Wednesday, 5 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, back to Oasis ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Third Album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Saturday Record Shopping Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 22 January 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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