Wednesday 20 September 2017

Oasis - I Was There Then

On 21 August 1997, I joined around 400,000 other people in purchasing a copy of the new Oasis Album 'Be Here Now'

The lead up to the release had been shrouded in hype and expectation, TV teaser documentaries, Radio station tempters of half-played tracks, and wall-to-wall 5 Star Reviews and gushing hyperbole about "the new album from the biggest band in the world".

What could go wrong?
Well, the album needs to be a step-up (or at least a step across) from the previous (and the competition), and needs to contain some cracking toons as well.

Was it the hype, the expectation, the pressure or the amount of cocaine flying around the recording studio?
Whatever it was, 'Be Here Now' fell short of expectations, and ultimately led to the downfall/re-configuration of the band who created it, and the death-knell of the genre it represented.

The 2 nights at Knebworth in Summer 1996 was pretty much the peak - there wasn't much more they could achieve, apart from re-group and do it all again.
But post-Knebwoth life got off to a shaky start:

Liam pulled out of an MTV Unplugged event citing a sore throat - there is a distinct possibility that the real reason was to annoy Noel, as he turned up at the Royal Festival Hall and heckled his brother.
Their next US Tour commenced within a week, but again Liam refused to go saying he had to stay and buy a house.
He turned up on the tour a week later, somewhat the worst for wear and really did himself and the band no favours in the US - his behaviour was now becoming the cartoon image that the media had created about him, and he did nothing to change this view (some say crystal meth may have played a part too ..).
The tour continued but eventually ground to a halt when Noel upped and left stating he could no longer work with his brother.  After much speculation that this was the end for the band, there was a reconciliation (of sorts) and the US tour was completed with no further major calamities.

Overt self belief, turned to self delusion.  Oasis, and more specifically Liam (although Noel came out with some daft comments too) now found themselves on the front of the Daily Mirror more often than the front of the NME.
Be fair, you give a 26 year old gobby kid from Burnage huge wads of cash, and tell him that he is brilliant.  And then follow his every move, trying to get him to do something printable, then he's going to do it.

Between Maine Road (April 1996) and Knebworth (August 1996), Noel had decamped to the Caribbean and assembled the songs for the next album.
The band reconvened at Abbey Road in October 1996 to begin recording.
The pressure and expectation, and the ever-present love/hate (mostly hate) relationship between Noel & Liam ensured these sessions were somewhat un-productive.
To avoid constant media attention, the band decided to decamp to leafy Surrey where they would be (relatively) free of distraction and media attention.

Somehow, amongst the haze of cocaine and near constant bickering (which ended up as the Brothers G rarely being in the studio at the same time) an album was created.
By all accounts, it wasn't the easiest conception - the producer Owen Morris expressed his concern that the material was "a bit weak" and was given short shrift.
Noel insisted on overdubbing everything, to the point of almost filling every spare channel on the desk with an additional guitar track.
The songs largely followed the tried and trusted formula of previously, but track lengths were extended and the songs seemed to lack focus and finessing of previously.  There is a feeling of "Oh, that'll do - let's just extend the playout a bit".  Also, the sheer amount of cocaine flying around the place may have clouded judgement at times as songs were jettisoned from the album in favour of "stuff written on the spot".
"Stay Young" ended up as another monumental Oasis B-Side when it was replaced on the album by  "Magic Pie" - not a bad song, but did it need to be 7 minutes long?

Preceded in July by the single "D'You Know What I Mean", quick sales and another Number 1 position ensured the continuing clamour for Oasis product.
Advance radio copies were delivered as late as possible to prevent "leaks" and sales on the black market (the interweb was still in it's infancy and it could take 5 minutes to download a song, and YouTube was still limited to 10 minutes maximum clip length).
This almost military control continued with the lead up to the release of 'Be Here Now' - big things were expected, and the scant promotion/pre-release only served to increase the hype.
Non-Disclosure deals were signed, DJs requested to talk over early plays, Journalists were given only limited hearing of the album.

Expectations were so high, that Be Here Now was effectively doomed before it was even released.

This album really was to be the culmination, and masterwork, of the band - their defining statement.
There was only one problem - it wasn't.

