Thursday 15 June 2017

It says nothing to me about my life ...

When you're 13 or 14, the only way to start your weekend was by settling down on the sofa and switching to Channel 4 to watch The Tube.
The jump from Top Of The Pops to Whistle Test (it had only recently lost it's "Old Grey .." moniker) was perhaps to great to take in one step, and so The Tube offered an alternative route.
A music show that didn't take itself too seriously, placed the bands and the music at the forefront (not what they were wearing, or what their favourite sandwiches were), and didn't come over like a glorified Youth Club party fronted by Radio DJs that were virtually ancient, and despite their enthusiasms really showed no great love for the music on offer (John Peel and Kid Jensen are exempted from this observation, as they seemed to spend their allotted half hour subtly ripping the p*ss out of everything)

It was on The Tube that I first heard and saw The Smiths.
The song was "This Charming Man" - it was genuinely exciting on first hearing.  Certainly compared to the relatively lame opposition.  It had that added frisson of excitement being an Indie record (when being "indie" meant being independent not having a guitar and sounding like a pile of other bands).
But I wasn't so taken with the pillock of a lead singer - all hearing aids, National Health Specs and flowers.  What's that all about?  Is he trying to be a northern version of Neil from The Young Ones?

Good song (nay, great song) but my boat remained well and truly unfloated.

School days in 1983/84 is split into distinct factions when it comes to music (and this is a sweeping generalisation):
  • The "girly pop" of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet
  • The Reggae bods - serviced by UB40 and Bob Marley
  • The scruffy metal heads, pretend punks and part time goths - Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motorhead very much to the fore
  • Goths and Indie kids - 4AD, Bauhuas and The Cure.  When it wasn't dark, it was all a bit maudlin and student-y
  • The cool kids who probably read books, wore polo necks and were likely to go to university - U2, Simple Minds and maybe some jazz seemed to be permanently playing on their Sony Walkmans.
The Smiths straddled these last two groups bringing together hitherto un-communicative tribes
Despite owning, and playing to death, a copy of U2's 'War', defending the greatness and importance of the Human League, flexing my "classics of history" chops by listening to The Shadows, and defending the vocal prowess of Rod Stewart, I fell firmly into the scruffy sod category - a designation I felt entirely comfortable with.  Having a predilection for very loud guitars, thumping drums and a general air of chaos meant my occupation of this group was probably pre-determined.  Citing Worzel Gummidge and Compo as fashion icons and only added to the confirmation.
(Hence the title: at the time, it really did say nothing to me about my life - or at least no reference that fully fitted (I had never seen a punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate, nor was I the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar)

Now, this wasn't quite the open warfare of Mods and Rockers or Punks and Skins, the battle lines were only shakily sketched and there was great tolerance - or at least "some" tolerance (usually) of each other musical choices (although anyone who declared Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon as the greatest song ever written was likely to get serially duffed up).

I had a sneaking admiration for Morrissey's anti-popstar stance - the moody pictures in Smash Hits, the difficult interviews, a glamourisation of an unglamorous past that I didn't understand, and the use of big words.  And all that was underpinned by Johnny Marr's jangling, insistent guitar.
And whilst the songs I had heard always made me think "mmm ... bloody good that" it never translated into a single or album purchase.

But you can't resist forever, and in early 1987 I finally succumbed and purchased a copy of the compilation 'Louder Than Bombs' on import from my local, friendly Our Price.
The singles "Shoplifters Of The World Unite" and "Sheila Take A Bow" had burrowed their way into my head, and I was now at the point where I had to have more Smiths material - the compilation (despite it's increased cost due to being an Import) was a necessary purchase.
OK, I could've saved myself 3 or 4 quid by buying 'The World Won't Listen' (the UK version of the expanded US release 'Louder Than Bombs'), but this ignores the snobbery of owning an Import, and the fact that the US version had extra tracks, including some earlier material.

I bought this, listened to it, digested it and returned it to the shelf - "Yes", I thought. "there are good songs there.  It ain't half bad.  But it's still not me".
And then over the next few weeks I would find odd tunes or a lyric popping into my head for no apparent reason - I may have become infected (except that was by The The - another band beloved of the Indie Kids and the beatnick-chique Cool Kids)

Yes, I had been bitten - Louder Than Bombs was pulled from the shelf and re-played - this time the jingly guitar and (apparently) downbeat lyrics were going in.  I wasn't a born-again Smiths fan, but I could certainly now appreciate what was going on there, and wanted to hear more.

And then in July 1987, the NME (my paper of choice at this time (with a side order of Metal Hammer) carried the headline: Smiths To Split.
Typical - a band I've just got into, and will spend my hard earned cash diligently buying new releases from are calling it a day.
Timing was never my strong point, and as per usual I'm late to the party ... again

September 1987 saw the arrival of the new (and final) album, and in my state of new found fandom I bought it on the day of release.

'Strangeways Here We Come' is an album, I have come to learn, that divides opinion among Smiths aficionados.  Indeed, 'The Queen Is Dead' is often cited as their masterwork, and this album usually props up the list of  their 4 studio albums.
Some bemoan the stretch, or adoption of different stylings and influences, others cite the glossier, richer production at play.
Me, I had nothing to compare it to in 1987, and all I could find here was an absolute cracker of an album.
From the opener "A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours" to closer "I Won't Share You", Morrissey and Marr supported by Rourke and Joyce are presenting their best work.
OK, "Unhappy Birthday" don't quite cut it, feeling a bit forced and smells a bit of padding.  And "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" almost outstays it's welcome (and all goes a bit Pink Floyd-y), but 2 (not total) clunkers out of 10 tracks aint a bad hit rate for an album recorded in the midst of personality clashes and breaking relationships.
Previously, I would've added "Death At One's Elbow" to the list of "nearly, but not quite", but having re-listened to it, it is a great rock-a-billy workout, almost pointing the route was Morrissey would initially embrace.
"Paint A Vulgar Picture" deserves a mention as lyrically it is a bit of a diatribe against record companies reviving, re-issuing and re-packaging.  It maybe tounge-in-cheek, but it can also be read as a bit rich bearing in mind that The Smiths already had 2 compilations (3 if you include 'Louder Than Bombs') in their catalogue, and would ultimately have their entire output re-packaged several times over in the next 20 years (OK, that was more WEA trying to maximise their returns, rather than the band sanctioning constant re-releases).  To date their are 5 compilations available, and a complete box set of all the albums.

Over the next 12 months or so, I bought the rest of the albums, including the 2 compilations (most of which I already had on the Import copy of 'Louder Than Bombs'. (with the exception of 'Rank' which didn't arrive in my ownership until about 2006)
After listening to them all, I can understand where the doubters are coming from, but can only confirm that 'Strangeways Here We Come' was, and still is, the best Smiths album out there.

"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"

"I Started Something I Couldn't Finish"

Friday 2 June 2017

How Not To End A Bands Recording Career - The Clash: Cut The Crap

If one's history of The Clash is learnt by compilation albums and documentaries, you would believe that once the US Tour of 1983 was over, and Mick Jones left the band, The Clash ceased to exist.

The demise of the band can be (initially) traced back to the 'Combat Rock' album of 1982.
Relationships between band members, notably Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were fraught, and Topper Headon's increasing drug habit didn't help matters.  The 'Combat Rock' album was initially conceived as another double album statement, and unable to agree a particular style, format or presentation, Glyn Johns was called in to salvage the best of what was available.  The resulting album was a pretty clear statement of were the band were at the time, and possibly deserving of their moniker "the most important band in the world".  The album was also their breakthrough into the US market.

The Clash toured America supporting The Who, but the increasingly unreliable Topper Headon was replaced by original drummer Terry Chimes, but by the end of that tour he also left the band being replaced by Pete Howard.  By May 1983, Mick Jones left (or perhaps more correctly, was sacked) and The Clash (according to popular belief) were no more.

