Friday, 26 March 2021

My First Festival ...

I'm not a great one for Festivals - not a lover of standing in the rain with a pint of under strength lager, sleeping in tents, or trying to find a useable chemical toilet.
In short - I'm a grumpy middle-aged middle-class bloke who likes a bit of comfort.

I've never been to Glastonbury, but have experienced many Festivals over the years including various Reading Festivals., Monsters Of Rock/Download Festivals, Rewind, and a few of the Butlins Holiday Camp Out Of Season shindigs.
Remember what I said about comfort?  have you ever been in a basic chalet in Skegness?  The phrase "Comfortable" should be preceded by "Not very" and suffixed by ",but it'll do".

The first Festival I went to was Reading Rock 1987, and living in Reading travel was not an issue - one bus to the Town Centre and then walk it.  As a Festival Virgion the walk to the Site was a part of drinking in the experience (basically watching all the crusty old rockers venturing into town for breakfast and a pint to start the day, before returning for a days vigorous headbanging and Rough Cider.
1987 was also the Festival with the "Rock" name before it tried to broaden the appeal and public persona by simply becoming Reading Festival and booking some bands who had not formed in the early 70s and looked forward to their one open air gig each year (see the Enid on Sunday's bill below).

So, 1987 - having just started work, an Apprentices Wages could only stretch to a one day ticket - I had a choice to make:


I discounted the Friday because I didn't own anything black or gothic enough for the mood of the day.  And then had to choose between Status Quo and Alice Cooper - a tough call.
Sunday also offered Zodiac Mindwarp and The Stranglers, but the Quo won out because:
(a) they're the Quo
(b) Bad News were on the bill
(c) I think my mate couldn't go on the Sunday anyway

As with every published Festival line-up, bands were added and some dropped out - although as I recall Sunday remained as published.  The only change on Friday was the non-appearance of Spear Of Destiny (Kirk Brandon broke his leg(?)) to be replaced by Graham Parker.

The first change on Saturday though was announced at 12:00 - Blues n Trouble had broken down on the way to the gig.  It was too late to find a replacement, so The Quireboys went on early and ghot an extra 15 minutes.

Dumpy was Dumpy - a last hurrah/hangover of the Reading Rock Glory Days - and played a growling Biker Metal set of Hawkwind/Motorhead inspired noise.  I liked them and saw them again a couple of years later (in a Pub in Aldershot)

Mammoth were replaced by Shy - all big hair and sub-Bon Jovi "nice" metal, but I bought the album anyway.

Now whether it was a combination of late Summer sun, cheap beer, and too many Benson & Hedges, I have no recollection of Glory, Terraplane or MGM
(in fact, to this day I have no clue who Glory actually are?).

I do remember Lee Aaron though - those sort of memories stay with a 17 year old ...
(in truth, the music was nice enough, but not really substantial or indeed a classic live performance)

Georgia Satellites and Bad News swapped, meaning Bad News lifted the waning early evening spirits (and brought Brian May on stage), and Georgia Satellites got the early evening slot (as the sun was fading) with a storming set of Southern Boogie.
Taking Status Quo out of the equation, The Georgia Satellites were the best band to stand on that stage on that August day in suburban Berkshire.

Competent though they were, there was no way the Prog affectations of Magnum could follow that lot.  And many burgers and beers were consumed while the band noodled on stage.

And then darkness fell, the stage lights descended and then slowly rose again - "Allo Reading!" and straight into "Whatever You Want".
Wall-to-Wall bangers for 90 minutes, including the live crowd joiner-inner "Dirty Water (always better live than the studio version) - a proper party atmosphere in a field.
Just looked up the set list on the ever helpful setlist.fm - they played 13 tunes (17 if you include each separate track in the medley), and 4 tracks as an encore.  Not a bad way to break your Festival cherry.

Grinning from ear-to-ear I left the site, bought a cheese sandwich, a cheap bottle of lager, and a bootleg Status Quo T-Shirt and wandered home.

1988 I did both Donnington Monster of Rock and Reading Festival within a fortnight of each other. Again, a one day ticket for Reading meant I missed out on seeing Iggy Pop and The Ramones on Friday and Squeeze on Sunday - an annoying oversight I am happy to report I have rectified many years later.