With the benefit of time and distance, a fair "soundbite summary" of the album is: 'The over-blown self-importance album'

"D'You Know What I Mean" kicks the album off on a high, which is maintained with "My Big Mouth", and despite my earlier reference "Magic Pie" is an earworm that will stay with you for days (or at least that's what happened after my re-appraisal listening).
"Stand By Me" is one of the better tracks on the album. It is a strong track, it certainly veers into standard Oasis fare territory, yet at the same time is instantly disposable.  Released as a single at the height of the hype, it perhaps suffers from over-expectation and a failure to deliver something "new", and due to Be Here Now being Noel's least favourite album, the song rarely got played live.
After that though, it all becomes a bit throw-away, dashed off, elongated and an exercise in the studio rather than songwriting and performance (Johnny Depp pops up with a nice slide guitar on "Fade In-Out").  There are moments, but the songs never seem to be going anywhere or justify their length.

Oasis really did seem to believe that they could operate at half power and still produce an album equal to 'Morning Glory'. A sort of "Sod it, that'll do. Now wheres my cocaine?" attitude is apparent in the messy, lumpy, self indulgence that inhabits this album. With all the hype leading up to it's release, it never stood a chance to be honest. But, listening again after nearly 20 years since its release, it's not that bad.  But then again, even when not comparing to the previous releases it ain't that great either. - it sits nicely in a sort of after 'Morning Glory', before 'Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants' type way.
They repeat the "finish on an epic" idea again with "All Around The World" - a song which gives Oasis their very own 'Hey Jude' (or should that be The Rules 'Shangri-La?*).
The full album version of the track ends with the sound of a door being slammed - perhaps merely intended to show the closing of the album, but as also became apparent, the relative failure of this album (in "love" rather than sales) also signified the door closing on all things Britpop-py.

* Note: Neil Inness re-nicked the string introduction used on Whatever and tacked it onto the front of "Shangri-La" - as he is listed as the writer, he can effectively to do what he wants with it.  Interesting though, that the original (and best) Beatles copyists (with The Beatles blessing) should be nicking from the (accused) Beatles copyists of Britpop.

Within a fortnight of release, the Be Here Now Tour commenced and would continue until March the following year.
During that time, the album went from "Rave Reviews" to being cited as "overblown nonsense".  The band fared not much better as relationships deteriorated, exhaustion took over, and inspiration fell flat.

Be Here Now pretty much marked the end of an era for the band.  Creation Records, despite selling records by the shedload was going bankrupt and sold out to Sony (their last act was to collect Oasis B-Sides together on the "stop-gap" album 'The Masterplan' in late 1998).
It was to be another 2 years or so before new material saw the light of day, constructed by a band shorn of all but 2 of it's original members.
When it did arrive, the (slighly) lacklustre (certainly on first listening) 'Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants' was met with mixed reviews (some savage, most of the "ho-hum" variety) and questioning whether the band would last the distance.
Even Noel Gallagher was having his doubts feeling he had nothing more to say (he was quoted as saying: "I'd said everything I wanted to say after "Rock n Roll Star") and no longer finding writing songs coming as easy as before.

"The bigger they are, the harder they fall", and Oasis fell with the hype and expectation of this album.  One could possibly cite the lack of direct competition to make the band work harder to maintain their status.  Blur (their only real contemporary competition) were in the process of moving on.  Indeed, their album 'Blur' released earlier in 1997 was not an identikit Britpop album, and even contained a track ("Death Of A Party") suggesting the genres demise.

So what was the competition?
A selection of 1997 releases prove that the bands and the record buying public were moving on from Britpop trappings, and perhaps 'Be Here Now' was not only a victim of hype, but a victim of not moving on (or: trying to stay partying until way past chucking out time, and then refusing to go home)

  • Blur - Blur
  • Spiritualized - Ladies And Gentleman We Are Floating In Space
  • Radiohead - OK Computer
  • The Verve - Urban Hymns (OK, back in Britpop territory)
  • Primal Scream - Vanishing Point
  • Super Furry Animals - Radiator
  • Cornershop - When I Was Born For The Seventh Time
  • Teenage Fanclub - Songs From Northern Britain
  • Supergrass - In It For The Money
  • Charlatans  - Tellin Stories
  • Stereophonics - Word Gets Around (post-Britpop, if there is such a thing?)
  • The Prodigy - The Fat Of The Land
  • Foo Fighters - The Colour And The Shape
  • Ben Folds Five - Whatever And Ever Amen
  • U2 - Pop

Plenty of good 'uns there - you can see what they were up against

They tried.  They didn't quite succeed.  But 'Be Here Now' is not the duffer it's suggested that it is.  OK, it ain't an essential, but it certainly stands up after 20 years distance.
A few quibbles maybe (bloated, over-produced, extended songs (or worse: half-finished or dis-interested sounding songs), better B Sides, a wall of hype and expectation that probably no-one could meet).

