaps their capabilities deserve.
2016's 'Bombs Away' was another fine blast, and ranks as my favourite of their output - until this fourth album arrived.

The album flies into opener "Your Future Ex-Wife" setting the ground for what's to come - high energy guitar and drums, almost vulnerable sounding vocals - and a catchiness that is on the verge of taking root in your ears and staying there.
Despite it's elegant intro, track 2 may not garner much radio play with a title like "Motherfucker".  But you know that "catchiness" thing I mentioned - I found myself singing this to myself in the queue at the Co-Op (I did try to keep the chorus quiet for fear of dis-approving looks from my fellow queuees.
And the pummeling continues - "Welcome To My World" - lyrically Duncan's world is "mildly absurd".  And that's the sort of world I enjoy.
"Tea and Sympathy" almost starts in Prog Rock territory before settling back in a laid-back groove. If it was up to me (which it isn't) I'd swap the sequence with "To Live Or Live Not" (another fine slab of power) .  I just think it would flow better to the similarly Prog afflicted "The Grim Reaper", complete with Supertramp-esque vocals and ELO harmonies.
And there nestling in the middle is my choice cut of the album - "For All We Know".  The catchiness quotient is upped again, and the band's sound fattened with washes of keyboard.
"Oh What A Lovely Day" shows the quieter, more reflective Duncan, and bolted to a repeating chorus that will return to you in moments of wistfulness.
"Ballad Of A Big Head" sticks to the template (good thing too - I'm not bored of it yet) - and this one has a guitar break, with an organ break competing over the top.  It just goes up another notch as a result.
Title track "Don't Blame Yourself" adopts/adapts the T.Rex "Get It On" riff ("adapts", not copies) and is delivered in a lower toned vocal, with added backing vocals in harmony.  This band is on fire at this stage, and there's still 4 more tracks to go.
"Came The Day" returns to the more wistful mode - it's almost a 60s doo-wop (ish) throwback, and gives that little breather before "Little Miss Understood" flies out of your speakers.  This is one that I would like to see live - the solid drums, the guitar melody playing, and that almost anthemic shout along lyric/chorus.
I'll be honest here - I'm not sure about "Dave".  Who writes a song about a TV channel?  Oh, they haven't.  It's a bright sounding stomper with some nice piano interludes.  Another breathing opportunity before closer "Jealousy".  This song takes all the previous elements of this album and combines them all in one song.  It all finishes on a high.
It's finished, and now I'm going to play it again.


Nothing up on YouTube yet, but here's the Spotify link (if it works?)
Can I draw you attention to track 7 "For All We Know" - I don't think you'll be disappointed




Thursday, 7 May 2020

Pink Floyd - The Wall

With Pink Floyd, the usual accepted order of preference is either 'Dark Side Of The Moon' or 'Wish You Were Here' - both very very good albums.
But there is more to consider:
'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' - peak psychedelic Floyd, and despite his best efforts (and those around him) Syd Barrett never soared to these heights again.
Their first run of initial post-Syd albums - 'Ummagumma', 'Atom Heart Mother', 'Meddle', 'Obscured by Clouds' - are awash with key tracks, studio experimentation and ongoing growth.  Many cite 'Meddle' as the pick of the bunch (and as it houses "Echoes" is not a bad choice at all).
This is followed by those 2 monolithic efforts ('Dark Side Of The Moon' and 'Wish You Were Here'), before their tenth album in as many years - the under-rated 'Animals'.
And then the discography arrives at 'The Wall' - my personal favourite.  Opinions vary, and in some areas of the interweb this one is varyingly referred to as "weak" or "the runt of the litter".  Poppycock!  It is a superb double album, and unlike some double albums it doesn't drag on, revert to a bit of filler, or and outstay it's welcome.
Everyone has their own favourites, but I'm here to tell you you're all wrong.
The Pink Floyd album is 'The Wall'.
From the quiet slow build of "In The Flesh?", to the slow fade of "Outside The Wall", it's always an enjoyable 1 hour 20 minutes.
(and to give a whole new meaning to the definition of a concept album as a song cycle, there is an attempted perpetual loop, and the last phrase uttered over the fade out of "Outside The Wall" - "Isn't this where we came in?" - is the first phrase you hear at the start of the album.)
It's damn near perfect.  And if you add "When The Tigers Broke Free" (which was used in the film, and subsequently appeared 'The Final Cut'), then it would be even perferecter.


Despite having sold shed-loads of their previous 2 albums (resulting in further sales of their earlier efforts), and having just completed a massively lucrative Stadium tour, Pink Floyd were very nearly broke.  An investment company, charged with reducing their Tax Liabilities, had invested in high-risk areas which hadn't paid off.  Each member was facing Tax Bills at the rate of 85%.
They needed a big selling album, and pretty quickly too.