And I returned to Reading (often for full weekends) for some years after that (and finally catching Iggy Pop live in 1991).  I may have missed the 1992 Festival as I have no recollection of the now mythical Nirvana live performance.  I think the last one I went to was 1994 (I'm sure I saw Primal Scream, the Manics and Radiohead standing in a muddy field) but despite living less than 2 miles from the Site I have no real desire to return.  The line-up never seems to be strong enough on a single day to warrant the investment (or the "Festival Experience") and besides I'm an old fart now, so would need a quiet nap halfway through the day, and the organisers would probably balk at someone taking a deck chair in (although not at the 80s Rewind Festivals - they don't seem to mind there).

Like many things, you never forget your first ...

Quireboys - Mayfair

Georgia Satellites - Battleship Chains

Status Quo - Dirty Water

 


Thursday, 18 March 2021

2 Tone

Has one single record label done more for shifting thoughts, cooling tensions, and throwing some banging good tunes into the mix, than a small enterprise founded in a small Coventry front room?

By the late 70s, Punk was over - Post-Punk and New Wave were now the preferred terms.  And a Mod Revival was gathering pace.  Close partners in style, attitude and sound of the original Mods in the 60s were the Skinheads.  And as you can';t necessarily have one without the other, the Skinhead revival was happening alongside the Mod Revival.
In truth these sub-cultures had never really gone away, it's just now they were receiving attention again.

Whilst the Mods went for sharp suits and a look that tried to break their connection to Working Class roots and environment, Skinheads revelled in their roots and wore the clothing of their environment - atoned down -but equally sharp - mod look and close cropped hair, and then modified the Mod look with .  The look was not far removed, and was certainly influenced by, Jamaican Rude Boy.  And completing the Caribbean connection, the Skinheads soundtrack was Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae.

The true reasonings for a faction of the late 70s Skinhead becoming associated with far right attitudes and violence is lost somewhere in the mists of my research.  Maybe it was the rise of Oi, disaffection for their environment, rabble rousing and the rhetoric of the rise of the National Front, or a combination of all these things?
From a simple historic view, the archetypal skinhead is now pictured with a Union Jack T-Shirt, a swastika tattoo on their forehead, and a general air of snarling violence.
But hang on - there was another -possibly larger group of the skinhead population which were perhaps truer to the original movement, remained (generally) apolitical and continued to party to the sounds of Prince Buster, The Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and anything on the Trojan label.

And it was from this second group that spawned Jerry Dammers band - The Coventry Automatics, soon to be renamed The Specials.  Politics though, or at the very least Racial politics and disaffected youth politics, were very much to the fore in the (surprisingly?) savvy Jerry Dammers.

And in this sleepy Midland town of Coventry he found he was not alone with ska being performed by multi-racial bands, chief among them The Selector.  Darn sarf in That London, Madness were adopting a similar look and sound, while to the West in the badlands of Birmingham The Beat were knocking around.
Never one to pass up an opportunity to spread the word, Jerry Dammers did a deal with Chrysalis Records to fund the recording of 10 or 15 singles a year and a couple of albums.

First off the blocks was The Specials re-working of Prince Buster's Al Capone backed with good mates The Selecter, and for the next 6 years 2 Tone released a host of singles and albums of influence and popularity.  The Specials manged 2 number one singles and a slew of Top 10 hits, and other bands on the roster weren't far behind.

And the roster is best described as small but perfectly formed - and also did what no other label did.  Gave the bands the freedom to record as much as they want before going elsewhere.
Madness, The Beat, and Bad Manners got their first releases on Two Tone (in the case of Bad Manners it was 2 tracks on the Dance Craze album) before departing the Good Ship.
It's easy to see 2 Tone as a Specials vanity label, but they were joined by The Selecter, The Bodysnatchers, The Swinging Cats, and latterly The Appolinaires and The Higsons.
OK, they may not have set the charts on fire but they all added value and worth the not just to the label but the thoughts and actions of the listeners, both then and in the future.

The label may only have existed for 6 years (1979 to 1985) but it's sound, attitude, and politics captured a moment, made people think (a bit), and no doubt had a lasting influence.


