Sunday, 18 September 2016

40 Years Of Punk - 1977

"In 1977 I hope I go to heaven ...
... No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones"

So sang an ex-Pub Rocker who'd had an epiphany whilst watching the Sex Pistols, an ex-member of London SS, and a bass player with a love of reggae how exuded cool and attitude".
This was The Clash and, after the birthing of Punk, there were high hopes for the new year.

If 1976 was it's birth, and 1978 considered to be Punk death throes, then 1977 can be defined as it's lifetime, or can it?
1977 is often hailed as the year of Punk, but I contend that by the Summer Punk as a "concept" (at least in it's original form) was all but over.  It had started to splinter into various sub-forms, it became a catch all term for anything with a guitar and the slightest bit of attitude or difference from the norm, and as a result of media mis-reporting and major record label involvement, became a parody/cartoon of itself.

Following the Sex Pistols Bill Grundy Interview, Punk, or at least "the concept" of Punk became part of common vocabulary.
The mass media focussed clearly on the scandal angle, often enhancing stories to include fighting on stage, vomiting at airports and generally behaving obnoxiously.
The major record labels, always looking for a quick buck, started signing anything and anything in sight that appeared to be vaguely "Punk".

In January 1977, Buzzcocks released their debut EP Spiral Scratch - it was entirely self financed and self distributed.  This record embraced the DIY ethic to the full by being the first truly independent record released with no backing from record companies.  This release signalled a change to the Business Model and showed other smaller bands that if they could raise £500, they too could have their own record.
Record Companies started firstly sh*tting themselves when it became clear that they weren't actually needed, and it was possible for small bands to release their own records, retaining full control of their material and their destiny.  And then they started wetting themselves and signing up everything vaguely "Punk", in the hope of finding the next "big thing" and turning a quick buck.
The major labels were now getting in on the act (despite EMIs bad experience with the Sex Pistols).
The Clash signed to CBS, Buzzcocks and The Stranglers with United Artists, and (not really punk, but caught up in it) The Jam got a deal with Polydor (they missed out signing the Pistols so moved the world to sign The Jam (albeit on the cheap)).  The Pistols themselves found a deal at A&M, briefly.  Their contract was cancelled (sacked?) less than a fortnight later, and ended up on Virgin.

The Damned completed another "first" when in February they released the first UK Punk album ('Damned Damned Damned'), and by the end of March they were the first Punk Band to tour America.

By middle of year,  Punk as a musical genre is re-invented under the catch-all term New Wave, encompassing all those artists that were on the periphery and then caught up in it all as Record labels and the media indulged in "blanket" labelling which really didn't fit.
Artists like The Jam, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker whilst buying into, or portraying the attitude and ethos, just weren't in the same league as the original (and emerging Punks) but had received a massive leg-up by the whole movement.  Even old pub rockers like Dr Feelgood (whose lead singer had loaned the money to start Stiff Records) and Nick Lowe (Stiff's "in house" producer) came to the attention of more than 23 people in  the Tally Ho pub.
This revision of genre also meant the US bands, operating a similar attitude and sometimes viewed as progenitors for UK Punk were gaining airplay and media write-ups.  Bands like Blondie, Talking Heads and Television who share little DNA with the UK Punks, but are now happily mentioned in the same paragraph.
Arguably, The Clash, and probably The Stranglers, sat more in this group of artists than they did with the "standard" Punk set as they offered a broader musical view than many of their contemporaries.

Spring of 1977 saw debut albums from The Clash, The Stranglers and The Jam.
Bands were forming all over the country, with The Skids in Scotland and Stiff Little Fingers in Northern Ireland.  A tougher sounding version was being presented by the likes of UK Subs, Sham 69, 999, Angelic Upstarts (this sound and outlook would give rise to the terms "Street Punk" and "Oi" which would form the basis of (what is now referred to as) the Second Wave Of Punk the following year.)
And Punk (or New Wave, or whatever it was now being called) was getting all political with the sloganeering of The Clash. the anrcharcistic beliefs of Crass and the socio-political reportage (against a hybrid Punk, Funk, Dub soundscape) of the Gang Of Four.  And Wire did something else with the Punk template, by expanding it further and creating a sort of Post-Punk sound before Punk was even ended (so how can you be Post-(something) when you're still in phase one?).

June 1977 marked the Silver Jubilee.  Now with a Record Label, the Sex Pistols (without the "sacked" Glen Matlock, and now featuring the "musically limited" Sid Vicious on bass) released "God Save The Queen".  This song dates from late 1976, and was written by John Lydon with no clue that the Silver Jubilee was about to take place (well, I believe him).
The apparent dis-respect shown caused another bout of knicker wetting in the media, and calls for all those involved with the band, the record label, or Punk in general to be shunned and brought to justice as traitors.
The record was banned by the BBC, other radio stations followed suit and refused to play it (at least within "normal programming times") and record shops refused to stock the treasonous article.
What happens when the BBC bans a record?  It starts to sell in huge quantities, which is exactly what happened - although buyers probably had to visit 2 or 3 shops before they found a supply of this illicit item.
There have been many accusations/suggestions that the charts were rigged to prevent "God Save The Queen" being Number 1.
The truth may never be fully uncovered - but in an interview (somewhere?) Richard Branson has said that he was in regular contact with the Chart compilers, and Rod Stewart was indeed outselling the Sex Pistols in that week.  So no rigging involved - but it does make a better story.
This was only their second single in 6 months, and the (possibly) most recognised and acknowledged "leaders" were lagging behind their peers in terms of product.

Punks by association (ie they were there at the start, and played the 100 Club Festival), The Vibrators released their debut album 'Pure Mania' in July.  When it comes to a review of 1977, The Vibrators offering is often forgotten.
And another non-Punk, but caught up in it all Elvis Costello released his debut at around the same time.

By August, the band responsible for (a) bringing the Sex Pistols outside of London, and (b) releasing the first independent single, signed to a major label (United Artists).  In a moment of coincidence and tivia, their signing took place on the day that Elvis Presley finally left the building (or did he?).
August also saw the release of a new album (the second of 1977) from Iggy Pop.  'Lust For Life' cemented his position of a "Godfather of Punk" and is hailed as one of the best of his solo career.