Resulting from Roger Waters feeling of alienation form the audience now they were playing in stadiums, the original concept was one of two he presented to the band when they returned to the recording studio.
(The other concept was later recycled for his solo album 'The Pros and Cons Of Hitchhiking').
The band had produced their last albums themselves, but this time Roger Waters brought in Bob Ezrin to provide a certain independence, focus, and to help manage the workload in the time available.

Recording started at Floyd's own Britannia Row studios, but they soon decamped (due to the threat of the Tax Bills) to 2 studios in France - one which did the instrumental recording, and the other where Roger Waters recorded his vocals.  They then made use of various studios across the US to finish and shape the album.
Throughout the whole process, the bands relationships were deteriorating with Roger Waters becoming more and more controlling of the project (well, it was his concept after all).  This controlling including not giving Bob Ezrin due credit for his shaping and focussing of the story, constant badgering of David Gilmour for material (and then often discarding what was presented to him), and eventually the sacking of keyboardist Rick Wright - he appears on the album but as a session musician, rather than a full member.

Now for the concept - The Wall is the story of a generic Rock Star (it's suggested it is part Syd Barrett, part Roger Waters, part made up).
Always intended to be a film, as the Project progressed the Film idea was gradually dropped.  Until 1982 when Alan Parker professed a desire to film it.
Now, despite there being no dialogue, quite "arty" in delivery, and includes swathes of Gerald Scarfe animation which are both connected and dis-connected to the story, the film does a better job of expounding the concept than the album does, or my bumbled attempts below could ever do.

Young boy loses father at the fag-end of World War II.  His childhood and School life are not the easiest, and feelings of alienation, detachment, and like he's missing something begin. He's gradually withdrawing into himself and building a metaphorical wall to block out the fear of his past (and probably his future too).
In a leap from his young self to his adult self,  as a Rock Star now, the flashbacks and concerns continue.  His wife's infidelity (learned while he is on tour) leads to a full scale meltdown, a trashing of his hotel room - his Wall is now complete.  The outside world can't get him now.
But ... has he done the right thing?  Even locked in, the depression continues (shown in the film as the moment he shaves of all body hair), and then a descent into a drug-induced coma.
However, he still has a job to do, and his Manager gets a paramedic to give him a shot.  This creates the hallucination that he is leading a facist dictator with the power to assemble a master race.  As this part of his character continue, and insanity becomes stronger ,an inner monolgue tells him to remove the wall, and return to humanity.
(see, I told you I couldn't write it down and make any sense)

The motherload here is from Roger Waters pen - it is a very personal concept and song set.  Come of the recording conflict was down to the band feeling it was too personal, and becoming something of a Waters solo album.  David Gilmour did get 3 songs on the album, and also appears as a co-write credit on many others.
But despite all the conflict and fighting, every song sounds buffed up and fitting - there is no gap filling, or knock-off tracks to fit the concept and storyline.

From 'Meddle' to the last notes of 'The Wall', they have produced a run of highly individual, highly crafted, and (the only true descriptive term) "very Floyd-y".  Every track is recognisable as their work, but this was the last hurrah.
'The Wall' also gave them their only Number 1 single in the UK and the US with "Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)" - indeed this was the last Number 1 single of the 1970s in the UK - quite fitting for a band who were one the most successful of the decade.
Pedant's Note:  They obviously DO need education because of their use of the double-negative in "Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)"

They did manage one more full album ('The Final Cut' - which was even closer to a Waters solo album) before relationships soured completely, and Court cases, recriminations, claims of copyright about inflatable pigs, and general sniping (mainly from Roger Waters towards David Gilmour and Nick Mason) clouded most of the 80s.
The Pink Floyd name returned in 1987 with 'Momentary Lapse Of Reason' (featuring only David Gilmour and Nick Mason - and on the face of it done to get one back at Roger Waters who said that he owned the name.  But, as he wasn't using it at the time, how can he stop 2 original members performing under the banner).  This is not a bad album by any stretch of the imagination, but it just doesn't have the Floyd feel about it.  1994s 'The Division Bell' (with Richard Wright restored to the line uo) was closer, but still not quite right somehow.