The Specials - Gangsters

The Selecter - On My Radio

The Specials - Doesn't Make It Alright

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Alice Cooper - Detroit Stories

 With the best will in the world, I'm not sure anyone would cite Alice Cooper's first two albums - 'Pretties For You and 'Easy Action' - as essential.
They have their moments, but not the energy, commitment and even a clear focus.  In the main they are a mix of Psychedelia, Freak Rock, Frank Zappa knock-offs, and Alice sounding close to Captain Beefheart.
But California was not a natural fit for the band, and they upped sticks and moved towards Detroit - a scene and sound perhaps closer to their liking.

And like it they did with confidence showing on third album 'Love It To Death' - OK not an unadulterated classic, but more than enough to warrant repeat playing.
And they were off ... next album 'Killer' would by my choice as the pick of their back catalogue, and this was closely followed by 'Schools Out and 'Billion Dollar Babies' - probably the bands last truly great album.

Alice Cooper is 74, his band mates of a similar vintage, but they have come together again for a couple of tracks on the new album and deliver the goods once again.
'Detroit Stories' is a mix of cover versions and new originals re-visiting and celebrating their beginnings and the sound of late 60s Detroit - MC5, The Stooges, Grand Funk Railroad, Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger.  Even the Velvet Underground and The Doors make a passing appearance.  The sound and delivery is an unmistakable return to the template defined by those 4 albums mentioned above.  And that template is re-inforced by the presence of Bob Ezrin in the producers chair.

And it is with the Velvet Underground, specifically a cover of "Rock & Roll" which kicks off the album.  Not a total facsimile, but close enough to the original to be comfortable and different enough for Alice to put his own stamp on it.
Over 15 tracks, we get 4 cover versions - the aformentioned "Rock & Roll", Outrageous Cherry: "Our Love Will Change The World", MC5: "Sister Anne", and Bob Seger: "East Side Story" amongst a slew of Alice originals as good as he's ever done.
All delivered with a ragged garage rock feeling, hints of blues harp, Alice's growled menacing vocal and an air of menace, humour and sheer enjoyment.  This is not just a re-visit and celebration of Detroit, but a re-visit and celebration of Alice himself.

There is also an impressive list of guest players including:

  • original band mates Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith on "Social Debris" and "I Hate You"
  • MC5s Wayne Kramer and Grand Funk Railroad's Mark Farner play on 12 of the 15 tracks
  • Grand Funk Railroad's Mark Farner appears on 4 tracks
  • Joe Bonamassa appears on 2 tracks
  • Larry Mullen Jr thumps the tubs on "Shut Up And Rock"

This is no lazy knock-off covers album awash with special guests and some filler thrown in to make up the numbers - this is very probably the most complete, consistent album since 1975s 'Welcome To My Nightmare'.
(I nearly chose 1989's 'Trash' but it falls short for being a bit too clean in the songwriting and production departments)


Rock & Roll


Our Love Will Change The World


Detroit City 2021

Friday, 26 February 2021

Happiness In Magazines

No ... not those type of Magazines.
And not a celebration of Graham Coxon's 2004 album either (although it is very good).

As more and more content goes on-line, and advertising is becoming both less bountiful, and filling large amounts of space in each copy of Mojo that flops onto my doormat, one can't help but feel that the life of the essential reading Magazine may well be up soon.

I hope not - there are still stories to tell, new angles to look at, and gaps in the knowledge to fill.  And why not through the pages of a handy, digestable and portable medium.  Plus, for me, there is something of a ritual involved - Saturday morning, cup of coffee, couple of fags, and leaf through whichever of the couple of Magazines occupy the coffee table.

My magazines of choice (or basically what gets delivered to me) are: Mojo, Vive Le Rock, Project Control Professional (as a result of membership of the Association Of Cost Engineers) and Professional Manager (as a result of membership of Chartered Management Institute).

There is a very real chance that the interweb has reduced my (and doubtless many others) Magazine purchasing, so what follows is a musing of my purchasing history of the glossy and not so glossy A4 size journals.