Just to prove how far Punk had burrowed it's way into the mainstream, the BBC had Derek Nimmo visit Seditionaries in late summer, and asked "so what is Punk?".
This clash of cultures, Nationwide-esque Light Entertainment versus the (apparent) underground shows that Punk as a concept was now public property, and destined (in the eyes of mass media) to now be nothing more than a "uniform" and, as mentioned above, a cartoon and a parody of itself.




September saw The Stranglers released their second album ('No More Heroes')', Billy Idol issued his first recorded sneering in the same month with Generation X debut single "Your Generation" (also featuring ex-London SS member Tony James), and The Boomtown Rats unleashed their debut album (which was more Rolling Stones on Speed than Punk, but hey if it's got a loud guitar on it, it's Punk.  Isn't it?)
Also this month, a mysterious bootleg started appearing in record shops around West London - titled 'Spunk' this was a rough and ready recording of Sex Pistols material dating back to late 76/early 77.  There are some suggestions that this was done deliberately by Malcolm McLaren to either fill the gap of demand for Sex Pistols album, scupper the "official" release of the debut by Virgin Records the following month, or just being awkward and obtuse.  McLaren, of course, denied any involvement, but how could anyone but Glitterbest (McLarens company) get there hands on the original tapes, and why would Lyntone (the Pressing Plant who manufactured the record) risk their reputation and UK-wide contracts with Major Labels by pressing a Bootleg?

'Never Mind The Bollocks' was officially released in October and became the Number 1 selling album in the country, despite further bans and stores refusing to handle the record because of the "colourful" phrase used in the title.
But was it a Punk album?
 Call it what you like, the album is one of the greatest Rock albums ever made.

The Damned released their second album of the year in November ("Music For Pleasure" and then achieved another "first" by becoming the first Punk band to split up (another "first" would happen in early 1978 when they became the first Punk band to reform).

Was 1977 the Year Of Punk?
Well, a lot happened, many records were released, and it certainly entered the nationwide conscious.  But consider the content of the charts and output of Radio and TV.  A great many punk records were played, but did they really clear out the old order and place this new form of expression at the forefront of the nations mind?
Not if the Christmas Number One spot and Best Sellers lists were to be believed.
1977 ended with the release of Saturday Night Fever, pre-empting the rise of Disco in 1978, and the strains of Wings "Mull Of Kintyre" at the Christmas Number 1 spot, and the annual totting up of sales figures showed how much Punk had changed the musical landscape in the previous 12 months:

Best Selling Albums:
1. Abba - Arrival
2. Shadows - Golden Greats
3. Diana Ross -20 Golden Greats
4. A Star Is Born -  Soundtrack
5. Fleetwood Mac - Rumours

Best Selling Singles:
1. David Soul - Don't Give Up On Us
2. Julie Covington - Don't Cry For Me Argentina
3. Leo Sayer - When I Need You
4. David Soul - Silver Lady
5. Abba - Knowing Me Knowing You

OK, sales figures aren't the be-all and end-all of the story, and they are not going to show the seismic effect and attitude shift that came in the following years.
But despite all retrospective beliefs, 1977 was not the Year of Punk, it did not clear away all the old dinosaurs, and the only ones who did go to heaven that year were Elvis Presley, Marc Bolan, Bing Crosby and Charlie Chaplin (and others, obviously, but you get the point (hopefully ...))

Punk (as a music genre) was beloved of the inky music papers, and largely ignored (apart from the shock/horror or the Derek Nimmo type cartoon reporting) by the mainstream media.
An alternative gauge would be the NME Year End lists:

Albums:
1. Heroes - David Bowie
2. New Boots & Panties - Ian Dury
3. My Aim Is True - Elvis Costello
4. Never Mind the Bollocks - Sex Pistols
5. Marquee Moon - Television
6. Exodus - Bob Marley & the Wailers
7. The Clash - The Clash
8. Lust for Life - Iggy Pop
9. Leave Home - The Ramones
10. Rattus Norvegicus - The Stranglers

Singles:
1. Pretty Vacant - Sex Pistols
2. Watching The Detectives - Elvis Costello
3. Sex & Drugs & Rock 'N' Roll - Ian Dury
4. God Save the Queen - Sex Pistols
5. Sheena Is A Punk Rocker - The Ramones
6. Heroes - David Bowie
7. 2 4 6 8 Motorway - Tom Robinson Band
8. Waiting in Vain - Bob Marley & The Wailers
9. Do Anything You Wanna Do - The Rods
10. Alison - Elvis Costello

Full List:  http://www.rocklistmusic.co.uk/1977.html

This maybe a slightly unfair comparison, as the NME was the prime Music paper, and it's readers were going to be "into" Punk.  Deeper investigation of this charts content shows the whilst Punk certainly had an effect on readers listening, it was now co-existing (on equal footing) with established artists such as Bob Marley, Steely Dan and John Martyn.
In short, it was just another genre for peoples record collections to enjoy.

There is no doubt, and all the evidence suggests so, that Punk came of age in 1977, but it's legacy would be further reaching than a group of teenagers hanging around West London in early 1976 could've ever imagined.






Wednesday, 24 August 2016

40 Years Of Punk - In The Beginning ...

This Year marks the 40th Anniversary of Punk.
There are a number of events taking place in London which are, perhaps belatedly, recognising what happened in 1976 (and after) - from the outside, it does appear to me that these celebrations seem to be suggesting that it was a lot "bigger" than it actually was.
In terms of actual numbers of people, as stated, this was relatively few.
In terms of time (existence) it was relatively short before it all splintered, fell apart and became a cartoon pastiche of itself.
But in terms of influence, whilst not incalculable, Punks tentacles went a long way.

But what is Punk?

Is it a musical style? A fashion? An attitude? A media invention?

It is probably all of these things, and also none of these things.
Confused?  Yes, so am I.