With all the history, there was more chance of The Beatles or The Jam getting back together on stage than Pink Floyd (all four of them) treading the boards together again.
Until Bob Geldof (who had starred in the film version of 'The Wall') came calling - would Pink Floyd like to appear at the Live 8 Concert in Hyde Park?
This took some doing - Waters and Gilmour had not spoken for more than 2 years, and initial contact was hesitant.  However, they did eventually agree and went into rehersals together.  Had they learned new levels of tolerance whilst apart?  Apparently not - a lot of the old clashes re-surfaced, but for the sake of the concert they kept going.  Disagreements about the chosen songs, tempos, instrumentation, introductions, even who stood where on stage threatened.  The final setlist was apparently not agreed until the night before.
The set that night consisted of 3 tracks from 'Dark Side Of The Moon', the title track from 'Wish You Were Here', and to rapturous applause "Comfortably Numb" was lifted from The Wall, and remains the last track performed by the 4 members together.
If they chose that track for their (unexpected) final performance together, I think it shows the esteem 'The Wall' should be held in.


When The Tigers Broke Free (it's not on the album, but I think it should be)




In The Flesh?

Comfortably Numb

Sunday, 26 April 2020

The Dark Side Of Madness

With a name taken from a Prince Buster track, a sound built firmly on Ska rhythms, and their debut single ( a paean to Prince Buster) appearing on Two Tone - Jerry Dammers label built on equality (primarily racial equality) - ir's fair to say there's nowt racist about Madness.  So why was a large element of their core following made up of the right-wing skinhead fraternity?
Complete bloody mystery.  I can see no logical reason why the skinhead revival of the late 70s/early 80s took the style and culture (and music) of the original skinheads, and became so entrenched in hate.

Madness took this music, anglicised it, applied a dollop of pop sheen, wrote about their life around them, and pretty much perfected the 3 minute pop single in the early 80s.  They may only have had one Number 1 single ("House Of Fun" (1982)) but their songs, and personality, were everywhere.
So much so, that when they returned after a period of absence in 1991, an earthquake was recorded in Finsbury Park.
Further re-unions, tours and new recordings followed - at this stage of their careers, it's probably right to say that they can now be considered as "National Treasures" - not bad going for a group of tearaways from Camden Town.

But it's not all about That Nutty Sound - scratch the surface of some of their songs, and there's a real darkness there which is not always obvious once the music is layed over the top, and the words sung back to them a gigs and festivals.

So lets start with track 1 of 'Complete Madness' - the 1982 compilation that collected the last 3 years worth of singles, and probably marks a point where the band started to believe there may be a career in this.  'Complete Madness' also contains "House Of Fun" - a song about buying rubber johnnies hidden in a knockabout tune that seems to be talking about a fair ground.  Not dark, but amusing in it's mis-interpretation.

"Embarrassment" is an upbeat tune wedded to a real life tale of Lee Thompson's sister mixed race pregnancy, and the response of his mum.  This can be read as a plea for racial harmony in much the same way as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder did a couple of years later singing about being side-by-side and living in a piano.
And a couple of singles later, they were back in less than happy worlds with "Grey Day".  Like "Embarrassment" this went Top 5, but deals with darker things - if you stop and listen to the lyrics, you can hear a cry of anguish in there.  Everybody's favourite subject at the school disco.
And then let's add a jaunty tune about a commuter having a heart attack - "Cardiac Arrest".  The clue is in the title, but his is not your average pop song subject matter.
If (as I suggest) 'Complete Madness' closes Part 1, then the album that followed in late-82 showed what this bunch of Nutty Boys were capable of.  'The Rise And Fall' not only contains (possibly) their best known track in "Our House" (whether by accident or design it was placed in the middle of the album) it also contains another Top 10 single in the shape of "Tomorrow's Just Another Day".

Now on the face of it, and according to the video, this is a song of hope for better times to come.
And if the video is to be believed, it's about being stuck in prison.
Well, I'm going to offer a darker interpretation here: it is about being stuck inside, but stuck inside oneself, when all around you people are telling you to look forward, because whatever it is that you feel Tommorrow is another day.
I'm taking it as Part 2 of "Grey Day".  In that one, they sang "I wish I could sink without a trace", here they;'re singing "Down and down there is no up, I think that I've run out of luck"
OK, maybe I'm being a bit harsh here, and it is just a song of hope set in a prison.  But, there is a slower bluesier, jazzier, sombre-er version with Elvis Costello on the 12", which gives a clue that it might not be quite so simple.

The album 'Keep Moving' was next, and butted up with the Nutty sounds of "Wings Of A Dove" and "Driving In My Car" were a couple of tracks not quite so carefree.
"Michael Caine" is a song about an IRA informer who is given witness protection, and spends his days constantly on his guard.
And then you get 2 songs which are effectively updated versions of Ralph McTell's "Streets Of London".
"Victoria Gardens" may not be properly dark, but it's refrain "wishing, hoping, things are changing for the better" is not coming from the happiest of places.  This was to be the last single released from the album, but was swapped out for equally sparse "One Better Day".
The video conveys the story of the song (albeit tempered slightly by the first few "Madness style" seconds).  But for all the down tone and minor key, there is redemption in this song, and a certain amount of joy in the final chorus.

Between 'Keep Moving' and next album 'Mad Not Mad', keyboard basher Mike Barson departed, and his input is sorely missed.  It's not a bad album, it just misses one the ingredients that makes Madness Madness.  Their is a general downward sombre tone about the album, complete with its monochrome serious looking sleeve.  And the songs therein continue the theme.  It's a pretty gloomy affair on the whole, but does have some redeeming features.
Madness being dark?  The song 'Yesterdays Men' has a real air of resignation about it, almost like they know they're time is up.  The song "I'll Compete" expresses a desire to carry on playing the game, but you just know that underneath they probably don't believe it.
As it transpires, within a year of the release of the album, the band were no more.  Some of the band did reconvene in 1988 as The Madness (to very modest success), but it was that day at Finsbury Park, and subsequent re-unions that eventually spurred the band to return to recording in 1999.  'Wonderful' marked a return to the sound the public know and loved, and was now with added experience and musical chops.
And the first single to be lifted from it was "Lovestruck" - Madness returned to the Top 10 with an uplifting sing-a-long tune ...about alcoholism.

"Hey You, don't watch that watch this.  This is the Heavy Heavy Monster sound (with some heavy heavy subject matter you may not have noticed)"


Tomorrows Just Another Day (featuring Elvis Costello)


One Better Day


Lovestruck

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

U2 - Rattle & Hum

There are some bands that can be quite divisive.  Discussion about them will tend to be at the 2 ends of the spectrum - you wither love 'em, or hate 'em
(Maybe hate is too strong a word?).
Obvious examples are (in my experience) Simple Minds, Coldplay and The Corrs.
And here's another ... U2 - their case obviously not helped by Bono's self-belief that he is an ambassador of good-will and good causes, yet will buy an extra ticket on Concorde to transport his hat, and has a "novel" way of paying taxes due to his homeland.
Let's not hey bogged down in the "tosser or not a tosser" argument, let's just say that they have produced some very good music, and very good albums in their time in the spotlight.
And this one - 'Rattle and Hum' - was probably their peak statement.

Until Bono went for a little wander at Live Aid, U2 were not universally known.  Their first couple of albums ('Boy' and 'October') sold relatively well - although 'October' does suffer from "second album syndrome" feeling a bit rushed and shorter on quality than the debut.
Third album - 'War' - sold in large numbers, helped by two big singles lifted from it ("New Years Day" and "Two Hearts Beat As One").  Their next album - the live "Under A Blood Red Sky" - both enhanced, and re-enforced, their live reputation. It also led to renewed interest in their back catalogue.
For their next album, they employed the services of Brian Eno as producer (and sonic architect?).  At this stage, Brian Eno was not the "go to" producer, or all round polymath egghead he is now.
The single "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" reached the upper end of the charts, got the band wider public recognition, and earned Bono a solo vocal spot on the Band Aid single.
And having been on the single, the band were invited to perform at Live Aid - albeit at 5:30 when (after 5 and half hours, the audience were flagging a bit).  They were due to play 3 songs, but because Bono went for a wander, "Bad" lasted around 15 minutes, and "Pride" was dropped.
That little walk though, completely changed the bands recognition and career trajectory.  So much so,  that their next album proper ('The Joshua Tree') was a major event, with major sales to match - even if it isn't that great (oo - controversial!).
Yes, there are some great songs here, but it's very front loaded (courtesy of Kirsty MacColl), and as a result sort of runs out of steam.
Still, U2 were now (probably) the biggest band in the world, as can be seen by the size of the sales, and the size of the tour embarked on to support the album.

And it was on this tour that the idea of the film first up - billed as "U2 Discover America".  The film is an interesting document of a relatively naive band "finding their roots" (what a terrible pitch on my part that is).
The album is more than just a live document - it's half live / half studio (some emanating from sessions at Sun Studios in Memphis).  There were also cover versions ("Helter Shelter" and "All Along The Watchtower") plus a co-write with Bob Dylan ("Love Rescue Me" - Dylan's original vocal was not used at his request) and a duet with BB King ("Love Comes To Town").
It also spawned their first Number One single in "Desire" and the part biographical/part (mostly) tribute to Billie Holliday - "Angel of Harlem".

Released in late 1988, it just felt like a more complete album than The Joshua Tree.  An element of U2's bombast of old was replaced by a more soulful approach, but still rocked along like a good 'un,
And also in the film you can see the characters and personalities of the bands develop - the eocker, the quiet one, the muso, the ego.  No prizes for guessing the owner of the ego - yes, you can see the first stirrings on celluloid.  In a couple of years time, this ego would rise to the level of "insufferable" - although I think he has reined it in in recent years.

'Rattle and Hum' may not be breaking new ground musically, but does contain many tropes that would stand them in good stead for future releases - the slow build and trebly guitar would be an oft repeated trick.  This album probably marks the point when they knew they now had the time, the freedom, and the audience, to try and be a bit different.  Certainly subsequent album went off in different directions, but when they when they remain rooted in rock (with diversions into blues and soul) is when their at their best.
'Rattle and Hum' is one of the best Rock albums of 1988.  I'm not going to say the best, because there are many other contenders, but pound-for-pound, track-for-track, it does not fall short.

Angel Of Harlem


All I Want Is You



Monday, 6 April 2020

Block 33 - 6:36 To Liverpool Street

Well, that was unfortunate timing - after a time spent building an audience, Facebook followers, and YouTube views, Block 33 unleash their debut album (to be supported by an Album Launch Party at the 100 Club) at the start of April.
But with the world in lockdown, the Album Launch Party is deferred to September.
The album did come out as planned though - and it ain't bad at all.  It's had a fair few spins, and there is a very high possibility this will be in the Year End lists.  It's a definite contender.

The official narrative (from the bands Facebook page):
Block 33 are a brand new mod revival band from the South of England. The band are a familiar mix of Energetic driven guitars, rolling bass, charging punk rhythms & quintessentially British, rasping yet melodic vocals that altogether make for a nostalgic sound catered for fans of the modernist subculture. 

Note the word "Energetic".
Yes, oh yes.  There's plenty of Energy here.

11 tracks all meeting the criteria/description above, with a blend of the familiar and the new.
Do you want a simple redux description:  Take the drive of Oasis, top notch songwriting and playing, add a bit of retro-Britpop, and it's getting somewhere near.
The band say themselves "Mod Revival" - now the first reference there will probably be The Jam - I reckon this is nearer to the oeuvre of The Chords - the honesty, the accent and the slight towards a fuller rock sound.
I don't like doing the redux-comparisons - believing that bands and their music should stand on their own.  And this should be no exception.

"Hit The Ground" kicks the album off, and could easily be titled "Hit The Ground Running" because that's exactly what it does.  No slow build or long intro to drag you into the bands groove.  Just BANG! and you're in.
And if it was possible, the energy is turned up another notch with "Eye Of The Hurricane" - to these ears the best of a very good bunch.
And then it just continues to bowl along.

Energetic driven guitars - Check
rolling bass - Check
charging punk rhythms - Check
quintessentially British - Check
rasping yet melodic vocals - Check

Those claims are well and truly fulfilled.  And just to help out this old duffer, the listener is offered a slight breather from all the bouncing with some acoustic and/or downbeat moments - "Lucky Day" and "Beaten" being two good examples - although "Beaten" soon rises to a rising powerful chorus.
But catch your breath, because it's all going off again soon after.
The two closing tracks could almost be partners - "High Street Blues" mourns the loss of the High Street with it's closed down shops and closed down feel, all bolted to a full-on thrash.
"For Those Who Know" seems to extend the thought to one of Escape and/or loss.  This track is another of those more reflective grooves, but with no loss of power or message. There's even a string section somewhere in there.  Despite it's rousing chorus, it all stays nicely reined in.

All this not going out stuff needs diversions, and Block 33 have certainly provided one for me.  It's got a retro feel, a familiarity, but also enough about it to make we want to champion it to anyone who'll listen.
And if this lockdown thing get's lifted in time, I may well be searching for tickets to the 100 Club in September.

Eye Of The Hurricane


(These Days Are) The Good Old Days

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Still Crazy

"Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais" is a virtual stamp of quality.
They're responsible for The Likely Lads (and Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads), Porridge, Going Straight, Auf Wiedershen Pet, The Commitments, Flushed Away and The Bank Job.
They also wrote this - the story of a defunct 70s Rock Band reforming for a second shot at glory.

In 1977, Strange Fruit - who had achieved moderate success - appeared at the Wisbech Festival with Mott The Hoople and Little Feat.
Original frontman Keith Lovell had died a couple of years previously, to be replaced by Ray Simms.  Relationships with other members - Les Wicks (bass), Beano Baggott (drums), Tony Costello (keyboards) and Brain Lovell (guitar) - were strained, and this Festival was to be their last ever performance.

