Sunday 24 February 2019

Blondie - Parallel Lines

What is Perfect Pop?
This album must rank high up when trying to define such a thing.

Ostensibly seen as a Singles band (and there were some fine, fine singles - 5 of them going to Number 1), they also manged some darn fine, and consistent albums.

They were formed in New York in 1974, and graduated from the burgeoning New York at the time.
As a band they were not raggedy or rough enough for Punk, not arty enough for the Post Punk, and probably to Pop for Powerpop.

They took the best bits of history (Buddy Holly, Phil Spector, Girl Groups) mixing it with what is going on around them (Ramones, Talking Heads, Television and Patti Smith etc) and adding their own take on whatever genre/style they fancied.  Live appearances in and around New York, including CBGBs and Max's Kansas City, eventually resulted in a record deal (albeit a somewhat draconian one) with Private Stock Records.
Their debut album followed, but with no promotion from the Record Company it was not a success - apart from in Australia where the album went into the Top 20, and the single "In The Flesh" just missed the top spot.
Buoyed by the success, and with other record companies sniffing around, Blondie bought themselves out of their Private Stock contract and signed with Chrysalis.
The first output from this new relationship was the single "Denis" (Number 2 in the UK) and the album 'Plastic Letters'.  With a bit more Record Company support, a second single ("I'm Always Touched By Your Presence Dear"), and a string of TV appearances brought Blondie some success in the UK and Europe.
But they were just getting warmed up - I doubt anyone could've foresaw the success that was to come with their next album released in September 1978.

Preceded by the single "Picture This" (falling just outside the Top 10), it was perhaps the next single - "Hanging On The Telephone" - that heralded Blondie's arrival proper, and started to shift album in large numbers.
But it was the next single - "Heart Of Glass" - that sent the band properly global, topping the US charts, and resulting in Debbie Harry's picture adorning just about every music magazine, and probably a fair few teenage boys bedroom walls.
This single continues to be Blondie's most famous offering, and shows a band not scared to stretch their sound, and proves that Disco and New Wave can co-exist on the same record - and in another collision of "two musical worlds collide", Robert Fripp is drafted in for some guitar work on "Fade Away and Radiate".
With the success of "Heart Of Glass" not yet fading, another single soon followed (and another Number One single too) in the shape of "Sunday Girl".

'Parallel Lines' has no duff moments  - a couple of weaker moments in the shape of  "I Know but I Don't Know" and "Will Anything Happen?" perhaps, but not enough to make you reach for the skip button.
Alongside the band firing on all cylinders, is a gold-plated sheen provided by Mike Chapman's production.  He knows a bit about what makes a good pop song (indeed his writing partnership with Nicky Chinn is testament to that), but his input here is maybe just as important as the singer and the players.

1979 was shaping up to be quite a year for Blondie with the release of 'Eat To The Beat' later in the year (preceded by the single "Dreaming" which must surely rank as one of their absolute finest).
'Eat To The Beat' rose to the top of the charts. and takes what they started on Parallel Lines and pushes on going into funk and reggae territory without breaking sweat.  There are moments where the sound seems "forced" on 'Eat To The Beat', whereas 'Parallel Lines' just sound so effortless.

Hanging On The Telephone


Wednesday 13 February 2019

The Specials - Encore

From their first single (on their own label) in 1979 to their (slightly premature, slightly messy, but politically infused) break-up of the original line-up, The Specials packed a lot into their original 3 year incarnation (before splintering to Fun Boy Three and the Dammers-helmed Special AKA).
A short period of time between the mashed-up ska-punk of "Gangsters" and the downbeat commentary of "Ghost Town".  They also managed two albums, and both are deemed (and rightly so) as classic of the time.
And now 40 years later, they're back (in somewhat reduced original membership form).
But ... this aint no nostalgic re-tread, they have actually got something to say (even if it a very similar conversation to 40 years ago)