Of course it was all comics when I were a lad - The Beano, The Dandy, Topper, Whizzer & Chips.  They all passed through my hands at some point, but I don't ever recall regularly getting my own copy.
The fist comic I can recall getting with any regularity was Tiger and Scorcher - the adventures of Billy's Boots, Hot Shot Hamish, Nipper, Skid Solo, and Wrestler Johnny Cougar remain in moments of
Whilst Tiger and Scorcher tried to cover the sport spectrum, Football won out, and soon Roy Of The Rovers became my weekly fiction of choice, and in a neat re-visit when Tiger comic folded in 1981/82, a lot of the Football strips transferred to Roy.
And - as I've discovered on-line, Roy is still overseeing the dominance of Melchester Rovers serving as Manager, Chairman, Sponsor - and probably Coach Driver, Tea Lady, and Raffle Ticket Seller.

But Comics are for kids - it was time to grow up and move into the world of glossy magazines.
Football still very much the obsession, and Shoot was my first port of call.  And it's many posters adorned this Football fans bedroom wall.
The big attraction of Shoot was, just before the start of the season, it gave away the League Ladders - a mass of cardboard with little T-Shaped pieces representing each Team that you placed in the spot in their division.  Many a Sunday morning spent re-arranging bits of cardboard to match the listing in the newspaper.  And then the mid-week games happened and mucked it all up.  Did anyone keep a League Ladder going after about November?
Shoot remained constant, sometimes supplemented with the odd edition of Match or maybe Scoop for a wider sporting view.

And then the Music gates opened.
So in early 1983, there was only on Pop Music mag in the game - Smash Hits.  But by the late spring of that year, Number One arrived to give it some competition.  Plus the first couple of issues contained extracts from The Story Of The Jam (A Beat Concerto) - my pocket money went into Number One's coffers.
For a while it did give Smash Hits a run for it's readership, whilst covering sometimes more left-field bands than the shiny pop or burgeoning Duran vs Spandau face-off (not quite Beatles vs Stones, but the best you could get in the 80s).  But at some point my loyalties returned to Smash Hits - I don't know if a 14 year old can make an informed decision on editorial content, but that is probably what happened.

And then comes the point when the world of Pop starts to funnel tribally to specific genres.  I went for the noisy guitar based stuff, and my next port of call was Sounds and/or New Musical Express, plus the odd copy of Melody Maker for completeness.  And to widen the genres further, Kerrang was also on the shopping list.
And now I've got spare cash and no responsibilities, let's add Metal Hammer, Raw, Record Collector, Spiral Scratch, Classic Car, Practical Classics and Street Machine to the basket.

And not forgetting the return of the Comics - albeit in a more grown-up (apparently!) form in the shape of Viz, Zit, Smut, Oink, and a fair few other trashy, puerile, sometimes vulgar, Viz knock-offs.

Viz stays with a man - I'm 50 years old and have just bought a new copy of Roger Mellie's Profanisaurus, call my dog Johnny Fartpants whenever he breaks the silence, and get a daily feed of Viz Top Tips on Facebook.   And every time I hear "Midnight Train To Georgia", I just see this in my head:


They also made an attempt at pop stardom with the release of the single "Bags Of Fun With Buster" by Johnny Japes and His Jesticles
(or as they are known in normal life: Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory of XTC, record producer Neville Farmer, and John Otway)


Sometime in the late 80s, Smash Hits grew up and spawned Q - a glossy monthly magazine focussing on the album, looking fprwards and backwards.  There weren't too many music publications talking about The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Neil Young et al, which I think drove a difference, and possibly gave rise to the Heritage market today.  It may not have bee solely responsible, but Q and it's brethren have probably extended the lives of many performers beyond their allotted 15 minutes (or 5 to 7 years is probably a better life span estimate for mos bands).
Combining the irreverence of Smash Hits with informed opinion and thought, Q was the leader in a field of one.  It spotted a gap in the market that was only just opening where those in their 20s and 30s (and older) were now re-buying the music of their youth on a new fangled format (the CD) - the £50 Bloke started here, and were provided with quality writing and a certain depth of focus to an essentially (and certainly previously believed to be) disposable art form.

But by mid-1990 Q no longer had the market place to itself - Select and Vox launched within a couple of months of each other providing the same focus and writing but focussing on the nearer past and the more immediate future (Select have been latterly honoured with coining the term "Britpop").
Select and Vox trod similar ground, but were staunchly independent of each other.  It was a bit like a glossy mag version of the Melody Maker vs NME inky stand-offs in the 1970s (which is kind of apt an ironic as Vox was billed as the sister magazine of the NME).