I previously stated that the bands demise can be initially traced back to 1982.  There is another factor here which may push the beginnings of the demise back a little further - original manager Bernie Rhodes returned to in 1981.
Bernie Rhodes was an associate of Malcolm Mclaren, and followed the lead of McLaren by finding and nurturing a band.  The Clash formed and were housed at Bernie's Camden Rehearsal studio.  The Clash concentrated on the music, whilst the non-musical Rhodes concentrated on managing, positioning and marketing the band (his links with McLaren no doubt helped, including ensuring the The Clash were on the bill for the ill-fated 1976 Anarchy In The UK tour).  He departed (or was sacked, there are conflicting accounts) in late 1978, but was to return at Joe Strummer's request in early 1981.
Can it be just a coincidence that Bernie's return sparked a period of increased tension and eventual falling apart of the band?

Pete Howard had joined on drums in 1983, and now following Mick Jones departure a new guitarist was needed to breathe life back into the band.  Whether it was an attempt to expand the line-up, or the size of the hole left by Mick Jones, guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard were recruited.
This newly convened line-up headed out on a self-financed tour in early 1984, and by the start of the following year commenced recording of The Clash's 5th album.
In need of a writing partner, Bernie Rhodes assumed the role, and also that of the records producer (remember this is the bands manager and non-Musician Bernie Rhodes - what could possibly go wrong?)

If I'm being honest, cracks were beginning to show on 'Combat Rock' - fine album though it is, and it is saved by the singles drawn from it, it does feel a bit "aimless".  But the again, it is sort of understandable as each of their albums moved the band into different areas and styles - maybe this was just too far. or alternatively not enough of a stretch to create any "wow factor".
With 'Cut The Crap' those apparent cracks moved to almost yawning chasms.

Here's the headlines:
  • some of the songs sound like they've not fully evolved from their demo state
  • at points on the album, it feels like Joe Strummer has lost interest and is just "going through the motions"
  • the vocal track is buried so deep on some tracks its virtually inaudible
  • an over reliance on drum machines - drummer Pete Howard never actually hit a drum skin in anger throughout the recording
  • the production adds too many synthesiser splashes and effects - just because you can, you don't have to put a horn part into a song, and similarly a chorus isn't always improved by mass chanting
As a result, the album feels (a) half-finished, and (b) over-produced.
It was released in 1985 - there were many records around that time that were products of the studio and therefore have a similar sound and reliance upon technology.
However, the architects behind these records - prime example being Trevor Horn - were musicians at heart (or at least understood how music worked).  Bernie Rhodes lack of musical nouse renders 'Cut The Crap' as sounding a bit amateur-ish.
With recording complete, Joe Strummer disappeared to Spain leaving Bernie Rhodes to finish the production and mixing.  When he departed, I think Joe took the "Quality Control" button with him, because it seemed to be missing when the album finally came out.

An album is only as good as the songs it contains - all these songs, good and not so good, need to sit together in a way that makes (or breaks) the whole album.
It is perhaps telling that when the first post-existence Clash compilation was release ('The Story Of The Clash' in 1988, it contained no tracks from 'Cut The Crap'.
Of the 12 tracks on the album, only "This Is England" properly passes muster and has now been included on latter day compilations.
Of the other tracks, it's all a bit hit and miss (mostly miss) only "We Are The Clash" and "North And South" properly stand out.  "Cool Under Heat", "Movers and Shakers", "Three Card Trick" and "North And South" nearly cut it, but are hampered by the aforementioned bad production.
The rest of the tracks, in my humble opinion, are not fully formed and no amount of post-production, overdubbing, political posturing or marketing spin can pull them through.
In short, The Clash's legacy lies in tatters - is it any wonder that it has been effectively written out of any officially sanctioned histories of the band.

There is however one bright spot to report from this - whether it was as a result of this albums disappointment, or his recuperation/re-evaluation in Spain (or both), when The Clash finally called it a day in 1986, Joe Strummer sought out his old sparring partner Mick Jones.  Together they co-wrote 6 tracks, and co-produced Big Audio Dynamite's second album ("No. 10 Upping Street").
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but having made this re-connection you just wonder if the tensions in the band could have been diffused, would "This Is Big Audio Dynamite" (or something similar) have been the sixth Clash album (maybe with "This Is England" tacked onto it)?

For better or worse (mostly worse) 'Cut The Crap' was the bands fifth album, released in 1985.  Not a great way to finish off you recording career as a band, but it did give the world the last great Clash track (it also gave Shane Meadows a title for a serial drama 20 years later)

This Is England