Wednesday 26 March 2014

1987 - What The F**k Is Going On?

was the title of a KLF album.
And I agree with Bill Drummonds assertion - what exactly was going on at that time?
  • Smiths had just split
  • No new Iron Maiden album
  • The rampant rise of American Hair Metal/Poodle Rock with Bon Jovi headlining Monsters Of Rock at Donnington
  • Stock, Aitken & Waterman
  • Acceeid!
  • Only 10 years since The Sex Pistols, and the passing of Elvis Presley and Marc Bolan - feels like longer!
It really was a rubbish year for buying records and listening to music.
In fact, it stayed firmly stuck in a rut until March 1992, when this record heralded the beginnings of what the world would come to know as Britpop

Blur - Popscene

But was it all bad in 1987?
To be honest, there were some definite plus points.  Prime examples being:
  • Pogues and The Dubliners performing "The Irish Rover" which certainly lit up an otherwise "ho-hum" edition of Saturday Night Live
  • The Cult - Electric
    An album which pulled on classic AC/DC riffs, Robert Plant-esque vocal, thundering drums, all topped off with Rick Rubin's thoughtful, commercial production job.  You can even forgive the perfunctory, almost pointless, cover of "Born To Be Wild"
  • Jethro Tull - Crest Of  A Knave
    A fantastic album, albeit a slightly restrained Tull performance following Ian Anderson's throat surgery.  Contains some fine songs, and is probably their best outing (if not surpassing) 1982s 'Broadsword And The Beast'.  One nice touch: this album won a Grammy for 'Best Metal Performance' beating Janes Addiction ('Nothings Shocking') and Metallica ('... And Justice For All').  Rightly so in my opinion, although describing 'Crest Of A Knave' as a Metal album is pushing the envelope a bit
  • Marillion - Clutching At Straws
    Fish's last outing with the band.  And a sign off in style, the songs here are some of the most thought out, best arranged and direct songs the band had produced (personal note: it's not as good as 'Misplaced Childhood' though)
  • Guns n Roses - Appetite For Destruction
    When considered in retrospect this is a hard rocking, hard drinking, masterpiece of sleaze.  But in 1987, I blanked it.  I almost went out of my way to dislike it, feeling that it was derivative, un-original and was image driven (marketing) rather than music driven (honesty).  Hey, I was wrong and this is a definite classic of the age
But the above were mere glints of light in an oasis of blandness and boredom.  It was also the start of the "looking back to the past" era, with the year opening with Jackie Wilson's "Reet Petite" at Number 1.
The success of "Reet Petite" was a result of the 'claymation' video, but the appearance sat nicely with the ongoing Levis adverts and the old song used to soundtrack them ("Wonderful World" and "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" in 1986, "Stand By Me" and "When A Man Loves A Woman" in 1987).
1988 continued in a similar vein, with rare shafts of light cutting through an otherwise turgid musical landscape filled with Stock, Aitken & Waterman, Acid House/Rave stuff, re-releases (often inspired by TV adverts) and multiple cover versions.

And now my original intention to denegrate 5 years of musical history (from 1987 to 1992) as "a bit rubbish" rally starts to fall down.
1988 also brought forth bands such as The Primitives, Transvision Vamp, The Wonderstuff, Pop Will Eat Itself, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine and Zodiac Mindwarp (plus a host of others which I can't remember at the moment).