All of those were regular purchases too - sometimes separately, sometimes all 3 in the same month (interesting to see the differences of opinion in the Album Reviews section - a 5 Star album in Q may only garner 3 Stars in Vox).

By 1993, Q knew it had competition so hived off the heritage element to the newly launched Mojo and focussed on the now.  Actually, this was to Q's detriment as it never felt quite as essential - the loss of Mark Ellen and David Hepworth probably didn't help either.
I bought Mojo too (often instead of Q, Select, and Vox - the latter too running out of time, readership and advertising as the new millenium dawned).

But ... it was not all music.  Football made a comeback to my reading materials.
Sometime between the 1990 World Cup and the launch of the Premier League in 1992, Football was throwing off it's hooligan image and attracting more attention again.  This resulted in the launch of 90 Minutes (a sort of Shoot for the 90s) which no doubt picked up adult readership of those missing the Shoot glory days (yes, that would be me).  And it did it's own version of the League Ladders.
And then, in the market of Mens Lifestyle Magazine (CQ, FHM, etc) came a big glossy, articulate and intelligent Football publication Four Four Two.

By 1995 Mojo had some competition (which survives to this day) in the shape of Uncut.  They both cover similar ground, but I have always found Uncut heavier on the Americana and heavier on the reviews.  That said, Uncut's review section gives more space to books, DVDs and Films than Mojo.  But again, there's only so much one can review and it's often worth looking at the differences of opinion.  I may be keeping the magazine world afloat (or at least playing my part) as not only am I a Mojo subscriber, but will also buy many copies of Uncut if the content appeals (and it often does).

The aforementioned Ellen and Hepworth departed Mojo left the world of Mojo (and publishing company EMAP) behind in the early 21st Century to launch a similar publication, but with a slightly more cerebral (or so I though) and eclectic bent in the shape of The Word.
A small, but perfectly formed periodical with similar qualities to early Q, the informative look at history of Mojo, the irrevernce of their Smash Hits days, with a little bit of fanzine thrown in.  Being staunchly independent (at least in the early days) meant they were not behoven to record companies or other media outlets, and could basically gush or diss product as they wished.
And like Q, The Word also fell at the right time for new technology with the advent of the iPod (although I think the next delivery format - streaming - was effectively their undoing.
And the small but perfectly formed nature of the mag extended to it's readership when an on-line blog/forum was created which attracted a number of readers and subscribers.  Some of the blog content even made it into the mag itself, and the Forum Community assembled itself into local groups organising meet ups and events.  Some of the contributors even get a mention in Mark Ellen's autobiography.
The Blog Forum survives to this day (despite there being no magazine anymore) in the shape of The Afterword, and it really is one of the nicest places on the internet to waste time.

But a relatively low readership, reducing advertising income, and more publications going on-line led to the demise of The Word, and I found myself initially subscribing to Q, which was soon replaced by Mojo.

But if proof were needed of independence and low readership leading to survival in the magazine world, look no further than Vive Le Rock - running since 2011 and surviving on a readership of around 15,000 this one fills the gap for Punk and New Wave that Mojo does not touch.

I'm not a fool (well, not much of one anyway) - I'm pretty sure the magazine market will dwindle and more will go on-line.  Mojo for example are already asking questions about their monthly free CD (possibly in an effort to reduce costs if the CD is not the biggest attraction of the magazine), but without magazines leading me down certain paths (and latterly Radio 6) I'm not sure I would've discovered as much new music as is accumulating on my shelves.

The magazine - a supplement to knowledge and opinion from a trusted source (unlike Facebook for example) - and/or a diversion from the sh*t of the real world.


And the Graham Coxon album? Oh go on then.  If you insist ...

Graham Coxon - Bittersweet Bundle Of Misery





Friday, 5 February 2021

Judas Priest - British Steel

Judas Priest were took the hard rock template defined by Sabbath, Purple and Led Zep, and refined it.  Along with Motorhead they were pre-cursors to all the Heavy Metal bands that appeared in late 1979/1980 under the umbrella of NWOBHM, and stayed at the top for a for while after, even getting a Live Aid appearance (between Crosby, Stills & Nash and Bryan Adams) into the bargain.  Yes, they were that big (certainly in America).

The pretty much defined the look (leather, studs, motorbikes) and sound (twin guitar, pummeling drums, and shrieking strained vocals), and were one of the first Metal bands to gain commercial success (particularly in the US).

They'd been building up to the sound and success of this album since their first release in 1974.  Chopping, changing, and refining, until they achieved peak Metal.  Since then it's been more of the same, a high profile US court case, Rob Halford leaving the band for a decade, and then coming out on MTV - he always looked a tad too comfortable with the leather and bondage gear (oops: unreconstructed statements a-go-go).  Since Halford's departure the albums continued, but were always perhaps missing "something" (his 4 octave vocal range perhaps?).  The eventual reformation saw the band pick up where they left-off with respectable album sales and sold-out arena shows. 

'Rock a Rolla' was their first release in 1974 - it's nice enough album - more Whitesnake blues-y than Hell Bent For Leather.  Second album 'Sad Wings Of Destiny' repeated the trick with more proggy elements, coupled with some heads down riffing that would become their stock-in-trade.
The limited success of the album caught the attention of CBS, and the debut major label album - 'Sin After Sin' - is another step closer to the recognised Judas Priest of yore.
1978s 'Stained Class' confirmed this, 1979s 'Killing Machine' underlined it, and the live 'Unleashed In The East' put the bells and whistles on it (not literally).

'Killing Machine' had more of a commercial bent than previous albums - no doubt at the insistence of CBS.
Just before the release of 'British Steel', the single "Living After Midnight" picked up plenty of radio play, a Julien Temple video, and appearances on Top Of The Pops.  It just missed the Top 10.
Second lifted single "Breaking The Law" had the same ingredients, and rose to the same chart position 3 months later.

The album opens with "Rapid Fire" - a typical pummeling start and setting the scene for the next half-hour of your life.  OK, it's not big on variety - walloping drums, moody - almost confrontational - vocals, and the obligatory guitar soloing, but it doesn't need to be.  It does what it says on the tin - it's British, and there is plenty of Steel (even if they hail from Birmingham, rather than Sheffield).  And there's even time to sneak a slower-paced, but no less shattering, anthem in the shape of "United" into the mix.  And closing track repeats the trick with the chest-thumping almost jingoistic "Red, White and Blue".  A Heavy Metal Jerusalem perhaps?

Whilst I have no firm recommendations after this one other than their 'Priest...Live!' from 1987, it's all much of a muchness with no faltering really. Formulaic may be a bit harsh, but sometimes it just needs a bit of a kick in the right direction.

If you only listen to 1 Judas Priest album, I heartily recommend this one

Living After Midnight


United

And as a head banging bonus - not from this album, but from the earlier 'Killing Machine':  Hell Bent For Leather

Thursday, 21 January 2021

REM

You can draw a distinct line between 2 eras of REM - (1) the IRS Years, (2) The Warner Bros Years.
It's the same band, the same personnel, even the same producer (initially).  It just seems to be coming from a different place - the same, but different (if that makes any sense ...).

Arguably, the Warners Years can be split into 2 as well - with Bill Berry (who left the band in 1997), and without Bill Berry.

Their first recorded output was the single "Radio Free Europe" in 1981 - it took it's cues from Post-Punk and New Wave imbued with a certain amount of Byrdsian jangle.
There is an argument that REM were doing something "new" that would ultimately be classed as College Rock and/or Alternative Rock (Alternative to what?  Not Rocking?).
However you wish to genre-ise it, there is a certain catchy freshness to the song.  Which was only confirmed and amplified by the first IRS outing - the EP 'Chronic Town'.  First album proper 'Murmur' followed a year later, and included a re-recording of "Radio Free Europe" - an assured debut which certainly hinted at the potential of what would come (even if it sold slowly, critical acclaim does not always equal commercial acclaim).
12 months later (almost to the day) 'Reckoning' hit the shelves and sold to "those in the know" and started to pick up other sales - no doubt helped by the strength of the singles ""So. Central Rain)" and "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville".  In truth, these are the strongest tracks here, but it's a close thing.
1985s 'Fables Of The Reconstruction' was a departure from template.  It feels more folky, delivered at a slower tempo,and a bit chin-strokey and wordy.  It's not a great favourite of mine, but "Driver 8" is often reason enough to give it a spin.
'Life's Rich Pageant' (1985) and Document (1986) are treated in my head as a double album.  I can't separate them  and can't listen to one without the other immediately following it.
They really are flying here - 'Life's Rich Pageant' is as confident as they've ever sounded, and in the shape of songs such as "Begin The Begin" and "Fall On Me" some of their finest tunesmithery.
If 'Life's Rich Pageant' was a step-up, then 'Document' is another leap - I really don't believe there is any flab in this record.  The albums open perfectly with "The Finest Worksong" and builds from there.  My only real criticism would be the placing of "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" at the end of Side 1 when it would better sit as the album closer (no disrespect to "Oddfellows Local 151" but it's not a signing out song).