It may have killed Britpop (although the press, and thee bands involved were doing that themselves), but Oasis would return - albeit in a slightly humbler, less bravado (and arguably less essential) way.

D'You Know What I Mean

Stay Young

All Around The World

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Iggy Pop

Born James Osterberg in Michigan, and began his musical caerer at High School as a drummer for local band The Iguanas.  His tenure in The Iguanas provided his first appearance on record - the self-financed cover version of Bo Diddley's "Mona".

He left The Iguanas in 1966 and joined another local band, The Prime Movers, who re-christened him Iggy.  His time in The Prime Movers was relatively brief, and Iggy quit University and moved to Chicago, continuing to play drums in various Blues bands and bars.
Returning to Detroit, and now out front rather than behind the drumkit, he formed Psychedelic Stooges.  The desired sound of this new band was an amalgam of his beloved Blues with the harder sound of like fellow Detroit residents MC5 and The Doors.

The Psychedelic Stooges (soon to jettison the 'Psychedelic' moniker) comprised Iggy, Ron Asheton (Guitar), Dave Alexaner (Bass) and Scott Asheton (Drums)...

Inspired by The Doors, and Jim Morrison's stage presence. Iggy began to develop his own on stage persona - a combination of Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger and James Brown, with a healthy dollop of antagonism, theatrics and stage diving thrown in.

When Elektra Records visited Detroit intent on signing the MC5, guitarist Wayne Kramer said to Danny Fields (Elektra A&R): "If you like us, you'd love The Stooges".
Kramer was right, Danny Fields did indeed love The Stooges, and signed up both bands.

The Stooges released two albums for Elektra.
Neither sold in huge numbers which, with hindsight, is a surprise considering the esteem and cited influence they now hold.
The debut album (entitled simply 'The Stooges') released in 1969 was originally intended to be a document of the best tracks in their stage set.  However, Elektra rejected the original 5 track version, and the band returned to the studio to create some extra tracks.
The 5 core tracks were: "I Wanna Be Your Dog", "No Fun", "1969", "Ann" and "We Will Fall".  These were augmented by "Real Cool Time", "Not Right" and "Little Doll" quickly written, virtually sticking to a template and played and recorded in one hit in the studio.
Why have I mentioned all 8 tracks from the album?
Purely because there is no one true stand out above all others - all are as vital to the experience as each other.  Is this a damn near perfect album?  Well, it may not be to everyone's taste, but there are no duffers here.
The 8 song album was now accepted by Elektra and released to the US public.  Unfortunately, there were few takers.

Both the band and the record company were undaunted by this.  Live shows continued, reputations enhanced, and the band booked into the studio for work on their next album.
'Fun House' (1970) pushed on from the raw debut.  The prime difference here is that whilst the production on the debut sort of cleaned and (arguably) sanitised The Stooges live sound, the production here was almost a case of "turn everything up and play loud".
The bands confidence and playing ability is noticeably improved, even though the studio surroundings were not exactly comfortable (if anything, they were too comfortable, until they ripped the innards out and performed side by side in a live state with instruments bleeding into one another).
Sometimes sounding like a descent into madness, or the sound of a nervous breakdown (this is meant as a "good thing").
There is one less track here, but both the title track "Fun House" and "Dirt" break the 7 minute barrier.
There is a mad squwaking sax popping up on tracks which just adds to the mayhem, but again, like the first album, the mixture of danger and excitement remains.
The closing track "LA Blues" is a combination of avant-garde sound collage, a drunken jam and Primal Scream therapy.  It is in effect 4 and a half minutes of screaming over feedback, but is oddly memorable and not one that you feel compelled to skip.
The hopes of both the band and the record company were once again dashed as the album failed to sell.

The usual cocktail of drugs and booze was taking hold of the band, ultimately leading to the sacking of Dave Alexander.  He was replaced by Jimmy Recca, and James Williamson turned up too on second guitar fattening the bands sound.

By mid 1971 - the drugs and booze had firmly taken hold, nothing new was being recorded, and the band missing live dates.  This unreliability, and the ongoing commercial failure led to the band being dropped by Elektra, and then splitting up.

After the demise of The Stooges, and obviously at a loose end, Iggy was considered as a replacement for his original influence Jim Morrison in a re-constituted Doors.
Various reasons exist for why this never happened, ranging from Iggy not feeling he was capable or even worthy of replacing Morrison, he tried out but wasn't up to the job, or the very simplistic (and ambiguous) "Plans fell through".

Iggy met David Bowie at Maxs Kansas City in New York and this association and virtually instant friendship resulted in Iggy signing to Bowies Mainman Management company.  A new recording contract was arranged with CBS, and soon after Pop and Williamson flew to London to commence recording a new album (with David Bowie in the producers chair).

It is generally accepted that the original model/inspiration for Ziggy Stardust was Vince Taylor, but there were two other characters in Bowie's mind in the formation of this alter ego.
One was Lou Reed, and the other was Iggy Pop - both from commercially unsuccessful bands, not always critically hailed, but had a firm following.
By late 72, Bowie was working to rescue/re-calibrate both performers acting as producer for Lou Reed's 'Transformer' and Iggy's 'Raw Power'?

Iggy and James Williamson set to work on a new batch of songs, whilst trawling round for a rhythm section.  When they couldn't find anyone suitable (or available?), a message was sent to the Asheton Brothers (did Iggy say: "We're putting the band back together"?).
The final incarnation of The Stooges was re-convened - the main change in the team was Ron Asheton switching to bass.

'Raw Power' opens with the needles flying into the red, feedback and instruments bleeding all over the place.  The pace and energy of this album never subsides - only "Gimme Danger" really veers from the template, sounding almost like a Wild West epic, but it still has the same edge.  The album lives up to its name by being both Raw and Powerful.
Songs like "Search And Destroy" and "Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell" are the essence of what has been called "proto-punk" (not a title or genre I particularly like to use, but it does the job).  Arguably, this album is more "proto-punk" than the first two as it just feels more relentless.
The prime difference with this album is it actually sold units - OK, not massively more than The Stooges debut in the US, but (possibly as a result of David Bowie's patronage) it did achieve a Top 50 placing in the UK.

Augmenting the band with Scott Thurston on piano, they headed out in tour in support of 'Raw Power'.  Iggy's ever increasing heroin habit, and relationships within the band hung over the tour.  By the time it was completed it, they had been dropped by their record company, sacked and re-instated James Williamson, and were generally falling apart once again.  Some shows on the tour were aborted due to an inability to play properly, or the desire to be on the same stage together.  The last show descended into a mass brawl between band and audience. After this the band split up for the second time.

Descending further into heroin addiction, Iggy took himself to rehab to try and get straight.  One of his few visitors was David Bowie, and in 1976 Iggy was added to the entourage for Bowie's Station To Station tour.

By late 76, David Bowie was decamping to Berlin (via Switzerland), and Iggy followed.  The plan was for them both to beat their narcotic addictions together in the isolation of Berlin.
This continuing support and collaboration resulted in (a) a 3 album deal with RCA, and (b) his 2 most acclaimed, best known, and probably best selling albums 'The Idiot' and 'Lust For Life' (both released in 1977)

'The Idiot' was a mutual collaboration between the two musicians - Iggy had been impressed by Bowie's work ethic seen on the Station To Station Tour, and Bowie was convinced of Iggy's abilities as a songwriter and performer.
Recorded using Bowie's current band, the album comprised 7 Iggy/Bowie compositions, plus 1 with Carlos Alomar.
Whilst the thrash and urgency of The Stooges may not be here, there remains the same tension.  There is a pervading darkness and coldness, a feeling of European-ness (whatever that is?) and a touch of Kraftwerk-ism.  Doubtless the influences and sounds arise from both the recording environment and the personal situations of the songwriters, about the album too.
"Funtime" approaches the swagger of The Stooges (albeit in a "cleaner" restrained manner) and "China Girl" would go on to make Iggy some welcome cash.
The Stooges story is re-visited/re-considered in "Dum Dum Boys" complete with it's insistent guitar riff throughout, and closing with the dark, experimental, almost desolate "Mass Production".

David Bowie and has band went from 'The Idiot' into the recording of 'Low' - taking Iggy along too, he provides backing vocals on "What In The World".

