Saturday 31 December 2016

It's The Only Poll That Matters - The Stuff & Nonsense Top 12 of 2016 (and other sundry enthusiasms)

Yup, I too have been struck by the general air of malaise doing the rounds in the past 12 months.
Here's hoping that 2017 will be a brighter proposition - although is 24 hours going to make that much difference.

The biggest observation of 2016 was the return of my own anti-Midas touch where everything I touched seemed to turn to sh*t.
If I'm honest there wasn't a great deal of new stuff that enthused me musically, televisually, bookularly or DVDularly.
Most of the year was spent listening to and buying old stuff that I'd either missed before, never got round to owning or taking a punt on something that looked interesting.
Most of the time it proved to be a winner, and very few of my purchases turned out to be clunkers destined to spend the rest of their existence filed away gathering dust.
The other main thing that I indulged in this year was scowling (that may be too strong a term) and becoming exasperated that supermarkets muscled in on the hipster-esque craze for all things vinyl and started stocking the stuff.  Not in huge quantities, but enough to make you stop your weekly shop and have a little browse.
Anyway after much exasperation, I too joined the throng and purchased a couple of these sought after items.  How could I turn down the opportunity to own my ninth copy of 'Never Mind The Bollocks' (eleventh if you include the 2 CD versions).
I did though avoid the copy of The Specials in Tesco where they had punctured the sleeve with the security tag - what were they thinking?

As said above, musically the offerings were scant for me, but the 12 below (and other bits & bobs) ensured my lugholes were thoroughly entertained.

1. Steve Mason - Meet The Humans
Steve Mason has seemingly distilled all previous work into this one album and come up with an absolute winner.  This album matches anything he has done previously solo or with the Beta Band, and is more focussed, with a real air of joy about it (especially the opening track "Alive").
OK, the presence of Craig Potter in the producers chair does cause echoes of Elbow-ness, but this work is singularly unique but totally accessible.
Recorded by anyone else and with greater promotion the album would have, and deserves, a much wider audience
[more ...]

2. White Denim - Stiff
A real "back to basics" slab of 70s American Rock with hints of ZZ Top, Cream, The Doobie Brothers and Wild Cherry, with added Curtis Mayfield and Blaxploitation moments.
The riffs are huge, the sound chunky and funky - the whole album demands to be played loud, and repeated several times.

3. Madness - Can't Touch Us Now
They're back - this is the de facto followu-up to Norton Folgate after the mis-step of 'Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da'
Opening in the comfort of their recognisable trademark "plinky plonk" piano and saxophone blasts & honks, this album shows that Madness continue to mix upbeat bouncing tunes with sometimes darker subject matter.
My only concern with Madness is that their "Nutty Boys" image may well detract from their acceptance into the lexicon of Great British Songwriters.
[more ...]

4. P J Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition Project
Always took a long time to "get" Polly's out-pourings - sometime I never "got" them at all - this one was a straight in (OK, it took a couple of listens).  At the risk of sounding like a muso-journo her most accessible release.  Simplistic impressions here are a touch of Patti Smith mixed with a touch of Kate Bush - but always recognisably P J Harvey.
The combination of music and lyrics is sometimes bleak, sometimes brittle, sometimes forceful and (almost) angry, but always strikingly honest - she is saying what she has seen, with no compunction to provide a solution merely to make you think about it (or not)

5. Whitney - Light Upon The Lake
Another album with a 70s undertone - this is more in the Byrds / Band / Americana frame, with a bit of Big Star chucked in.
Melodic and sometimes melancholy, but with more ups than downs to ensure your ears are feasted.  It is bright, summery, and has a general feel good vibe about it

6. Field Music - Commontime
Here's another one of those "didn't get it straightaway" albums.  Pleasant enough on fiest listening, but maybe not a candidate for this Top 12 (or 10 or 17 or whatever number I decided on).
But wait, repeated listening and a shift of expectations proved this one not to be an ignored dust collector.  The Steely Dan comparisons seem to be a legal requirement of any review I've read, but there is more than just this - a real summery soundtrack of an album (so why did they release it in February?)
[more ...]

7. Primal Scream - Chaosmosis
Bobby Gillespie continues to do what he wants and makes a near return to Screamadelica territory, and then pulling in different bits of his back catalogue, and coming up with another winner - it may not be totally coherent, or have a common theme, but it does the job.  Do Primal Scream ever release a duff album?  This album may not be "life changing" or banging on the door of the Top 100 ... Ever, but they are always satisfying.