More laid-back than 'The Specials' and 'More Specials', but echoes of their past filter through everything.
It may not have the energy of the debut - indeed it's more in the late period Ghost Town vein.  Songs with a message delivered carefully and concisely so you get the point, but still find your self bouncing and/or nodding to the infectious beat behind.
The upbeat punky-ska party can be found on the accompanying Live disk where you'll find all the favourites including "Gangsters", "Nite Klub" and "Too Much To Young".  This also includes a great version of "Redemption Song" followed by a massively upbeat "Monkey Man"

Only Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter remain from the original line-up - there's no Jerry Dammers, Roddy Radiation, Neville Staple or John Bradbury - but the substitutes do a sterling job of replicating their input.

Opening with a call for peace, tolerance and general acceptance, the cover of The Equals "Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys" is more funky than reggae, but still hits the mark and you just know you're listening to The Specials.
The 3 narrative/conversational songs here - "B.L.M" (Lynval's story of facing racism from childhood to shopping in New York), "10 Commandments" (the Shafia Khan fronted female viewpoint update of the Prince Buster track of the same name") and "The Life And Times (Of a Man Called Depression)" (an open story about his what it is really like (and Terry Hall, a self confessed sufferer would/should know) - and these are among the most affecting, thought provoking here. .
Politics rears it's head (as it would do on a Specials album) with "Vote for Me" and, as if to prove nothing has changed in 30-odd years, there is a jazz-infused update of the Fun Boy Three track "The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum" (do Terry and Lynval now have to pay themselves royalties?).
They return to their Ska crate-digging with a cover of The Valentines "Gun Fever" (given it's alternative title "Blam Blam Fever").
Both "Breaking Point" and "Embarrassed by You" initially read as a (slight) grumpy old man tale of despair with the world.  Both of these, and particularly "Embarrassed By You" do end up thinking "Hang on, you've got a point" - much like most of the album.

The final track "We Sell Hope" ties it all together for me - it talks of the contradictions that exist in the world, and a call for tolerance and acceptance of those differences - "Looked all around the world, Could be a beautiful place to live in"

Amen to that

Vote For Me

10 Commandments

We Sell Hope

Saturday 9 February 2019

Steve Mason - About The Light

The new album from Steve Mason can initially be seen as a departure from the "template" that marked his work with The Beta Band and his previous solo albums.
All thoroughly accessible (if sometimes a little hard going), but with an undercurrent of dubby claustrophobia.
Fine (actually, better than just "fine") though they were, they always flt to be the work of a man in a studio trying to find out what all the buttons did - this time out he's surrounded himself with a touring band.
The song subjects reside in the same areas, if lifted in mood a little, and the sound is a lot brighter than before.  The claustrophobia is still present in some tracks, but not as oppressive as before.
The reason behind this change of tone may be the incumbent of the producers chair - Stephen Street has given the album a certain gloss, almost (at times) like a late period Britpop sheen.

The "Open with an Earworm" rule has been followed, with the song "America Is Your Boyfriend" (despite the initial sinister-sounding introduction).
There are some standout/pay attention moments in the songs, but all remain fairly flat - entertainingly flat - and there are points when a little songwriting quirk or production fiddle is called for to lift it up a notch.
A case in point here is the final tack titled - as an ending track should be - "The End".  It rolls on competently and closes the album off in style, but it just feels like there should be more coming.  It's a feeling that the album remains somehow unresolved.

Now in spite of that little run of negativity, this is a very good listenable album - it is un-demanding meaning it plays through without jarring or the desire to press skip.  The aforementioned "America Is You Boyfriend" is a fine opener and the first single lifted "Stars Around My Heart" is the most obvious choice, and one of the strongest tracks here.
Other tracks have Smiths-esque guitars ("No Clue"), the big horn sound on "Stars Around My Heart" pops up elsewhere (not least in the soulful yearning, almost hymnal, "Rocket") , and there's a diversion into Pink Floyd territory for "Fox On The Rooftop" - which also contains a marvellous little guitar solo.
There's even an echo of TV's Pot Black theme running through "Walking Away From Love".