A new band was put together (Ricky Gardiner (Guitar), Tony Sales (Bass), Hunt Sales (Drums)) and The Idiot was toured with assistance from Bowie on piano.
Straight after the tour, they returned to the studio and knocked out 'Lust For Life' in a fortnight.

There is a greater rock & roll swagger to 'Lust For Life' than the previous outing.
The Pop/Bowie collaborations is present on 7 of the 9 tracks, but gone is the brittle, cold, and experimental nature of 'The Idiot'.
This is Iggy letting loose in Stooges-stylee, with David Bowie restraint (does that make sense?).

The album houses two of Iggy's best known songs in the shape of the title track (later to bring him to a new audience (or remind his audience) when used in Trainspotting, and "The Passenger".  "The Passenger" shares a darkness with 'The Idiot' material but is delivered in a more upbeat manner, and another insistent guitar riff (that even I can play).

These two milestone albums gave Iggy an artisitc re-birth and (at last) some proper commercial success.  What next?
For whatever reason, he wanted to end his 3 album deal with RCA quickly so put out a hastily mixed Live album ('TV Eye', released 1978) split the remainder of the advance with Bowie and left Berlin and Bowie to start afresh under his own terms.

He signed to Arista and released 'New Values' in 1979.
Alongside Stooges compadres Jame s Williamson and Scott Thurston, this is a very good album.  Unfortunately, it's not a great album, and suffered the same fate as previous albums in that it just didn't shift units.
Two more albums followed on Arista ('Soldier' (1980) and 'Party' (1981)) but neither did the business, and Iggy was again dropped by his record company.

The 80s weren't really a rare old time for Iggy.
His continuing patronage from David Bowie resulted in a steady(ish) income - "China Girl" was covered on 'Lets Dance', and was a Top 5 single.  'Tonight' contains 5 Iggy/Bowie co-writes, and one more of 'Never Let Me Down'.  This provided Iggy with some form of commercial success, but not in his own name.  He could however take some time out to become an actor - albeit not totally successfully, but he tried.
The 80s albums contain a raft of special guests including  2 Sex Pistols (Glen Mattock & Steve Jones), 2 Blondie members (Chris Stein & Clem Burke), a Rich Kid (Steve New), 2 Guns (or Roses?) (Slash & Duff McKagan) and a B52 (Kate Pierson).
1986s 'Blah Blah Blah' renewed his producer/artist relationship with David Bowie, and finally gave Iggy a Top 10 single in the shape of "Real Wild Child".
The albums of the 90s and 00s were of a similar offering - good to hear that Iggy is still about, but not earth-shattering.
He also "retired" to Florida, played golf, and became something of a celebrity - Car Insurance, Radio shows, TV interviews.

It's fair to say that his last truly great albums came in 1977 ('The Idiot' and 'Lust For Life'), so 2016s 'Post Pop Depression' came as something of a welcome surprise.
It had only taken 30 years, but this was the follow-up that those two high points demanded and/or suggested.

The collaboration with Josh Homme proved fruitful and some of the songs bear a passing resemblance to the Berlin output, with passing nods to both Scott Walker and (the ever present) Bowie.
The album has a focus, a purpose, and is delivered with energy and commitment of old.  You get the felling that the pair laboured over this to make it the best it possibly could be, rather than the feeling from some of the 80s/90s output of "Oh, that'll do").

It's Iggy's name above the door, but this is just as much a band album as a solo album.  And in the shape of Josh Homme, Iggy has found another collaborator that has a similar alchemy.

The recording of the album commenced 2 days after the passing of his friend, supporter and mentor.  So whether by design or coincidence, the influence is noticeable.  There are at least two songs here (probably "Keys To Your Heart" and "Sunday" which may well have been covered had there been a 'Pin Ups Re-Re-Visited' in future years.

There are times when he comes over like a snarling Leonard Cohen against a solid garage-rock bed.  At other, there's a balance of anger, intelligence and eloquence in the lyrics.
If this is to be Iggy's last outing (as has been widely suggested, if not always believed), the closer "Paraguay" is not a bad way to sign off.
And he can rest assured that (in my ears at least) he has salvaged his legacy which may have been lost, or at least sullied, with his ho-hum 80s output.

I Wanna Be Your Dog

Search & Destroy

Lust For Life