Twenty years later, a holidaymaker (who also happens to be the son of the original promoter of the Wisbech Festival) meets Tony Costello in Ibiza.  He tells of a plan to re-stage the Festival with the original bands, and asks Tony if Strange Fruit would appear.
Tony's first contact is Karen - their Wardrobe back in the day.  Between them, they set about tracking the others down.
Ray they find in his Rock Star Mansion (with a hidden For Sale sign) - at first he's reluctant to join up citing his work on his solo album.
Les now has a roofing business - and is initially even more reluctant than Ray.  Until he climbs into his loft, finds his old bass guitar, and then has a "why not" moment.
Beano, who now works in a Garden nursery (and lives in a caravan at the bottom of his mum's garden), is more than happy to go back on the road and escape the Inland Revenue who are on his tail.
Their old Road Manager, Soundman, and undying supporter, Huey is brought out of retirement, and brings stories and memorabilia of the band's past.
Guitarist Brian is nowhere to be found - presumed dead.
As Record Company interest has been stoked (sort of) - a tour is arranged for Holland, meaning a new guitarist is needed.  From the auditions a young hopeful (probably half the average of the band) is hired.
The tour has a shaky shaky start, with confusion about the key the songs are in, when to start and stop, and general audience apathy.  And then one night right at the end of the tour - as is the way of films - it all comes together, and they are ready for a return to Wisbech.
Whilst in Holland, Ray falls through the ice on a frozen canal, and sees vision of Brian - he's somewhat freaked (as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who's just fallen off the wagon would be).
Also in Holland, Les starts plying on old song - "The Flame Still Burns" - in a supposedly empty tour bus.  The guitarist hears the song and asks Huey why it is not part of the act.  According to Huey, the song - written by Les and Brian - is no longer played because Les doesn't like Ray's treatment of the song, and Ray won't let Les sing it on stage.
In another fortuitous moment for plot chronology, the day after they return from Holland is the anniversary of Keith's death.  Karen visits the grave and finds a card saying "Love You Man, Brian".
Now this could be a crank, or it might actually be Brian (returned from the dead, or never went there in the first place).  She confronts Huey who admits he has been protecting him.  Huey reluctantly tells Karen where he is, and she goes to visit him - convincing him to put in an appearance with the reformed Fruits.

And so they arrive at Wisbech, all fired up and fully reformed.  The Press Conference starts well enough, and then Brian gets more and more uncomfortable with the constant questioning and walks out, and announces he will not be playing.
A stunned Strange Fruit take to the stage to mild applause, and commence an out of tune, out of time, ramshackle performance.
And then, Tony Costello plays the opening chords to the "Flame Still Burns", Ray allows Les to take the vocal.
The crowd noise dies away, and all eyes are on stage.  At the point of the guitar solo, Brian straps on his guitar, and reluctantly takes to the stage, plays the solo like a pro, and the crowd are in raptures at the return of the greatest Prog Rock band of the 70s that no-one has heard of.
For all it's cliche, it is a truly triumphant ending to a film.
As the credits roll, the voiceover comes in, reminding us, the viewer, that not everything in the world of Strange Fruit runs smoothly:
"and how are they going to bollocks it up this time?"

Just what is it that makes this film so good?
1. It's written by Clement and La Frenais - rarely does anything bearing those names disappoint
2, It has a great cast, and avoids the inclusion of a big name (and a big salary) to pull the punters in - and each and everyone put in a convincing performance
3. Unlike some other period films, this has an original soundtrack where some effort was spent on the songs - rather than just creating a simple pastiche, or just re-cycling old tracks.
The main man on the soundtrack was Chris Difford, ably supported by Clive Langer, Russ Ballard, and Foreigner's Mick Jones.  There’s also a couple of Jeff Lynne co-writes (with Ian La Frenais).


The trailer:


All Over The World:


The Flame Still Burns:

Monday, 23 March 2020

The Sweeney vs The Professionals

Who would win in a fight?
Well, The Sweeney would.  Regan and Carter would get stuck in while Bodie would stand there and look menacing whilst Doyle would run away scared of getting his curly hair ruffled.

I work a 9 day fortnight, meaning I get every other Friday off work.  I still do the normal 37 hours per week (or 72 hours per fortnight), just spread over 9 days
(Actually, working "just" 37 hours per week would be welcome at the moment - average week = 45+)

So .. on these lazy Fridays, I like nothing more than getting up at normal time (my OCD does not allow a lie-in on a (once) normal working day, possibly going up the road for a big greasy fried breakfast in the local cafe, and then returning home to veg out for a bit on the sofa.
Daytime (morning time?) TV is not exactly the greatest, and I could probably watch endless episodes of Top Gear on Dave, save for the fact I think I've seen every episode at least 15 times already.
Just a bit further up the Programme Guide sits ITV4, and those Friday mornings offer Minder followed by The Sweeney followed by The Professionals.