8. Bruce Foxton - Smash The Clock
From The Jam are the foremost Jam tribute act, and when you've got the original Bass player you should be.
Made with his From The Jam band mates (primarily Russel Hastings providing the vocal and guitar) this album shows that performing on the tribute circuit cannot dampen your desire to produce something new and original.  There are moments when you feel you could be listening to a lost Jam album (post The Gift) and there is a heady mix of mix of Motown and Northern Soul with a twist of Dr Feelgood, The Kinks and The Small Faces.
[more ...]

9. Metallica - Hardwired To Self Destruct
Metallica doing what they did best make a triumphant return to their past and (hopefully) prove to themselves that they don't need to be all clever, atmospheric a, navel gazing to produce a corking album.  OK, it may be a bit overlong, and could probably benefit from some editing down to a single album, but there is plenty here to make you want to return again and again.
Easily their best since the Black album, and should win back much of the older audience (ie me) clamouring/hoping for a return to their greatest moments

10. Brian Eno - The Ship
Eno does what Eno wants - and pretty much every album he releases is different.  A mew sound here, a new collage/experiment there, and rarely does he disappoint.  Whack this album on, sit back for 40 minutes and let it wash over you - do not try an do anything whilst this is playing.  It may be ambient in intent, but is not background music to accompany your chosen activity.
At the risk of sounding like a nerdy-sheeplike-Hipster, go fro the vinyl version - there is something added to the overall experience of Side 1 and Side 2 with a little break in the middle.

11. Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression
Has Iggy released a truly great album since 'The Idiot' or 'Lust For Life'?
He has now - thanks in no small part to Josh Homme.
I'll be honest, this one took a lot of listening for the penny to drop - glad it did though.
Listening to this post-Blackstar, it sounded like Iggy's own personal tribute to his former sparring partner - perhaps a combination of both timing and a faint re-tread/re-imaging of the albums.

12. David Bowie - Blackstar
This is not propping the list up due to some sort of "Everyone else is saying it's brilliant, and he died this year so I need to make mention of it" way.
This album is sitting in position number 12 because it is the twelfth most enjoyable album I bought in 2016.
Like Iggy above, not an immediate winner, but repeated listening bore fruit.
David Bowie albums are always unique affairs giving an insight to where his head is at that moment in time.  This one was no different, and we all know what happened next ...

Disappointment: Suede - Night Thoughts
And I was hoping for so much more - proof that you can't always get what you want.  By no means a bad album, I just wasn't hooked by it.  Can't truly explain why - maybe I should give it another couple of listens

Live: Stiff Little Fingers - Best Served Loud
This recording of their 25th successive Glasgow Barrowlands show is brimming with energy - I am not being biased (honest!) when I say if you are going to see just one Live band, make it Stiff Little Fingers

Discovery (about time too): Big Star
Big Star's 'Radio City' has been an ever-present in those Top 100 Albums You Must Listen To Before You Snuff It - but beyond "September Gurls" I'd never heard anything.
Until this year when annoyed with my tardiness, I purchased the double CD ('#1 Record' and 'Radio City') coupled with the DVD Documentary 'Nothing Can Hurt Me'.
Nothing else entered the CD Player for about a fortnight.  My considered opinion is that 'Radio City' deserves it's place on those lists, but '#1 Record' is even better.

Discovery (taking a punt): Hybrid Kids
Inspired by the DIY ethos of Punk, ex Mott The Hoople keyboard-ist retreated to his Notting Hill flat and assembled tape loops and cut-ups of well known songs performed by imagined bands from Peabody, Texas.
Who would not want to hear "Macarthur Park" done by a Two Tone band, The Sex Pistols covered by Pinky and Perky or The Wurzels doing "Wuthering Heights".  Top rank silliness, and all done by hand with no sequencers or studio trickery.