When did it start?
Personally, I don't think there is a single defining moment which says "From this moment on, Punk exists".  Similarly, I don't think there is an end point either.
There are a number of "defining moments" at the start (and the end) - none of them can be said to actually pin-point a starting position.  Without trying to be pseudo intellectual about it, one cannot ignore the political climate of the times, with ongoing strikes and rising inflation, and suggest that Punk (as it came to be defined) was a response by a "dis-affected youth" to create something to call their own, and provide them with some hope for the future, or at the very least a diversion from what was going on.  Careful though, Punk was only a small number of people - there were many who existed between 1975 and 1978/9 largely unaffected by the whole thing.

By late 1974, Glam Rock was effectively over, becoming a media circus of glitter and recycled 50s Rock n Roll riffs.  The singles charts of 1975 were intrinsically safe, and teenagers felt a growing detachment from the music on offer.  It was either the virtuoso, navel gazing of the Prog Rockers (this is not a 100% true statement, but helps move the story along) or the comfortable safety of Brotherhood Of Man, The Wurzels and J J Barrie.

Something had to give ... sooner or later

Surely there must be A moment?
  • November 1973: New York Dolls on The Old Grey Whistle Test (and Whispering Bob Harris's description as "Mock Rock"
  • Early 1974: London band The Strand convince Malcolm McLaren to help out with Rehearsal space and support
  • March 1975: London SS, a loose collective of a band featuring many members with a love of The Stooges, MC5.  Although they never played a gig, recorded or even had a stable line-up, their influence is often mentioned in hushed tones (primarily due to the members it did have and where they ended up)
  • May 1975: Malcolm McLaren returns from America after overseeing the end of the New York Dolls and presents thThe Strand guitarist, Steve Jones, with Sylvain Sylvain's white Gibson Les Paul.
  • August 1975: John Lydon joins The Strand, and they are renamed the Sex Pistols.
  • April 1976: Ramones debut album released
  • June 1976: Sex Pistols play Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall
  • July 1976: Ramones play the Roundhouse & Dingwalls
  • July 1976: First issue of Sniffin' Glue published
  • September 1976: Punk Festival at the 100 Club (featuring: Subway Sect, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Clash, Sex Pistols, Stinky Toys, Chris Spedding & The Vibrators, The Damned and Buzzcocks over 2 nights)
  • October 1976: The Damned release "New Rose" - generally accepted as the first Punk single
  • November 1976: Sex Pistols release "Anarchy In The UK"
  • December 1976: Sex Pistols appear on the Bill Grundy TV Show.
In amongst all that lot, and some other events not listed, is probably the moment Punk started.

So, none the wiser of why it happened, maybe we can understand where it happened.
There is a strong argument that says it came from New York - this is borne out by the presence of The Ramones, McLarens involvement with the New York Dolls, and the well documented goings on at CBGBs and Max's Kansas City.
Whilst there may be some in-direct influence (The Dictators, Patti Smith, Televison, Richard Hell) I do not believe that the New York scene is directly responsible for what happened in the UK.

To identify a specific "where", I would cite West London and specifically the far end of the Kings Road.  Even more specifically, Number 430 Kings Road.
The importance of 430 Kings Road cannot be underestimated, but it should be remembered that it was NOT the birthplace of Punk (despite what Malcolm McLaren would like you to believe)
McLaren opened his first shop at this address in 1971.  The prime trade was Teddy Boy clothingand old Rock n Roll records catering to the growing trend for "all things 1950s".  With the help of his then girlfriend Vivienne Westwood, Let It Rock (as the shop became known) started repairing old clothes and making copies of old designs.
Let It Rock, latterly renamed Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die, became something of a "go to" place for anyone looking for some sought after item of retro clothing, or just to "hang out" and listen to the well stocked Jukebox.
In late 1974, the shop was renamed SEX and the stock changed to a sort of "anti-fashion" with Shock being the prime component.  The crowds stayed (again due to the Jukebox and the (generally) relaxed nature of the shop).
McLaren, fresh from his failure/success (delete as applicable) with the New York Dolls, and still managing/guiding a local band called The Strand saw a potential link between his anti-fashion statements and music.  He found The Strand a new Bass Player in the shape of SEX's Saturday Assistant, and auditioned in the shop for a singer.
With the Jukebox playing Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen", John Lydon joined up with Glen Matlock (the bass player) and Steve Jones & Paul Cook to become the Sex Pistols.
They weren't the first Punk band (nor were they the last), but much of what came next (certainly in the eyes of popular belief) does hinge around the Pistols.

Also on the Kings Road was another shop of comparable importance.
ACME Attractions was seen as a (possibly) cheaper alternative to the high pricing of Vivienne Westwood originals.
Acme Attractions was managed by Don Letts, who provided 2 key elements of the London Punk Story.  Using his Super 8 Camera, he began filming anything of potential importance in the Pubs, Clubs, Parties and Shops.  This footage would eventually be immotalised  into the Punk Rock Movie.  The second element Letts brought was his love of Roots and Dub Reggae.
Acme Attractions also spawned the first Punk Club in the shape of Accountant Andrew Czezowski, who opened The Roxy in Convent Garden on New Years Day 1977 (there had already been 3 Club Nights previously in December, but this was the "official" opening, headlined by The Clash and The Heartbreakers).
And this is where Don Letts comes back into it ... there were no real Punk records at the time, Letts, as resident DJ, filled with the club with his own selection of Dub Reggae.

So London had the shops, the people and the venues (famous venues (of varying size) include: 100 Club, The Roxy, Nashville Ballroom, The Marquee, The Rainbow, Dingwalls, The Hope & Anchor, The Red Cow, The Marquee, The Votex and The Music Machine), but was it really all London-centric?

Manchester can lay claim to being equally as important in the birthing of Punk.
It was here that one of the most famous gigs took place, and if the claimants are to be believed was attended by about 150,000 people.
The 4 June 1976 show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall was organised by Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley.  Devoto and Shelley had travelled to London to see the Sex Pistols, and invited them to come up the M6 to play at Bolton College.  The venue was changed to the Lesser Free Trade Hall, and the Sex Pistols played their first shows in the North of England.
The actual attendance was nearer 150, but it is believed that just about everyone who was there formed a band that night.
In the audience that night were: Howard Devoto, Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks), Steve Diggle (soon to join Buzzcocks), Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner (Joy Division), Mark E Smith (The Fall).  Also in attendance were Morrissey, Mick Hucknall, Paul Morley (soon to be NME journo) and Tony Wilson (of Factory Records).

Punk was happening, even if it was on a relatively small scale, featuring a small number of people, and operating primarily by word of mouth, with no real media intervention.

Until ...

The Sex Pistols were signed to EMI in October 1976, and released their debut single "Anarchy In The UK" in November.
A promotional slot became available on a Thames Television evening magazine show hosted by Bill Grundy.  EMI were originally intending to send Queen, but they were unavailable so the record company sent their latest charges.
A very refreshed Sex Pistols, complete with entourage, were interviewed (through gritted teeth, with Bill Grundy barely able to hide his contempt).
A mixture of alcohol and boredom set in, and without thinking John Lydon replied to a question saying "that's just their tough shit".  When asked what he had said, John replied "Nothing, A rude word!".  He was pushed to repeat himself, which he did so (albeit with a look of shame and realisation what he had said about him).  The remainder of the interview is basically Bill Grundy goading the band, particularly Steve Jones to say "something outrageous".
OK, this was a local London TV show and the audience would've been quite small, but the following morning, the story filled the front pages.

The Sex Pistols, accompanied by  The Clash, The Heartbreakers and (briefly) The Damned were about to start their fist nationwide Tour (The Anarchu In The UK Tour), but after the Grundy incident found towns full of protest and demands that the bands "audition" before the local Councils would grant a licence.
Unable to play , The Damned soon left the Tour, but the others continued in the face of intense Media coverage was intense and cancellations ensured that of the origianlly planend 20 dates, no more than 7 were actually fulfilled (some reports suggest only 3 shows were actually completed unhindered by local and national press attention.

This is surely one of the pivotal moments when Punk became known to the wider masses.
But was it the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning.

My opinion?  Both.
A small underground movement became known to the wider populace, thereby legitimising it's existence.
But also, that same underground movement was perhaps best suited to being a small underground movement (or at least a niche affair?).
The press coverage and the Record Company attention turned it into something that it wasn't ...

But only a fool would turn down the attention and riches in the name of artistic integrity, especially when you're aged less than 21.


It has been suggested that the first Punk record was "New Rose" by The Damned, and certainly in the UK it was the first of any notable distribution and availability.
There is an argument that says that "I'm Stranded" by Australian band The Saints was in actual fact the first Punk record, being released in Australia in June 1976.  Some copies did make it to Britain, but it was not initially available in big numbers.
I think, in the spirit of compromise, I will declare that both of these records are the first Punk singles


The Saints - I'm Stranded


The Damned - New Rose



Next up: 1977 And All That

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Bruce Foxton - Smash The Clock

Playing in his own tribute band (From The Jam) is obviously going to have an effect on your own output.  As is the fact that having spent 5 years recording with The Jam (were they the biggest band in Britain at the time? very probably) means your legacy is assured.  It is also a fact of life that Bruce Foxton on his own has never really achieved the heights, or the acclaim, that perhaps his contribution to the aforementioned "Biggest Band In Britain 1979 to 1982" deserves.
His first solo album proper. 'The Freak', was good but not exactly indispensable.  His record company seemed to share this belief, and no more product was forthcoming.  He kept playing solo and in small club bands, and then in 1990 landed the vacant Bass post in Stiff Little Fingers.
He stayed with SLF until 2006, when he left to join The Casbah Club Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki and Simon Townshend (he'd been playing with the band since 2004, but now became a full time member).
A year later he moved from The Casbah Club to link up with Rick Buckler and Russell Hastings in tribute band The Gift, which who were subsequently re-titled From The Jam.  A 66.6% reformation led to a plethora of rumours of a full blown reformation.  To be honest, neither Bruce Foxton or Rick Buckler were on speaking terms with Paul Weller at this time, so this is as close to a reformation as would ever occur.
The loss of Foxton's wife in 2009, and his attendance at JohnWeller's funeral in the same year led to a reconciliation with Paul Weller, and an appearance on two tracks on Weller's 2010 album 'Wake Up The Nation'.
Depending on the version of the story you believe, this action either drove a wedge between Foxton and Buckler, or Buckler became disillusioned when he realised that From The Jam would never result in a full blown Jam reformation, and he departed from the band.

But ... once an artist, always an artist, and in addition to the standard From The Jam set, new music (created with vocalist/co-writer Russell Hastings) crept it's way into the set, and in 2012 Bruce Foxton released his second solo album, 'Back In The Room'.  Backed by his From The Jam cohorts (the drum stool now being filled by Mark Brzezicki), the album featured guest appearances from Steve Norman, Steve Cropper and Paul Weller.  To complete the "potential reformation" rumours, the album was also recorded at Paul Weller's Black Barn Studios.

And so to this - his third solo album, funded through Pledge Music (as was 'Back In The Room'), and again recorded at Black Barn Studios.

From The Jam vocalist Russell Hastings is all present and correct here, and his vocal sound is so close to that of Paul Weller, you would be forgiven for thinking that maybe, just may be, the unthinkable has happened and this is The Jam's sixth album.
The presence of Paul Weller on a couple of tracks, and a couple more of the tracks sounding like they could sit comfortably on PWs 'Stanley Road' or 'Heavy Soul' certainly re-inforce this notion, but that is unfair and too simplistic a statement about this album.
The music is a mix of anglicised Motown and Northern Soul with a nod to The Kinks, The Small Faces, Dr Feelgood and even a dash of Jethro Tull.

The High Fidelity Rules Of Making A Mix Tape are adhered to here (ie start with something that grabs their attention), with opener "Now The Time Has Come" bursting to life with a drum roll before the horns kicks in.  Back to that unwanted comparison, this does sound like it was a missing track from 'The Gift' - a fine, fine opener with some fine bassmanship (what else would you expect?) from Mr Foxton.
"Round and Round" starts in a mellow blaxploitation funk mode before chorus burst out and then returns to the groove.  The mellow mood continues on "Pictures and Diamonds" with added psychadelic dreaminess.  The track is built on a rolling Hammond Organ riff an features the guitar work of the studio's owner.
"Louder" is acoustic based, and the comparisons continue with a Style Council vibe very much in evidence.
It may purely as a result of the title but there is a Small Faces meets The Jam (and even a touch of Madness) feel about "Sunday Morning", complete with it's horn section and Barrelhouse piano.  Make no mistake this is one of the most accessible, immediate and memorable songs here.
"Full Circle" opens with Paul Jones harmonica and Wilko Johnsons guitar - on the face of it, it sounds like a lost Dr Feelgood track with Paul Weller's vocal (this is a good thing!).
If you play a Rickenbaker, you can't help but produce a chord sound reminiscent of 1978/79 Jam, and many of the Mod Revival bands that followed.  And that is what you get on title track "Smash The Clock".  The addition of saxophone lifts the track into unexpected territory.  On first listening, it is the most disposable track here, and then furtherlistening elevates it to one of the key tracks of the whole offering.
Paul Jones harmonica is back for "Back Street, Dead Street" - a full blown rocker that speeds along, and just makes you want to jump up and down, or at the very least nod your head (or maybe that is just me?).
The musical backdrop changes again for "Writing On The Wall" stating with a Maggie May-esque acoustic riff.  It has a definite Folk root, and is almost Rod Stewart/Faces tunage with Paul Weller singing over the top (this may be down to the influence of the opening guitar motif, but I can't get away from the feeling).
From there, it is back to the mellow acoustic wistful dreaminess for the "There Are Times To Make Me Happy", and then a return to the driving Rock n Soul (is that a genre?) for "All Right Now" complete with liberal application of Hammond organ.
"Running Away From You" starts almost melancholic, but soon builds to a virtual anthem.  To be brutally frank, this is probably the weakest track for me, but not that weak that you want to hit the Skip button.
Album closer is the instrumental "50 Yards Down Sandy Lane" which re-visits the mellow mood, this time with added flute, and closes the album off in fine style.

This is all new, all good, but still rooted in comfort - a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining 35 minutes, with riffs, lyrics and bits of songs remaining in your head for days - much like going to a From The Jam show.


Friday, 20 May 2016

Green Day - American Idiot

"Do you have the time, to listen to me whine?"

When those words spewed out out my radio in 1994, my answer was "Yes I do - Bloody Hell, that is good".
"Basket Case" was one of those songs that sort of re-calibrates your mind, and you realise that this is the music you have been hankering for amongst a turgid mass of normality with the occasional glint of inspiration.

As is often the case at moments like this, things could get expensive (or relatively anyway, because in 1994 I had less disposable income than a very poor rodent who lives in an ecclesiastical building).
Fortunately, the back catalogue wasn't that big.
The parent album 'Dookie' was procured and played - it was good, but not great. Nothing making me go "oh, this is what I've been looking for". Leastways, there was nothing which had the room spinning and vision blurring Scooby Doo style like "Basket Case".
Going backwards, 'Kerplunk' was admirable punk thrash, but nothing knocking the earth of it's axis.
Maybe "Basket Case" was a one-off, and the best/strongest the band were going to do.

'Insomniac' (1995) and 'Nimrod' (1997) were definitely worthy additions, but still not "there".
'Nimrod' shifts the sound slightly from all out thrash to a more contemplative style. Still making noise, but now doing against a more purposeful backdrop (does that make any sense?).
'Warning' (2000) marks a definite shift of style and persona in the band. Like 'Nimrod', it has still got the urgency but the band is growing to incorporate more ideas, styles and arrangements. Problem was the audience wasn't moving with them.
'Warning' is either a great album which sets the base for what happened next, or a band desperately trying to break free from it's roots and find a new audience, and not really achieving either. As a result, it is a competent and generally listenable album, but the frustration exudes from the tracks and sort of misses the target as a result.

The relative commercial failure of 'Warning', the ensuing relationships in the band, and the attempts to find/rediscover their audience started to leave the band floundering somewhat, certainly in the UK where they pretty much disappeared from view. Coupled with the release of the compilation 'International Superhits' the following year seemed to mark a sort of stop point. Whilst sales of the compilation showed there my well be an audience, nothing more was really expected - not least what came next.

Returning to the studio in 2003, a succession of demos were created and recorded in preparation for a new album. The story is that these recordings were stolen from the studio and the entire Project was dumped - this may very well be the case, but none of these recordings have ever surfaced, which brings up the debate did they ever exist or is it just an urban myth?
Whatever the truth, after indulging in that great American staple of "Group Therapy" to air their grievances and seek a resolution, and consultation with their producer, it was decided to start again.
After the loss of the previous demos, and soul searching discussions within the band of how best to continue, each member went away and created mini-songs (around 30 seconds/1 minute in length) against no particular backdrop or theme.
This brought the band back together, as they were stitched together to create a sort of min-epic song in 3 or 4 movements. Two of these tracks ("Homecoming" and "Jesus Of Suburbia") formed the core of the new album, along with the recently penned title track. This had the effect of bringing the band back together as a unit, and accepting their position in the scheme of things (they were no longer snotty punks in a garage, but were now on the verge of being "rock stars", and they felt they were capable of it. Albeit without the commercial success, massive stadium audience or back catalogue to support it).
The title track was written and the shape/story of the album started to form. It may sound ambitiously daft, but the intent was to produce a Punk Rock Opera. Further encouraged by producer Rob Cavallo, more songs were created and inserted into the thread. What came out was probably the best and most complete work the band had produced.

In autumn 2004, Green Day returned to my ears when I heard "Letterbomb" on the radio. As I recall, it sort of washed over me a bit - I knew of them still, but hadn't really paid attention to what was going on.
And then a couple of days later, it was there again - something about it appealed, not in the same way as "Basket Case" 10 years previously, but enough to make me go and buy the parent album.