OK, for me this may not rank up there with Steve Mason's last couple of releases, but that should not detract from the greatness, increased confidence, swagger and triumph of this album.

Is it too soon to mention Album Of The Year?
Very probably, and as this was the first new album I bought this year, it may be a bit premature.  But I'm sure it's going to be replayed a few times in the next 12 months

America is Your Boyfriend

Stars Around My Heart

Saturday 2 February 2019

Stiff Little Fingers – Inflammable Material

The debut album from Stiff Little Fingers is 40 Years old today.
Is it a product of it's time, or still a viable listen after all these years?
I say: definitely the latter

In 1978, two bands from Northern Ireland produced their first singles and sent them to John Peel in the hope of getting Radio airplay.

One of them (The Undertones – Teenage Kicks) got played twice in a row and has passed into legend as John Peel’s favourite track of all time.
The other (Stiff Little Fingers – Suspect Device) was played every night for a week and Rough Trade (the only place in London to stock the single) was constantly running short of stock. Demand was so great, Geoff Travis approached the band so his label could re-release it and satisfy his customers.
A 50/50 Split Profit Deal was agreed with a handshake – no Contracts, no Lawyers, no future markets exploitation clause, just a straightforward Manufacturing and Distribution deal. Both had the desire to keep the arrangement simple – Stiff Little Fingers had already been disappointed by Island Records 6 months earlier (a tale told in the song “Rough Trade”, which is not about the label that released their records but about the label that signed them and then dropped them within a week, and signed The Jags instead)

“Alternative Ulster” was the next release on Rough Trade – the master tapes “obtained” from the Island Records sessions – and then a full album was suggested.
Neither the band or Rough Trade had ever done an album, but How Hard Can It Be?
Geoff Travis, Mayo Thompson and the band decamped to two terraced houses in Cambridge (aka Spaceward Studios) and recorded and mixed the album in 12 days.
Upon release it became the first independent album to make Top 20, and went on to sell 100,000 copies.

The album opens with an aural onslaught of the opening chords to “Suspect Device” and then in comes Jake Burns voice sounding like he’s been gargling glass.
And the energy and passion never drops across 12 tracks – most only just break 2 minutes, and the longest clocks in at 3 and a half minutes (due in no small part to the Doo-Wop vocal section in the middle of “Barbed Wire Love” (yes – a love song on a noisy, raggedy punk album).
Thematically it bounces between politics, police oppression, equality, empowerment, and general teenage boredom

And then there is the re-working of Bob Marley’s “Johnny Was”.
The Clash had punkified Reggae with “Police and Thieves” on their debut album – Stiff Little Fingers relocated Johnny to Belfast, added military drums, and strung the song out over 8 minutes (when played live, it is not unusual for the song to run for 11 or 12 minutes)
“Alternative Ulster” would/should be the perfect album closer.
Unfortunately one more track is added (“Closed Groove”) which (sadly) dents the overall perfection of this album.

4 decades on and it still sounds full of anger and hope for something better (“Grab it and change it, it’s yours”). And whilst the targets and causes may have changed, there is still relevance/resonance in their stance.
And without this album, Rough Trade would probably never have had the funds or confidence to build themselves into the market leading Indie label and give the world The Smiths

This is their definitive Punk statement. Punk as a thing, was pretty much over by 1979, and the band wanted to develop away from Punk thrash into a Post-Punk/Powerpop vein (perhaps a similar path trodden by Buzzcocks). Unfortunately whilst they had the tunes (and at this stage major label backing from Chrysalis), their original audience was not quite as prepared to move with them.
Yes there was relative success, but this was ever diminishing and they eventually split in 1982.
They reformed in 1987 and are still touring today. Their set list regularly includes 4 tracks from this album (“Suspect Device”, “Wasted Life”, “Johnny Was” and traditional set closer “Alternative Ulster”)

Suspect Device

Alternative Ulster