Box Set: Action Time Vision - A Story of UK Independent Punk 1976-1979
A 4 CD collection of the earliest outputs the soon to be big The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, The Ruts, Angelic Upstarts, 999, Skids, Sham 69, UK Subs, Cockney Rejects, The Rezillos, The Adicts, The Boys, The Lurkers, Alternative TV, The Members, Chelsea), early outings from Joy Division, Tubeway Army, Adam & The Ants, and the "one single wonders" like Nicky & The Dots, Suspects, Steroid Kiddies, Pure Hell, The Cravats or Woody & The Splinters.
Not every track here is a gem, but every single one of the bands had the desire and want to go into a studio and record themselves for posterity (even if it was only 500 copies).
This “Time Capsule” shows that those that “made it” were once at the same level as those whose sole offering is amongst the tracks here.
Without wishing to belittle or malign any of the contributions here, the feeling that comes from this 4 Disk Set is: Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Energy

DVD: Oasis - Supersonic
A documentary of the bands early years from formation to signing to Creation to playing to 250,000 at Knebworth.  An honest appraisal of the band themselves, their abilities and their failings.
The one big surprise that you only notice in retrospect is it all happened so quickly.  I have read reviews suggesting that people may not be as interested in what happened next - if anything, the confusion, in-fighting and eventual downfall may well make for an even better film

Friday 4 November 2016

Madness - Can't Touch Us Now

When a band has been doing the rounds for nigh on 40 years releases a new album, the obvious questions arise:
  • Have they still "got it"? (whatever "it" is)
  • Will this new collection be a worthy entry in their catalogue?
  • Are they just trading on past glories?
Yes, Yes and No (but also Yes (confusingly))

Over 38 years and 12 albums (including an 11 year hiatus) they've rarely released a duff album.  Even 1988s The Madness has (thanks to the distance of time and expectation) redeeming qualities. 1999s 'Wonderful' marked a return - it was good but sadly relied on point 3 above perhaps too much.
Scroll forward another 10 years, and the magnificent 'Liberty Of Norton Folgate' cemented their return, and at the same time their place as continuing that line of Great British Songwriters and Performers (I hesitate to say "National Treasures", but it does fit).
2012s 'Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da' was perhaps a slight wrong turning, but this new one is (in my mind) the de facto follow-up to Norton Folgate.

Right from the start, this is Madness doing what they do best.  Telling stories of life around them, their experiences (and imagined experiences) against a musical base of of Ska/Soul/Motown (with added Pub Rock and a whiff of the Fairground) against a backdrop of Ealing comedies, and a touch of darkness thrown in for good measure.  The plinky-plonk piano, greasy saxophone and urgency and sometimes over enunciated vocals are all present and correct.  Even when they make political comment (as they do on "Mumbo Jumbo") or consider Religion ("I Believe") it's still done with an uplifting beat.

There is a slight re-visit of the past on opener "Can't Touch Us Now" where the middle section is a slight re-visit of "Shut Up".  And from there on you know you are in comfortable territory.
"Mr Apples" and "Herbert" are story telling of the highest order, and "Blackbird" recounts a brief meeting with Amy Winehouse.
There is "Classic Madness" throughout the album particularly on the Western stylings of "Grand Slam" and "Don't Leave The Past Behind You" (this track is the most insistent and will be stuck in your brain for days).  There's even space for a ballad(?) in the shape of "You Are My Everything" - an almost spoken word statement of commitment that is neither soppy or sappy.
The past is (sort of) revisitied again with the doleful "Pam The Hawk" being a close cousin of "One Better Day".  This song could have just been mournful , but the lyrics and delivery ensure that is not the way - Yes, it is sorrowful, but not uncomfortable.
The closing track is a marvelous piece of nonsense called "Whistle In The Dark" which sounds like a left over, or forgotten track, from Norton Folgate.

The album was recorded live in an 8 Track studio - and they have made it clear that it was done the old fashioned way, with no ProTools or trickery going on.  And furthering the "analogue" nature (and because that's what everyone does now) the album is also available as a Vinyl edition.  And therein lies my only real complaint.  The CD has 16 tracks, the vinyl trims this to 12 losing "Another Version Of Me", "Don't Let Them Catch You Crying", "Given The Opportunity" and "Soul Denying".

There is plenty here that could comfortably sit in their live set alongside "Baggy Trousers", "One Step Beyond", "The Sun and The Rain" or "NW5".
This is Madness moving forward, but recognising what made them so long lived,  They have distilled their essence of the past 38 years into this album.  I admit that it's not their greatest offering (I think that honour falls to Norton Folgate or The Rise & Fall), but there is a craft and energy and honesty in this album that cannot be denied.  It deserves, and rewards, repeated listening.
Madness albums of old have a continuing lure that demands they be replayed, and this one is no different.

Sunday 18 September 2016

40 Years Of Punk - 1977

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full List:

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

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

Wednesday 24 August 2016

40 Years Of Punk - In The Beginning ...

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

But what is Punk?

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

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

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

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

Something had to give ... sooner or later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Saints - I'm Stranded

The Damned - New Rose

Next up: 1977 And All That

Saturday 28 May 2016

Bruce Foxton - Smash The Clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 20 May 2016

Green Day - American Idiot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Of Suburbia


Friday 8 April 2016

Metallica Stopped Being Metallica After Master Of Puppets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question is: how are they going to follow that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Horsemen

Fade To Black



Saturday 26 March 2016

Losing The Knack

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 12 March 2016

Steve Mason - Meet The Humans

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

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

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

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


To A Door

Wednesday 24 February 2016

Field Music - Commontime

I meant to write this a coupe of weeks ago after my first listen.
Initial impressions, and all that ...

And then I listened again and my thoughts changed.
And then again - in fact I've listened 5 or 6 times before finally coming to a conclusion.
Initially, I wasn't too sure - the first couple of tracks ("The Noisy Days Are Over" and "Disappointed") were direct winners sounding like a cross between Devo and Talking Heads with a lolloping funk groove underpinning it.
These two tracks tread similar musical ground, but then the album opens up and I was a bit wrong-footed by it.   I'll admit to be slightly underwhelmed by it, and it took a couple more listens to reveal itself in all its diverse charms.

Plainly, this album focuses on the Songwriting and production - it is a very direct album, and although it took a while to "get", once you're in it is strangely satisfying.  A note of warning however - for all its upfront diversity, and if this makes any sense, its lack of stretch in that diversity can become a little wearing.
It probably sounds better, and becomes more accessible, in mid-summer than the depths of a freezing cold winter, but one can't help but be drawn in.

Excuse the phrase, but there is a wide musical palette here - from the funky-popped-up Steely Dan (It's A Good Thing"), to the plaintive ("The Morning Is Waiting For You"), to the cinematic ("Trouble At The Lights").
Pick a genre, it's probably covered here - ELO, Queen, Steely Dan, 10CC, 70s Laurel Canyon, Yacht Rock,Prog, Jazz, Funk - they all make an appearance somewhere.

Later tracks "Indeed It Is" and "Same Name" smack a bit of filler but are not un-necessary.  The final track is what final tracks should be - "Stay Awake" borders on the epic, but never really achieves this.  A fine song to close the album, but I just wanted it to break out and explode a little.

Is it a great album?  To be honest I'm not sure - either I haven't listened intently enough, or it is just the wrong season for it.
May not be earth-shatteringly great, but it certainly piques my interest enough to explore their back catalogue further.


I'm Glad

Saturday 20 February 2016

Primal Scream - Give Out But Don't Give Up

Conventional wisdom states 'Screamadelica' is Primal Scream's best album.  Whilst the content of the Acid House/Indie crossover album is indeed spectacular, spaced out and can transport the listener to another world, it doesn't top the list.
If not 'Screamadelica', then surely 'Vanishing Point' is the high-water mark?
OK then, it must be 'XTRMNTR'?

Nope, my choice is the Scream album that garners the least love.
Coming after 'Screamadelica', it wrong footed a lot of fans by being an american roots/1970s classic rock album.
Rememebr, this was released in the early knockings of Britpop, and Primal Scream should've been one of the recognised leaders.  In terms of attitude, delivery and performance it met the criteria, but having a Confederate flag ion your album cover just didn't sit right with the mood of the time.
It's relatively poor performance meant the band almost ended up splitting (there were obviously other factors), and it was to be another 3 years before they re-grouped (with Mani from The Stone Roses on bass duties) and released the monumental dub/rock/electro/experimental 'Vanishing Point'.

In short, 'Give Out But Don't Give Up' Rocks like a b*stard, and is funky as f*ck!
and here's why ...

In early 1992, the bands released the Dixie Narco EP.  This EP opened with "Movin On Up" from 'Screamadelica' and closed with the track titled "Screamadelica" (which didn't make it onto the album).  The tracks in between ("Stone My Soul" and a cover of Denis Wilsons "Carry Me Home" gave a pointer where the band were going next, having that swampy, sludgy, rootsy, 1970s Rolling Stones/American Rock sound.  "Screamadelica" was no doubt the main draw for this EP, and despite not being on the album, sounds very much like it should've been (there's even a touch of Blaxploitation Film Soundtrack about the track, just to add further confusion to the listeners ears).

In the same vein the "Movin On Up" is probably the best song The Stones never wrote, this album opens with two more contenders in the shape of "Jailbird" and "Rocks" (with the latter going one stage further and actually nicking a Stones song title too).  Stones comparisons continue with "I'm Gonna Cry Myself Blind", a slow paced ballad with backing vocal from Deneice Williams (who pops up on lead vocal on three tracks later, most notably "Free").
And then George Clinton rides in, and "Funky Jam" does what it says on the tin - rock guitar, funk drums and bass, with a hollering vocal, and all sounding like a cleaned up jam session.
There is more yearning on "Big Jet Plane" and "Struttin" is a damn near perfect Rock/Funk crossover.  And it don't let up - there is more swampy blues ("Sad and Blue", "I'll Be There For You") punctuated with in-your-face funk (title track "Give Out But Don't Give Up").
It is a long album, at just under 60 minutes, but there is nothing here that you (a) want to skip. or (b)wish was just that bit shorter.

After the success of 'Screamadelica', maybe it was too much of a change of direction, but all the way through the band sound like they're enjoying the funky abandon.  More power to them, and yah boo sucks to anyone who didn't "get" it.
Besides, it can't have been too much of a departure because the band went down this path again with 2006s 'Riot City Blues' - this time the critics were on their side though, and that album is hailed as an integral part of the Primal Scream canon


The Rolling Stones are not the only band comparison for "Rocks" - Faces were also mentioned as a reference point.  To neatly bring everything full circle, Rod Stewart covered the song on his 1998 covers album "When We Were the New Boys"

Tuesday 9 February 2016

Too Much Choice or Lack Of Interest?

There is no other way of saying it, but I love music.
Once all the usual, mundane expenses are taken care of (Motrgage, Car, Food, Tobacco, Beer etc) all disposable income goes on the purchasing of CDs, Vinyl and any other music medium (I once bought a stack of 8 Track Cartridges - I have no Player for them, but at least I know I own them).
So, what I've ended up with is a stack of shelves stuffed with whatever music to match any given mood.

Apart from slobbing out in front of the telly, every other activity in the house is accompanied by some music blasting (or even sometimes (rarely) just gently filtering through the air.
My usual routine during the week (because you have to have a routine, don't you?) is whilst driving home from work, deciding upon that evenings soundtrack.  Sometimes I can't settle on a particular choice, so will spend a couple of minutes staring at the shelves awaiting inspiration - that usually does the job and the evening soundtrack is somehow mystically sorted.

However, in recent times I find myself bereft of inspiration.  I have no great desire to listen to anything in particular.  And the 2 minutes staring at the shelves has turned into a 10 minute contemplation on the relative merits of whatever my eyes fall upon.  Discs are withdrawn from the shelf, looked at, ummed and arred about, and then put back.

Have I hit that tipping point where too much choice has become a barrier to decision (and enjoyment?)
Have I really listened to everything I own so much that it has lost it's appeal?
Maybe I should re-organise the shelves in the hope of finding a lost gem?

I've only bought a couple of new CDs this year, but can't say that I'm cock-a-hoop about any of them yet.  Despite near constant listening in mid-January, David Bowie's 'Blackstar' has not burrowed into my head.  I'm reading reports, and hearing others, declare at as a masterpiece.  Unfortunately, I'm not getting that yet (may be another symptom of my malaise?).

But .. I will not give in - another order has been placed with the friendly on-line retailer, and includes two candidates for the "most likely to shake me out of this situation award" - Steve Masons 'Meet The Humans' is due at the end of the month, and 'Commontime' by Field Music.

Not knowingly heard the band until the release of "The Noisy Days Are Over", everything else I've heard by them so far has (nearly) convinced me all is not lost, and hopefully I will be back to "entertaining" the house once again.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

Stiff Little Fingers (Part 2)

(continued from Part 1)

When the band finally dissolved in early 1983, Henry returned to Belfast and Ali spent time with Funk band Friction Groove before moving into Tour Management.
Jake and Dolphin remained together in the hope of getting a new project of the ground.  Studio time was booked, and rehearsals convened with a number of Bass players, including Bruce Foxton who had just left The Jam.  Unfortunately, this project never got further than some early demo recordings, and Dolphin left to drum for Spear Of Destiny.  Undeterred, Jake put together his own band (Jake Burns & The Big Wheel).  
The Big Wheel included ex Dexys Midnight Runners keyboardist Pete Saunders, ex-Starjets bassist Sean Martin (who Jake knew from Belfast) and drummer Steve Grantley (who will pop up again later), and the sound/feel is best described as late-period SLF mixed with with Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello overtones.
Despite playing regularly, no major record company interest was forthcoming.  They did however release 3 singles.
The first two singles "She Grew Up" (1984) and "On Fortune Street" (1985) were released on Survival Records, and also included a catalogue reference to a resurrected Rigid Digits Records.  The third single, "Breathless" (1987), was released on Jive Records - nearly a major label, but no further interest was gained other than this initial release.
Following this release, and with no breakthrough seeming on the horizon, The Big Wheel called it a day.
The 3 singles (A & B) Sides and various Radio 1 Sessions were collected together on a compilation in 2002.  The development of the band, but the obvious root of the songwriting and performance, gives a potential clue as to what a fifth Stiff Little Fingers album may have sounded.

Later in 1987, Jake met up with Ali, following a Tom Robinson Band Re-Union Show, and they agreed to undertake a series of re-union shows themselves.  The prime motivation of the shows was to earn a bit of cash, and to get home to Belfast in time for Christmas.  The last incarnation of the band re-grouped and organised a couple of low key warm-up shows.  The audience response, and ticket sales, convinced the band to extend the number of shows and to book larger venues. 
Such was the popularity of the reformation, it was decided to do book a full scale tour culminating in two sell out shows at the Brixton Academy, convincing the band to make the reformation permanent.
The December 1987 Reformation shows at the Kilburn Ballroom had been recorded, and were made available by two separate independent  labels (Link Records under the title 'Live and Loud', and Kaz Records under the title 'No Sleep Til Belfast').  Further product was available, on another label (Skunkz Recordings), in the shape of the 12” EP “No Sleep Til Belfast” and including the title track, "Suspect Device", "Alternative Ulster" and "Johnny Was" culled from the Kilburn National recording.

Touring continued in the new year, and The Brixton Academy hosted the (soon to be traditional) St Patricks Night concert.  This show was recorded and would be issued as a Double Album and VHS Video Cassette (remember them?), both titled 'See You Up There'.
A distribution deal was arranged with Virgin Records - so one of the record companies courting the band in 1979 finally got their business.
A single was taken from the album – a cover of the Irish Folk song (drinking song?) “The Wild Rover”, coupled with a live version of “Love Of The Common People”.
The song was originally recorded for the 'Now Then' album in 1982.  It featured as part of their live show on the supporting tour, and they were asked by the lead singer of the Q-Tips if they had any plans to release it as a single, and if not then he may just do his own version.  9 months later, Paul Young sat at number 2 in the charts with his version.  And now, 7 years later, Stiff Little Fingers were trying to re-dress the balance.  As is the way with SLF singles, this version made no impression on the charts.

The March Tour/St Patricks Night was repeated the for following two years along with jaunts across Europe and to Japan.
Around this time, it was decided that if the band were indeed a going concern, and to prevent the “cabaret punk band” tag, new material should be recorded.
Ali McMordie was unable to commit full-time to recording and touring, and left the band in early 1991.  Bruce Foxton was installed as the new Bass player, and within two weeks was on a plane to Japan for his first shows with the band, and recording of a new album commenced upon their return.
'Flags & Emblems' was released on Essential Records (a subsidiary of Castle Communications) in October 1991.
The record suffers from lumpen production, and a couple of the songs are “not quite there”.   There is an air of Pub Rock about openers “It’s a Long Way To Paradise From Here” and “Stand Up And Shout”, but both bear all the hallmarks of SLF of old – ‘be what you are / hold on to your own beliefs’ lyrical theme, and a rousing, anthemic tune and melody.
“Each Dollar A Bullet” ranks alongside the best songs Jake Burns has written, and the closing tracks (“Die and Burn” and “No Surrender”) give this album a very strong ending.
Guest musicians can be found in the guise of Lee Brilleaux providing harmonica on “It’s a Long Way To Paradise From Here” and Rory Gallagher providing Slide Guitar on “Human Shield”.

One single was released from the album, and promptly banned by the BBC on the day of release – “Beirut Moon” was written about the UK Governments lack of intervention concerning the kidnapping of journalist John McCarthy.

Another live album ('Fly The Flags') recorded at Brixton Academy (again) in October 1991 was released the following year on another subsidiary label of Castle (Dojo), and then the band returned to the studio (in between tour commitments) for the next album.
During preparations and recording in 1993, Henry Cluney left the band, leaving Stiff Little Fingers to complete the recording of the next album as a 3 piece for the first time in their career.  The resultant album, 'Get A Life' was released in late 1994.  Probably not their greatest collection, but still contains some fine songs.  The opening track “Get A Life”, second track “Can’t Believe In You” and the (almost) venomous denouncement of racist prejudice, wrapped up in a fine acoustic riff “Harp” are worth the entry fee alone.  Add to that the closing ‘none-more-punk’ thrash of “What If I Want More”, and there is a lot to like here.  There is a maturity to the writing and the subject matter, with a stronger social conscience/personal statement than previously.  It’s just unfortunate that being released on a small independent label, very few people got to hear the songs.

For touring purposes, the band were augmented on tour by additional guitarists Dave Sharp (The Alarm) and Ian McCallum.  They continued their traditional March/St Patricks Night touring, which had been re-located to Glasgow Barrowlands in 1992.  The 1993 show featured a guest appearance from Ricky Warwick (The Almighty) and was recorded and issued as 'Pure Fingers' in 1995.
As far as “Silly Encores” go, this is either inspired, or a new low, containing a cover version of Val Doonican’s “Walk Tall”.

In Summer 1996, Stiff Little Fingers were added to the bill for the Sex Pistols reformation shows.  The apocryphal story is that the Pistols shows in Glasgow were not selling at levels expected.  Stiff Little Fingers were added to the bill, and the shows were sold out within 24 hours.  Now it is true that SLF are held in great esteem in Glasgow, and the Barrowlands St Patricks show are something of an annual pilgrimage, but if the ‘Fingers added to the bill – show sells out’ story is true , then it is definitely one in the eye for John, Steve, Paul and Glen.
Towards the end of 1996, Dolphin Taylor left the band to spend more time with his family, and devote more time to his newly formed production music company, Extreme Music.
Dolphin’s replacement was Steve Grantley, who had played with Jake in The Big Wheel.
Continuing as a 3 piece, ably supported by guest musicians (primarily Ian MacCullum), the band continued to regularly tour, and stop off for the annual St Patricks shindig at Glasgow Barrowlands.
SLF signed with Spit Fire Records, a subsidiary label of Abstract Sounds , and in 1997 'Tinderbox' was released.  Not long after the release, Abstract changed their distributors to Pinnacle, just as Pinnacle were on the verge of going "belly-up", resulting in the distribution/availability of the album being severely affected.  For a few years (until the signing with EMI, which sorted out the licensing, re-issue and (proper) distribution) 'Tinderbox' remained a “lost” album.
Opening in fine style with “You Never Hear The One That Hits You”, “I Could Be Happy Yesterday” and “Tinderbox”, the album continues at a fine pace.  There is an ambivalence throughout the songs, with many containing an undercurrent of raw anger and shoutiness (albeit more in “feeling” than delivery), whilst never detracting from the air of optimism throughout.  All the way through, you can hear the band stretching themselves, none more so perhaps on the closing track, the mini-epic “The Roaring Boys (Parts 1 & 2)” – opening with plaintive piano and voice, splashes of brass push in, before a penny whistle break and then the signature sound of SLF kicks in.  Other highlights include “Hurricane” and the cover of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”.

Ian MacCullum had been providing additional guitar support to the band on tour, and in 1998 became a full-time member, returning the band to a 4 piece unit.  This move coincided with signing to EMI, and preparation for their next album.

After spending the initial years of the reformation knocking around small independent labels with little production/publicity muscle, the signing to EMI was something of a surprise.  As alluded to earlier,  Virgin were one of the labels who wanted the band in 1979, but lost out to Chrysalis. Chrysalis was taken over by EMI in 1990, so presumably the SLF catalogue came with the deal, and the whole catalogue was remasterd and re-issued on on EMI.
So the signing to EMI may have been a result of circumstances (about time the band had a bit of luck!).  Maybe EMI didn't realise, or know what to do with the band and so them a couple of album deal to "buy them out"?

'Hope Street' was released in 1999, and a the behest of the record company was packaged with a new compilation ('… And Best Of All' – which opened with “Suspect Device” and the culled 3 tracks per album from the 1978-82 period).

The optimistic mood prevalent on 'Tinderbox' is reprieved (and then some!) on this album.  The name “Hope Street” offers a clue to the content, which are some of the most optimistic songs the band have recorded.  There is also a touch of 'Nobodys Hero' about the songs being concerned with recognising and fulfilling one’s own potential.  The obligatory cover this time around is Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want It”, and sits perfectly with the theme of the album.  As is the way with Stiff Little Fingers albums, politics and injustice also make an appearance in the shape of “Last Train From The Wasteland”- written in response to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland – and “Half A Life Away” – an electro/acoustic exercise about wrongful arrest and imprisonment in segregated America of the 1950s.
Sadly, most reviews across the media and the internet centre on the “Greatest Hits” set, and unfairly dismiss the 'Hope Street' as an afterthought and/or cynical exercise to sell more units (which, to be honest, was probably in EMIs thinking at the outset).  Later re-issued as a single disc set (with a different front cover), 'Hope Street' is a natural progression from 'Tinderbox', and includes songs like “Bulletproof”, “No Faith” and “All I Need” which should/could (but sadly don’t) appear in Stiff Little Fingers live set today.

2003s 'Guitar and Drum' has a tougher sound than its Phase 2 predecessors.  Still rooted in rock but veering back towards their earlier punk/power-pop sound.   Indeed, the sound emanating from this album is probably closer to their live sound (in cleaned-up studio form, but not totally polished – the raw edges remain).
The title track opens the album in exceptionally strong style – to some ears it may read like an old duffer bemoaning the musical and entertainment landscape, and indeed does include the line “but that don’t amuse this cynical old bastard”.  But wait, the message here is that there is more power emanating from a Guitar and Drum than the plastic, indentikit, auto-tuned, blandfest that passes for music.
From there, it is straight into a stomping tribute to Joe Strummer (“Strummerville”), followed by a veiled (or not so) veiled attack oat Record Companies and/or Big Business (“You Can’t Get Away With That”).  The Byrds-ian guitar and harmony of “Dead Man Walking” is a real change of pace and style, yet still has SLF trademark stamped all over it.  As does, the storming “Who Died And Made You Elvis”, featuring a riff that gets stuck in your head for what seems like ever.
In short, this is the best album the band have released in Phase 2, and right up there with material from their first incarnation.  35 years since they began, a song like “Still Burning” encapsulates (a) why there still around, and (b) they may be here for some time yet.

In 2006, Bruce Foxton announced his departure from the band, subsequently joining From The Jam (meaning the foremost Jam Tribute band now contained 2 original members).
Ali McMordie was offered the chance to re-join on Bass, which he did where his Tour Management and other commitments allowed.  10 years later, he is still in the band.

New material had been on the drawing board since Ali’s return, but it was to be 11 years before a new album appeared.  The delay can be traced to several reasons: record company representation, personal upheaval, scrapping many songs at the working stage and starting again.
Free from Record Company distraction, and since the early days always effectively being in control of their own catalogue, Stiff Little Fingers went totally independent again.  The Rigid Digits imprint was resurrected, and crowd-source funding was sought through Pledge Music.  The band gave themselves 2 months to achieve the target funds required for the recording, mixing and release of their next album.  12 hours after going live, the target had been reached (and far surpassed).   
The 12 new songs that make up 'No Going Back' 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.
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.
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?).
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.
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.

March 2016 will mark the 25th consecutive St Patricks bash at Glasgow Barrowlands.  To mark this event, the show will be recorded for both CD and DVD, and these packages (and a host of others) are available through the latest Pledge Music campaign.

And there are already rumblings about another studio album sometime in 2017 ...

SLF (Part 1) lasted 4 years, SLF (Part 2) is approaching it's 30th birthday.  Not bad for a bunch of shouty Belfast kids singing about bombs and boredom.

Can't Believe In You

Guitar & Drum

When We We're Young