'American Idiot' purchased and played, but beyond "Letterbomb" I was vaguely non-plussed.
But the songs stayed in my head, and whilst not a result of repeated playing, there was just the moment where I thought "have I missed something, or been too harsh?". I played it again, followed the rough outline of the concept/story (albeit a fairly loose strand), and BANG - now I get it.
And I kept getting it - the more you listen, the more you enjoy it.
Critically, certainly in Q and many other publications, it was hailed as the Album of 2004. And it hung around longer than that. Indeed, off the back of it's success, Green Day became one of the biggest, most recognisable bands on the planet - even getting a Weird Al Yankovic re-working (that's when you know you've arrived).

OK, the album is often called a Punk Rock Opera (indeed, I called it that above), but (with my musical snob head on) this is Punk for people who don't really know what Punk is. Also the "Rock Opera" bit - there is a loose storyline to it, but none of the tracks are truly dependant on the others. Each track can stand on it's own.
In short, what you have here is a wonderful slab of loud Rock, and very probably the best of the mid 2000s.

So, where next?
After the Live albums, the critical and commercial acclaim, the thing to do is go back in the studio and bring out a successor that is equal or even better than before.
What they actually did was to continue with the concept idea, and produced '21st Century Breakdown'. The album is competent, but gets too caught up in the concept idea and as a result emerges confused, overwrought and (if I'm being harsh) decidedly average. And after that, at the end of 2012, were three separate albums released approximately a month apart - '¡Uno!', '¡Dos!', and '¡TrĂ©!'. Break these albums down and you have a very good single album, or a listenable double album. But a triple?

12 years on from it's release, Green Day may never surpass 'American Idiot',and then again why would they want to, or do they actually need to?
It might be over-played and overly recognisable, but I don't think it is getting lost or in any way losing it's appeal. From the opening chords of "American Idiot" strap yourself in for a loud and bouncing hour of noise. And what more can anyone want than that?
Letterbomb


Jesus Of Suburbia


Homecoming




Friday, 8 April 2016

Metallica Stopped Being Metallica After Master Of Puppets

or, at least, became a different form of Metallica.

Formed in late 1981 after James Hetfield responded to an advert placed by Danish born, Tennis playing, drummer Lars Ulrich seeking a guitarist and singer to jam with - influences: Tygers Of Pan Tang, Diamond Head and Iron Maiden".
Guitarist Dave Mustaine was recruited via a second advert, and the bands first recorded output, "Hit The Lights", was included on a Metal Blade Records compilation ' The New Heavy Metal Revue presents Metal Massacre' soon after.
Bassist  Ron McGovney (previously with James Hetfield in local garage band Leather Charm) joined and the band starting performing properly live.  McGoveney's tenure was short (although it did include one show opening for Saxon), and by the end of 1982 he was replaced by Cliff Burton.
After recording a series of demos and more live performance, the band sought to record a full album.  Metal Blade Records was unable to meet the costs of this.  However, the demos had come to the attention of US East Cost promoter Jon Zazula who, unable to find a New York based record label willing to take on the band, manufactured a deal with his own Megaforce Records.

In early 1983, just before the band travelled to New York to record thier debut album, Dave Mustaine was sacked from the band and (intriguingly?) replaced by Exodus guitarist Kirk Hammett on the same day.

The debut album (originally title 'Metal Up Your Ass', and featuring 4 of the 10 tracks co-written by Dave Mustaine) was released n mid 1983, and is often cited as one of the first albums of the Trash Metal era (although the term 'Thrash' had not yet been coined, Metallica preferred to refer to themselves as Power Metal)
The content is a high energy mix of heavy riffage, pummeling drums and barked vocals.  Yet underneath it all are tunes of the highest order.  It even includes that rarest of things - a bass solo that does not make you want to disappear to the toilet or find the bar.
This is an amazingly accomplished album considering it was a debut offering from a young band with little studio experience, no "name" producer and a relatively low budget.
Critically lauded, if not selling in huge numbers, the bands confidence was high enough, that after a couple of months touring, they commenced developing previous song ideas, composing new and performing live the songs that would make up their second album.

Second album 'Ride The Lightning' was recorded in 9 weeks in Denmark.  Again, budgets were low and Megaforce had to call in Music For Nations (the band's European label) to foot the studio bills.
Now, 12 months after the debut release you would expect more of the same.
The prime difference here is the breadth of sound and subject matter - whilst the "root" of the sound is similar to 'Kill Em All', 'Ride The Lightning' is a much more adventurous sounding record.  Step forward bassist Cliff Burton, who had a theoretical music training and contributed greatly to the writing, arrangement and overall sound of these songs.  There is more "atmosphere" than the previous offering, evidenced by the use of acoustic guitars, different time signatures and more restrained performance.
It's not all "heads down, trash it all", indeed on first listen you would be surprised this is the same band as 12 months ago.  The sheer growth of the song structure and the performance is, at times, astonishing.

Thrash Metal was now a recognised term (having been first used in late 1984 in Kerrang whilst discussing Anthrax, it came to represent a whole new genre of guitar crunching, riff based LOUDNESS) - Metallica were now classed as one of the Big 4 (along with Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer).  And with the world before them for the taking, doubts were being felt about their record label, Megaforce, and management representation.

'Ride The Lightning' had come to the attention of label bosses at Elektra, and the band were duly sought out and due to their current situation, immediately signed up.  The departure from Megaforce ended their management relationship with Jon Zazula, and they signed up with the all powerful Q-Prime.
This moved the band on to bigger tours (albeit still mostly supporting larger acts) and larger arenas, including an appearance at the Monster Of Rock Festival at Castle Donnington in 1985.