Minder is the story of wheeling and dealing Arthur Daley and his sidekick/muscle Terry McCann.
It's basically the same conceit as Only Fools And Horses - 2 people stuck together, for better or for worse, trying to get through life by trying to turn a profit out of unremarkable merchandise.  Both Arfur and Del-Boy are prone to malapropisms ("The world is your lobster"), and both Terry and Rodney want to be doing the right thing, but find themselves caught up in the others dodgy dealing.

But we're here to compare and contrast 2 Police procedural dramas from a similar time period (The Sweeney ran from 1975 to 1978, and The Professionals from 1977 to 1983).
So who is Top Of The Cops?

The Sweeney was commissioned following a one-off ITV Drama - Regan - in 1974.  The one-off was written by Ian Kennedy-Martin (whose elder brother, Troy, had created Z Cars and written The Italian Job.  Troy also wrote half a dozen episodes, and co-wrote the second Sweeney film).
There's something "gritty" and real about The Sweeney - when first aired, there were cries of "too real" from serving Flying Squad officers.
The Professionals was created by Brian Clemens - the creator of The Avengers and The New Avengers - and was set in a more fictionalised world - Criminal Intelligence 5 (CI5) was a government agency charged with those cases that fell somewhere between MI5/MI6 and the Police force.
The Sweeney has been a personal favourite since I first saw a slew of repeats around 1984.
Box Set TV? I bought the DVD Box Set (14 Discs, plus the 2 films, and happily gorged my way through it.  And now continue to watch repeat episodes whenever they're on (although ITV4 have a habit of getting confused and play the same episodes in quick succession).
I never really took to The Professionals first time round (or at any other time - it was many years before it was repeated) - it now looks more dated than The Sweeney, despite starting as The Sweeney was ending), the characters seemed less real, and the storylines err on the fantastical - could there really be a terrorist attack or politically motivated kidnapping every week?

But I Started watching, and being a particular fan of the "Police Procedural Drama" a bit I got hooked.

The Characters
The Sweeney:
Jack Regan - Hard drinking, hard smoking, hard talking, basically "hard".  But always fair, and you would be glad of him in your corner.
George Carter - Fiercely loyal, but always looking to get on - if he could ever break free from Regan's shadow
Frank Haskins - The Guv's Guv.  Head of The Flying Squad - what he says goes, no matter how much Regan argues about it.  Behind his back, Regan and Carter make no secret of their dislike of authority, but in front of him, they know who's the boss.

The Professionals:
Bodie - ex-Army / SAS.  Carried himself like a proper hardman.  If he hadn't been in the Police Force, he probably would've been a Nightclub bouncer.
Doyle - Like chalk to Bodie's cheese - trendy looking (he had a perm), fashionable, and likes the finer things in life, and an eye for the ladies.  Where Bodie was gung ho, always wanting to storm in, Doyle was more measured in his approach
Cowley - the big boss man.  Friends in high places,and a distinguished military career behind him, Cowley was the man in charge of CI5 and responsible for hand picking the best of the best,  His job was to think about the situation, strategise, and instruct the action to take,  And he was usually right.

And there you can see an obvious difference - The Sweeney actually had first names.  The Professionals did, but I don't think they were mentioned that often (if at all).


The Storylines
The Sweeney concern themselves with dodgy characters, career villains, and blaggings.  Just what the Flying Squad at Scotland Yard were doing in the mid-70s.
What makes The Sweeney (slightly) different to other Police dramas, is that they didn't always win.  Yup, sometimes the crooks got the upper hand.
As The Professionals were a part of a fictional organisation, the crimes they fought were also of the fictional kind - not veering into complete fantasy, but unlikely events seemed to occur every week (a kidnapped diplomat, a blackmailed South African diamond merchant, a madman setting up a vigilante army). Professionals stories were wrapped up inside the hour, and usually took a jump of logic to nicely tie everything together (often involving a fight or car chase), before the freeze frame of the 3 main protagonists half-smiling and looking pleased.

The Sweeney storylines might actually happen, most of The Professionals storylines need a leap of faith to believe there will be a terrorist gunfight in Windsor High Street, or a group of Russian soldiers will parachute onto Clapham Common and attempt to overthrow the Government.

The Cars
The main Sweeney vehicle used (and seen in the opening credits) is not (as often thought) a Ford Granada, but the slightly lower specced the Ford Consul variant (registration: NHK 295M).
Most of the cars and vans used were the property of Euston Films, and were strategically placed, or used and used again.  An example here is the Mark 2 Jaguar in the opening credits (registration DWD606C) - this can be seen in at least 2 other episodes.
The Professionals started out with Triumph Dolomites (and other British Leyland supplied vehicles).  However, they soon switched to Ford when BL couldn't guarantee supply vehicles.
And so we get to see the iconic Silver and Gold Ford Capris.
They also did the "re-use" of vehicles thing - in a couple of episodes is a Rover SD1 that bears a striking resemblance (and number plate) to one used recently in The New Avengers.

No doubting this round - much as I love the Ford Consul / Ford Granada, the Ford Capri is just cool - it was when I was a kid, and it still is now.

The Production Values
Sweeney uses 16mm film stock,rather than standard video usually used for TV shows.  This meant when it made the jump to the big screen (Sweeney and Sweeney 2), the aesthetic of the show didn't change greatly.
The Professionals used common TV video film, and now playing on HD TVs, it just looks a bit grainy and dated (the fact it would've been filmed in 4:3 ratio, and is now remapped to widescreen (16:9) probably doesn't help it much either.

Locations
The Sweeney was mostly in West London, centred around Hammersmith.  Although they did manage to make it out as far as Staines, Esher and Wokingham in a couple of episodes.
The Professionals seemingly had no fixed location (Anytown, UK?), although Central London, Whitehall buildings, and Docklands popped up regularly.  For countryside location shots, they often went to Hotels or Golf Clubs in Buckinghamshire (including, on at least 2 occasions, Stoke Poges Golf Club (also used in Goldfinger))
I have had for a long time a fascination with suburban London, and most of the locations used in The Sweeney are no longer there - but that hasn't stopped me looking for them

The Firearms
The Sweeney had access to firearms when needed, but most of the stories involved policing/detecting without the need to shoot the baddies.Sweeney - when needed
The Professionals on the other hand seemed to be permanently tooled up.  Bodie always had a look of glee when presented with a new toy.  And there was usually a fire-fight to round off that weeks story.

The Guest Stars
The Sweeney had the pulling power, even getting Morecambe and Wise to appear in one episode.  Other well known names in the credits include Brian Blessed, Colin Welland, Roy Kinnear, Warren Mitchell, Lynda Bellingham, Patrick Mower, and Diana Dors.
The Sweeney also manged to pull in 2 future Blue Peter presenters - Tina Heath and Janet Ellis.
The Professionals didn't have quite the same stellar support cast.  Series 1 did feature Geoffrey Palmer and a pre-Poirot David Suchet, and the 4th series does contain appearances by Stephen Berkoff and Pierce Brosnan, but after that supporting roles are filled by bit-part actors of the day (Pamela Stephenson does manage to appear as 3 different characters in 3 different series)

The Theme Tunes
Harry South vs Laurie Johnson and The London Studio Orchestra
(this can also be defined as respected Jazz pianist versus the bloke who wrote the theme to Animal Magic).
The Sweeney theme follows the golden rule for TV Themes in that, although there are no words, the title of the show can be recited over the music.
The Professional theme is a funky little number that works perfectly with the visuals for the opening credits.  Problem I have with it is that it isn't as earwormy as The Sweeney (and I often get it confused with the theme to T.J.Hooker and/or Starsky and Hutch).




The Legacy
There were some contract wrangles which prevented The Professionals being repeated on terrestrial TV for a long time - this can't have served it's memory and retro-enjoyment that well.
The Sweeney has been through the repeat cycle (and repeats of repeats), and has become representative of 70s Police dramas, and is undoubtedly the inspiration to Life On Mars (Gene Hunt is an overblown, Mancunian version of Jack Regan - hard but fair, and what time are the pubs open?).
The Professionals were immortalised in a Two Ronnies sketch, but their lasting legacy (for me) is the parody produced by the Comic Strip Team The Bullshitters with the two main characters named Bonehead and Foyle.  They took every nuance of the show (the sensitive Doyle and hardcase Bodie, the overwrought mannerisms of Cowley, the highly accurate lab information detailing height, weight and hair colour of a voice on a tape.  It is difficult to watch The Professionals without that one in the back of my mind.
Bonehead and Foyle returned, along with Shouting George from The Weeny in a later Comic Strip outing - Detectives On The Edge Of A Nervous Breakdown - which brought in many other TV cops as well.



As I said above, I have watched (and re-watched) The Sweeney several times - and will continue to do so.
I was never taken by The Professionals, but the few I have seen recently have changed my view.
It looks like I'll have a bit of time to properly catch up with it now.