'Document' marked the point when REM came to national attention, rather than just "a big cult".  And after an album like that, it's no wonder the big companies were waving cheques in temptation.

They signed to Warners on the basis of artistic control (ie no record company meddling or hassling for a single) and the bank-rolling of world tour(s) - something IRS just didn't have the capital to do.

But first came the new major label album - 'Green' released in late 1988.
For this album there were bigger (and better?) studios, and a certain amount of time freedom.  The results are not a million miles from 'Document' but there is more expanse to the sound and instrumentation, and the production is a lot cleaner (which is not always a good thing).  'Green' almost feels like a burst of creation - it's not consistent or thematic, but is not impenetrably going down different rabbit holes in search of a sound. You get (for want of a better term) commercial pop in "Pop Song 89" and "Stand" rubbing shoulders with caustic comment of "Orange Crush" and the mandolins of  the more reserved "You Are The Everything".  This album sets the stall for the next couple of outings.

And following a major World Tour, 'Out Of Time' arrived 3 years later.  Preceded by the single "Losing My Religion", this is probably the point where REM arrived in the Big League.  And as if to re-enforce the point, the endlessly jaunty (and sometimes annoying, sometimes wonderful) "Shiny Happy People" arrived soon after the album started to ascend the charts across the globe.
"Near Wild Heaven" is almost as insistent and "Endgame" and "Half A World Away" are pointers to what was coming.

And what was coming is, in the ears of many, REMs crowning glory - "Automatic For The People".
I say that many cite this album as the peak - I don't actually rate it that highly.  Too many slow and mid tempo tracks - it doesn't seem to swing like others.  Oh, don't get me wrong they are fine songs - "Drive", "Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite", "Ignoreland" - they just seem to lack a certain REM-ness.
But then again, when you've got an album with"Nightswimming" and "Everybody Hurts" why would you want to up the tempo?

But up the tempo they did, and crank the guitars up too.  Track 1 of 'Monster' will blow away any cobwebs lingering in the lugholes.
"What's The Frequency Kenneth?" is part an attempt to break the slower introspective feel of recent albums, part an object lesson how to write a punk song in the early 90s.
OK, the album is perhaps an intent to cover too many styles, bases and rock-isms to be seen as cohesively great, but I place it as the pick of the bunch.  It's the ecelecticism that wins it for me.  "Star 69" is cut from similar cloth as "Kenneth" and "Strange Currencies" may well be one of their finest moments. 

So where next?  It may only have been a year since 'Monster' but 'New Adventures In Hi-Fi' has a certain air of exhaustion about it.  It can be heard as an attempt to combine all the best bits of their past 5 albums into one whole - but it just misses the spot.
There are moments of greatness - "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us", "New Test Leper", "Departure", and "So Fast So Numb" to name 4 - but there are also moments where you feel you've heard it all before.  And I'm still not sure where I stand on "E-Bow The Letter"
There's a school of thought which states this was REM's last great album, and I'm inclined to agree.  It was also the last album to feature Bill Berry bashing the drums.  Related?

And now the narrative starts to get a bit shaky.