Work had begun on their next album, the first for Elektra (although they remained on Music For Nations in Europe).  This album, 'Master Of Puppets' took their established template, refined and polished it and came up with something phenomenal.
After initial recordings in a US Studio, the band re-located to the Denmark studios where 'Ride The Lightning' was recorded.  The commitment to making the best album they possibly could was borne out with Lars Ulrich taking a series of theoretical drum lessons, and Kirk Hammett working with Joe Satriani to refine and improve his recording performances and techniques.
When they arrived at the studio to commence recordings, only two songs remained unfinished and all the material was completed and arranged which should have led to a slick, tight schedule for recording.  However, the band obviously realised they were making something special, and convinced they could always push further strived for a state of virtual perfectionism, resulting in the recording taking at least 6 weeks longer than originally planned.
Opening with the acoustic introduction (which seemed to be de rigueur for a Thrash album at the time), "Battery" comes flying off the vinyl and into the speakers.  One is immediately struck by the clarity of the sound, the depth and the sheer thickness (heaviness?) of the arrangement.  And it doesn't let up through nearly an hour of ear battering.  This is possibly the best sounding album of the metal genre (especially if you have the re-mastered Direct Metal Mastered (DMM) version.
The album also pushes the parameters of the bands sound, from heads down thrash, straight-ahead Metal, Hard Rock (very Heavy Rock?) and even some Prog Rock-esque touches.
It was quickly declared, and probably remains, as their absolute masterpiece.

Question is: how are they going to follow that?

The Damage Inc. Tour in support of the album commenced in late March 1986, arriving in Europe in September.
James Hetfield had broken his wrist in July, and his guitar was supplied by his roadie until late September, when it was fixed enough to resume plank-bashing duties.  However, a worse accident was to befall the band a couple of days later.
Travelling between gigs in Sweden and Denmark, the bands Tour Bus skidded and rolled over several times.  Ulrich, Hetfield and Hammett were un-injured, but Cliff Burton was thrown through a window and the bus rolled on to him.
Following Burton's death, the tour was suspended whilst the band considered their future.
With the blessing of Burton's family, Jason Newstead (from Flotsam & Jetsam) was installed as Bass player and after a couple of warm-up shows the Damage Inc Tour re-commenced with shows in Japan in November 1986.

The band returned to their rehearsal studio home in San Francisco when the Tour finished in February 1987 and started to plan their next move.

Their European distribution moved from Music For Nations to Phonogram for the princely sum of $1 million (cheap at half the price, considering the likely income from future sales).
August 1987 saw the first output from the new line-up.  The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited was an EP of covers by NWOBHM and Punk bands that had first inspired Lars Ulrich (and by association, the band).
Although recorded in an expensive studio (with a big desk, lots of buttons and stuff), the sound of the EP is as raw and urgent as any first-time first EP recorded in a Garage should be.
On a  personal note, I am forever indebted to this EP as it introduced me to The Misfits (is this a good thing, or a bad thing?).
The intent of the EP was three-fold.  Firstly, to get back in the studio following the loss of Cliff Burton.  Second, to introduce Jason Newstead (re-named Jason Newkid on the EP sleeve) to the bands working methods, and lastly to limber up in preparation for recording the follow-up to Master Of Puppets.

The recording of the next album was originally planned for Summer 1987, but a min-tour in support of The Monsters Of Rock (including a second appearance at Castle Donnington) revised the schedule.

Entering the studio in January 1988, work began on new tracks with Guns & Roses producer Mike Clink.  Little progress was made, and 6 weeks later Clink was removed, and  Flemming Rasmussen (producer of 'Ride The Lightning' and 'Master Of Puppets') re-hired.
The first couple of weeks was spent salvaging and refining the previous recordings to achieve the sound and feel the band had initially wanted.
'... And Justice For All' took the Proggy intent of parts of 'Master Of Puppets', slowed down the tempo in many places, extended the song lengths (only one song was under 6 minutes) and applied a lot of experimentation and effects to achieve the required sound.
The album took 2 months longer than their previous offering to record, and at times it feels like those extra 2 months were used to throw more and more twiddly passages, overdubs and mixing efforts out the final package.
Arriving on the shelves in August 1988, the album became Metallica's quickest and best selling album in a very short time.
Initial response was that Metallica had produced another masterpiece, and was plastered with 5 Star reviews.
Now, not wishing to decry the enormity or greatness of this album, it was seriously let down by the final sound mix sounding muddy and almost like every recorded track fighting with each other for ear-space.  That is not to say there aren't some great songs here, there are ("One" and "Dyers Eve" being amongst their very best, and there isn't really anything you cane define as "filler" or "tossed off to fill the album").
I wasn't expecting 'Master Of Puppets Part II' and a band cannot do full-on heads down Thrash forever, but I personally feel it was a mis-step - it was an ambitious undertaking (possibly too ambitious, and too much of a change of approach too quickly), but just because you can use every effect the studio has to offer, and you can mix and re-mix to your hearts content, it doesn't mean you have to.
Metallica were on the list of "Biggest Bands In The World (right now)" and they knew this, so you get the feeling they spent more time than was actually necessary fiddling an fettling the songs, arrangements and mixes before they released it to the baying public.
The time and care spent on producing the album (whether I liked it or not, and ignoring the confused, flat sound of the record), it is this album that no doubt the band had always wanted to produce and the seeds of it can be seen/heard in the tracks on previous albums.  One can't help but wonder what the follow-up to 'Master Of Puppets' would've been had Cliff Burton still been around.  And this is not a case of "laying the blame because I don't like the album much", but did Jason Newstead change the dynamic and workings of the band?

It was to be 3 years before the follow-up came out.  In true Metallica perfectionism-style this ont took 8 months to record, and pared back a lot of the excesses of previous offerings (and I have to cite '... And Justice For All' as the obvious example here).
The intent and tone of the complex song structures and arrangements remained, but it was distilled into shorter, more accessible songs, and although the band's relationship with producer didn't excatly thrive, the production values here in far in excess of the band's earlier albums.
My only reservation with the album was it did feel like they were "chasing the MTV dollar" (and good luck to them, why shouldn't they?).
This album was to become their most successful, and in my ears marked a new Metallica and catered for a new market.