Rolling into 1989, it appeared that this was to be another year of bland and insipid, punctuated at times by the genuinely interesting.  To a mainstream audience, this was to be the year when the first rumblings of what was to become known as Madchester were felt.
Indie or alternative rock had been doing the rounds for many years, but the NME C86 Cassette was perhaps a catalyst of sorts which started to regiment and identify this particular form of music.  Band such as Primal Scream, The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Wedding Present were selling records but in relatively small numbers, and never really getting commercial recognition.
Indeed, as stated above there were an increasing number of bands gaining recognition, but a combination of backward looking, forward thinking bands brought the word "indie" right into the medias focus.
Madchester was a meeting of dance culture, clubbing, indie rock and psychedelia (a pretty simplistic attempt at a definition, but you get the general idea).  In late 1988,  The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses had released their first singles (or at least their first singles that the wider world took any notice of), and a head of steam was being built in the music press.  By late spring 1989, the Stone Roses debut was released.  Whilst initial reviews were positive, it wasn't the instant explosion of success that legend would have us believe.  The album sold fairly well, and the Stone Roses "legend" (and by association the idea of Madchester) grow steadily.  It was perhaps the release of "Fools Gold" in November which cemented the Stone Roses in the public consciousness.  The dual appearance of Stone Roses and Happy Mondays (Madchester Rave On EP) on Top Of The Pops certainly helped.
After this, Madchester became a bandwagon that the press and the record companies boarded.  Pretty soon any band with either a Manchester postcode and/or a Byrds-ish guitar style or Hammond Organ stylings were rewarded with record contracts, TV appearances and general adulation.
The big 4 at this time were probably (and this is my opinion): Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and The Charlatans.
This period also spawned, either in contrast or in conjuction with Madchester, the Baggy movement.  If I'm being cynical, this was the same thing just on a more nationwide scale.The original template of the above bands was taken, squeezed and fitted with new thought process, attitude and audience.  Much of it was more "pop" focussed.  Bands such as The Farm, Flowered Up, Jesus Jones, The Soup Dragons, The Mock Turtles, New Fast Automatic Daffodils and Northside benefited from this broadening of geography

1990 & 1991 continued a theme with a plethora of Indie Rock bands breaking through and keeping my world interesting.  Jangle-pop, Indie Dance stuff, Shoegazing and a great many other sub-genres.  Bands included: Teenage Fanclub, Carter USM, Neds Atomic Dustbin, Senseless Things, Sultans Of Ping FC, Blue Aeroplanes, Curve, Ride, The Almighty and first outings for the Manic Street Preachers.

Whatever label it was given, the period 1989 to 1991 was a wonderfully interesting (if not massively diverse) time for indie/alternative rock and it's many variants.

So, I've failed with my original hypothesis.  This 5 year period was not the blank landscape that I originally decided it was (1987 was still a bit off a duff year though).

2014 marks the 25th Anniversary of the release of The Stone Roses debut album.  As stated above, it wasn't the legend that it is now believed to be when initially released.
In fact, like "Appetite For Destruction", this was another album which bore the brunt of my misguided prejudice.  When I first heard it, I really didn't think much of it.  I felt it was slow, ponderous and a bit clinical in places.  The fact I wasn't "into" the dance elements of the music probably didn't help matters either.
It is only in the last 5 years (or so) that I have gone back to it, and started to "get it" - oh well, better late than never I suppose.

Stone Roses - She Bangs The Drums

Friday 7 March 2014

Stiff Little Fingers - No Going Back

The first incarnation of Stiff Little Fingers released 4 albums (plus 1 official Live album) in 4 years of existence.  Since their reformation in 1987, Stiff Little Fingers have released 5 studio albums, plus a clutch of Live and Compilation albums.
Stiff Little Fingers (Phase 2) are about to release their 6th studio album

In the 11 years since their last outing, they have departed from EMI (who released 1999s 'Hope Street' and 2003s 'Guitar and Drum'), original bass player Ali McMordie re-joined the band in 2006 providing both stability to the line-up and the inclusion of 2 original members, and the band have been touring for what seems like always.
But those same targets of past SLF records remain, and the time was right for the band to produce another batch of songs fronting up to these injustices and sometimes difficult situations.  Unscrupulous politicians, the banking industry, record companies, equality, hypocrisy and intolerance are just some of the subjects to make an appearance on the latest release.
It has been sugggested that at one point, this album very nearly didn't happen.  Jake Burns passed his 50th birthday, and lost faith in his songwriting
"I was going through the motions. There was no real inspiration in the songs and I could do a lot better"

Jake Burns re-discovered inspiration, and has come up with a set of songs which rank alongside the best he has done.  Tuneful, melodic and full of power (not always blood, guts and outrage, but there is some of that).

The new album started life as a PledgeMusic campaign and the target was achieved in 12 hours, demolishing the two month time period the band set for raising the funds.
So, true to their word they entered a recording studio in Los Angeles in mid January, and the finished product emerged some 6 weeks later.
Releases as a download version to those who pledged their support, the album is due full "physical" release at the end of March
Jake Burns:
We were a bit nervous about it at first, probably because we’d never done it before, but the more we thought about the more we realized that, realistically, with the rise of the internet, traditional record companies are pretty much dead in the water these days. We did talk to a few but, they were kind of so dismal about their own outlook that it didn’t really inspire us to want to work with anybody, And the more we thought about the pledge thing, the more we realized that it was kind of close to the do-it-yourself ethic that we came from. And it brought us almost full circle into being a fully independent band again, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Not that we ever had a huge amount of interference from either Chrysalis or EMI, or any of the record people we worked with, basically they just let us get on with it. But there always was the possibility that somebody from the company would come down and make harrumphing noises at the back of the studio. Whereas, with this, we’re the only ones in charge, so you do get a huge amount of artistic freedom with it.