'New Adventures In Hi-Fi' was the last REM album I bought on or near it's release. 'Up and 'Reveal' did not arrive in my possession until after I'd bought (I think I bought it?  maybe I just acquired it from somewhere?) the compilation 'In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988–2003'

'Up' just sounds tired and like they're not really trying - although with "Daysleeper" they managed to create one shining spot on the album.
'Reveal' wasn't so much a re-invention, but at least it felt there was a tad more effort in it - "All The Way To Reno" and "Imitation Of Life" being the picks.
'Around The Sun' has a certain atmosphere about it - "Electron Blue" and "Leaving Nw York" passing muster, the others nearly but not quite.  And is it portentous to have a track called "The Last Straw"?
Well, 'Accelerate' was not the last straw - this one is almost as good as anything that came before.  It sounds fresh and attempts to swing a bit.  Opener "Living Well Is The Best Revenge" is as strong a rocker as anything that came before.  There's some real energy going on here, punctuated with a few slower moments, but certainly more Up than 'Up'.
Final album 'Collapse Into Now' continues a theme - there's life in the old dog yet.  But ... it does seem (after a couple of listens) to limp to a close.  Maybe, just maybe, the band could see the end coming and signed off with 1 very good album ('Accelerate') and one nearly good album ('Collapse Into Now)'.


What have I learnt?

  • The sound of a band can change with money and time - by nature, a musician wants to widdle about in the studio and see what happens.
  • The sound of a band will change again when a key member is taken out of the equation (and no amount of machines or session players can quite replace that chemistry)
  • Don't be too hasty to write a band off after a couple of duff albums - 'Accelerate' is a fine slab of noise, and the final album 'Collapse Into Now' (despite me mentally preparing to say "not a great way to conclude the legacy") is much better than I remember
  • REM were amazingly consistent and constantly developing over 30 years - I think they hit a peak, burned out, and we're just about reaching heights again before they decided the game (and time) was up 


Radio Free Europe

It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

What's The Frequency Kenneth?

Bad Day


Sunday, 3 January 2021

Give Em Enough Rope

Which is the best Clash album?

Most will cite the debut or 'London Calling'.  And rightly so, they are both great albums.  There may even be some who vote for 'Sandinista' (in a sort of perverse "Look at me.  I'm a big fan, and I'll do the unexpected thing to prove it" type way).
My choice?  'Give Em Enough Rope', the supposedly disappointing second album.

Since the impact of the debut, there had been 3 further singles - "Complete Control", "Clash City Rockers" and the peerless "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais".  Those 3 singles rank amongst the best tracks The Clash ever did, and each one moving further from the Punk template (which they'd already tried to break down with Reggae stabs on the debut).
And they're also now at full strength with Topper Headon installed on the drum stool and Paul Simonon now able to play bass without relying on tippex marks on the neck.
CBS were obviously looking for a big rerun on their investment, and selling albums in America would be a useful source of this return.  They weren't convinced that the debut would shift units and most likely suggested (imposed?) Blue Oyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman to twiddle the knobs for the next album, and also to give the whole package a buffing-up to ready it for the US market.
The final mix had Joe Strummer's vocals lower in the mix than Topper's drums for no other reason than Sandy Pearlman disliked the vocals.  And that may actually be a masterstroke in disguise as the sheer attack of the opening 3 songs - "Safe European Home", "English Civil War" and "Tommy Gun" - is very probably the greatest first 10 minutes of any album.
After that, it would take something special to keep the pace up.  It keeps bowling along, although in fairness, it does fall just short (no less valid, certainly not filler or padding, just not quite firing as high).  Until ... nestled in the middle of Side 2 is very possibly the best song Mick Jones ever wrote - "Stay Free".

The album shows a movement from the confines of Punk. A wider soundscape - Topper's versatile drumming and Mick's New York Dolls and Mott The Hoople influences can be heard in the arrangements that would ultimately return CBS's investment and (if only for a brief moment) be one of the biggest bands in the world.
"The only band that matters"?  Perhaps not, but between 1978 and 1982 they were certainly one of five or six bands that lay claim to that title.
And here's an interesting aside/thought: those 3 preceding singles, this album, and 'London Calling' were produced in a Bernie Rhodes-less environment.  Make of that what you will, but their best work was produced without their supposedly indispensable manager.

Maybe CBS and Sandy Pearlman got it right - The Clash don't sound out of place here, if anything it probably gave them the confidence to further explore their influences and sounds on the double 'London Calling' and triple 'Sandinista'.

Disappointing?  Not a bit of it.


Safe European Home


Stay Free