I've continued to buy Metallica albums - 'Load' and 'Re-Load' were very good, but not the Metallica I (personally) wanted or expected.  Maybe it is just an age thing and the albums "aren't for me anymore"

'Garage Inc', a covers album, was released in 1998 and featured a host of newly recorded covers, and collected earlier cover versions from B-Sides and the $5.98 EP.  It also includes a cover of Anti-Nowhere Leagues "So What" - always amusing to hear James Hetfield sing of visiting UK coastal towns.  I would cite this as my favourite of the Metallica V2.0 output
I also bought 2003's 'St Anger', more out of loyalty than desire.  Again, in my ears it was OK, but still missing something, and 2008s Death Magnetic has made probably no more than 3 visits to the CD player.

Four Horsemen


Fade To Black


Battery


One

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Losing The Knack

There is a definite art and skill to flipping through records, whether it be in a shop, at a Record Fair or at a Jumble Sale/Car Boot Sale.
Similar techniques are employed, and it is a skill that takes time to hone and refine. There needs to be an active connection between the flicking fingers, the eyes and the brain. Anyone can flick through a stack of albums, but it needs the “skill” to recognise, register and decide (often it’s a simple “Got, got, need, look at that later, hmmm … interesting, import version, laugh out loud, got, need” etc reflex).
The fist act is to choose a starting point (sensibly you should start at 'A', but it could be anywhere, as you will cycle through the alphabet to ensure all stock is covered), place feet slightly apart for comfort and balance, grip the top of the front record and "flick away".
My own particular style has always been that of a "two handed flicker". Thumbs resting on the edge of the front album, and then index and middle fingers walking like Steve Harris in a Yellow Pages advert. However, as a result of losing weight and now having thinner fingers, my ring is a lot looser than it once was (note: I am referring to my wedding ring, before all you filthy minded double-entendre merchants start sniggering).
A loose ring (stop it!) can be particularly annoying, as it works its way free of your finger and falls in a crate - valuable flicking time is lost as you delve in trying to retrieve run-away jewellery.
The solution? Jam the ring finger of the left hand into the palm, or revert to one-handed flicking (slower, but effective).

The two handed, or one-handed flicking method works with CDs too (albeit in a scaled down version), and is also accompanied by a gratifying clunk as the jewel cases rattle against each other.  However, my local music emporium of choice (purveyors of New and Used CDs, Vinyl and various other music related ephemera) have taken to organising CDs upright with spines showing so all one has to do is scan the boxes - effective, but not as interesting.

Now, a combination of this form of CD organisation and not visiting too many Record Shops recently has left me out of practice.  The problem here is once you're out of flipping practice it takes time to achieve previous levels of competence.

So obviously some sort of Training Programme needs to be developed (obviously accompanied by the Training Theme from Rocky)
I think I will need to visit at least weekly, and should also try and hone the skills in a variety of locations.  It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.

In other news, the standard joke of ubiquitous records (ie Abba's Greatest Hits, Saturday Night Fever, Bee Gees - Spirits Having Flown, Boney M - Night Flight To Venus to name but 4) whilst having plenty of substance was, I thought, more apocryphal than reality.  Oh no - on todays Record Shop visit I found 26 copies (!) of Paul Young's No Parlez.  (I wasn't tempted to buy one because I've got 4 copies already)


Saturday, 12 March 2016

Steve Mason - Meet The Humans

The Beta Band, save for an appearance in High Fidelity with the song "Dry The Rain", were somewhat ignored during their lifetime.
Maybe they were just a little too different, not as direct or immediate as many of their contemporaries.  They do take a bit of listening, but ultimately it proves a worthwhile experience.
Since their demise, half the band re-grouped as The Aliens and have produced 2 fine albums, which in true Beta Band style have sold in relatively small numbers to "those who know", and lead singer/guitarist Steve Mason has also released a couple of albums, one of which someone not a million miles away got very excited about a couple of years ago (Monkey Minds In The Devils Time).
So after hearing lead single "Planet Sizes" I was eagerly anticipating the release of the parent album.

Were my expectations fulfilled?  Yes they were.
OK, it has taken 3 listens for it to seep into my brain, but in summary - this is fantastic, there is not a duff track here.
On previous releases, there was a noticeable dark, almost raw and confrontational, edge to the music.
This album starts on a positive and maintains that relaxed, joyous and confident tone throughout.

Album opener "Water Bored " has a relentless piano riff coupled to a withdrawn, almost melancholic vocal, yet the song remains bright, joyous and uplifting.
"Alive" continues the uplifting mode, and is probably the best track of the album (admittedly there is some stiff competition, but this one wins it for me at the moment).
"Alright", "Another Day" and "Run Away" all employ similar tricks of starting in almost claustorphobic territory and gradually rising, with strings or brass deployed to add to the layered vocal harmonies.
"To A Door" has an air of Belle and Sebastian jauntiness about it, and also has the introduction of an additional voice courtesy of Kristina Train.  The claustrophobia returns, coupled with a sense definite sense of loss on "Hardly Go Through"- this is lifted by a glorious chorus and the general arrangement.
The sheer sparseness of "Through My Window" makes it almost hypnotic.  There are moments when you can almost feel his voice breaking/straining.
All hypnotism is suspended as the acoustic guitar riff for "Planet Sizes" begins, and the song gradually rises to a fuller sound.  Whilst it may be a simplistic comparison, much of the album has a touch of Elbow going on (hardly surprising when you consider that it was produced by Craig Potter), and this track is perhaps the most Elbow-esque.
"Like Water" is the fullest sounding of all the tracks on offer and the vocal is a lot higher in the mix.  There is almost an Indie/Madchester vibe about it.
Closing track "Words In My Head" takes the Madchester vibe and adds New Order, a soupcon of Depeche Mode and hip hop/dance beats to the mix.  This track is a different tempo to the rest of the album and just feels more urgent and insistent.

The presence of Craig Potter makes comparisons to Elbow inevitable, but there is more going on here.  There is an anthemic indie quality about it, coupled with a melancholy navel gazing all lifted by the employment of varied and often joyous and glorious instrumentation and arrangements.  It is both recognisable, comfortable and accessible, whilst also remaining unique and insularly personal.
We're nearly at the end of Quarter 1 2016, and I think I've found the first real contender (for me) for Album Of The Year

Alive

To A Door