It’s interesting, because, as I said in the past, we were going into the studio and we were effectively spending EMI’s money. It was OUR money at the end of the day because it’s only an advance, but you kind of felt, it’s a big corporation, they can afford it. With this, because it was the audience’s money, we kind of feel a bigger responsibility to get it right this time. Because it’s a huge leap of faith on their part. Effectively they are pre-buying a record that they haven’t heard. Which shows a huge amount of faith in us, so obviously you don’t want to let them down, you want to justify that faith. So we’re all … I think whenever the guy hit record, today was the first day I was actually working on the guitars, when he put the machine into record, I’m suddenly very aware that, I gotta get this right! I can’t afford to screw this up because, like I said, they’ve already bought it. They’ve put their faith in us.
"Shamefully" lifted from an interview with Bob Lee / LA Beat (Eternally Inflammable: An Interview With Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns)

The 12 new songs that make up the album bear all the hallmarks of the bands history.
Echoes of previous outings, replete with hammering riffs, soaring guitar, solid bedrock bass and pounding drums are much in evidence.
The songs retain an anthemic quality, with a call to arms in places, and the ability to provoke thought and discussion by offering a new way, or a personal viewpoint on a particular situation.
In short, this isn't just a bunch of old geezers continuing recording for the sake of it, this album offers valid comment on the world around them.

Stiff Little Fingers will often be associated with political statement, and opening track "Liars Club" maintains this expectation with a sideswipe at politicians
"My Dark Places" documents Jake Burns personal battle with depression.   It is both poignant and powerful, conveying the message in a clear personal tone, and offering an element of hope at the end of it.
"Full Steam Backwards" is an attack on the unscrupulous nature of the banking industry, and the re-distribution (or lack of) wealth in society.  The bass track underpinning this song confirms a belief that Ali McMordie is in the top 3 of punk/new wave bassists alongside Bruce Foxton and Jean-Jaques Burnel.
The pace is maintained "I Just Care About Me", and then the opening lazy reggae riff which underpins "Don't Mind Me" offers variety to the sound.
And then there is another change of pace.  The pipe introduction for "Guilty As Sin" offers no clue to the subject matter therein.  The difficult and taboo subject of the effects of child abuse and the hypocrisy of the Catholic church are tackled, in an honest and straightforward matter (what else did you expect from SLF?).
It's back to to speed next, with the pummeling riffs, power chords and melodic solos in abundance through "One Man Island", "Throwing It All Away" (vocal from Ian McCallum), "Good Luck With That" and "Trail Of Tears".

Closing on two tracks questioning just how far the world has moved in the last 20 or 30 years.
"Since Yesterday Was Here" has all the anthemic, air punching trademarks you expect, plus a nifty little guitar solo in the middle.  "When We Were Young" is a review of the past, and the realisation that yep, nothing much has changed.  Completing the "full circle" motif, almost eerie echoes of "At The Edge" can be heard in the playout track

Comparisons to previous work are often simplistic and unhelpful in the appraisal of a new album, but ...
In terms of sound, this album is closer to Now Then, if less cluttered, than any of the other first incarnation albums (in fairness, they were hardly likely to produce the adrenaline rush of punk that was 'Inflammable Material', the punk-pop of 'Nobodys Heroes' or the exuberant power-pop of 'Go For It').  "Why not" you may ask - they're older, wiser, more technically competent and the world is a different place than it was in 1978.
The 5 albums released since the reformation have been steadily improving in composition and clarity, and this album represents a welcome addition to the cannon.  The album has a wonderfully clear and bright sound, with none of the band getting lost within the mix, and there is no doubt about the bands focus and pride.
Just one listen confirms that the passion of is still there - to nick a title from the previous album, Stiff Little Fingers are Still Burning and have delivered a searing collection of songs which ranks as probably the best (or at least the equal of 'Guitar and Drum') of the second incarnation (ie post 1987)), and sits comfortably alongside the earlier works in terms of power and delivery.

For full details of the Pledge Campaign: