Sunday 26 April 2020

The Dark Side Of Madness

With a name taken from a Prince Buster track, a sound built firmly on Ska rhythms, and their debut single ( a paean to Prince Buster) appearing on Two Tone - Jerry Dammers label built on equality (primarily racial equality) - ir's fair to say there's nowt racist about Madness.  So why was a large element of their core following made up of the right-wing skinhead fraternity?
Complete bloody mystery.  I can see no logical reason why the skinhead revival of the late 70s/early 80s took the style and culture (and music) of the original skinheads, and became so entrenched in hate.

Madness took this music, anglicised it, applied a dollop of pop sheen, wrote about their life around them, and pretty much perfected the 3 minute pop single in the early 80s.  They may only have had one Number 1 single ("House Of Fun" (1982)) but their songs, and personality, were everywhere.
So much so, that when they returned after a period of absence in 1991, an earthquake was recorded in Finsbury Park.
Further re-unions, tours and new recordings followed - at this stage of their careers, it's probably right to say that they can now be considered as "National Treasures" - not bad going for a group of tearaways from Camden Town.

But it's not all about That Nutty Sound - scratch the surface of some of their songs, and there's a real darkness there which is not always obvious once the music is layed over the top, and the words sung back to them a gigs and festivals.

So lets start with track 1 of 'Complete Madness' - the 1982 compilation that collected the last 3 years worth of singles, and probably marks a point where the band started to believe there may be a career in this.  'Complete Madness' also contains "House Of Fun" - a song about buying rubber johnnies hidden in a knockabout tune that seems to be talking about a fair ground.  Not dark, but amusing in it's mis-interpretation.

"Embarrassment" is an upbeat tune wedded to a real life tale of Lee Thompson's sister mixed race pregnancy, and the response of his mum.  This can be read as a plea for racial harmony in much the same way as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder did a couple of years later singing about being side-by-side and living in a piano.
And a couple of singles later, they were back in less than happy worlds with "Grey Day".  Like "Embarrassment" this went Top 5, but deals with darker things - if you stop and listen to the lyrics, you can hear a cry of anguish in there.  Everybody's favourite subject at the school disco.
And then let's add a jaunty tune about a commuter having a heart attack - "Cardiac Arrest".  The clue is in the title, but his is not your average pop song subject matter.
If (as I suggest) 'Complete Madness' closes Part 1, then the album that followed in late-82 showed what this bunch of Nutty Boys were capable of.  'The Rise And Fall' not only contains (possibly) their best known track in "Our House" (whether by accident or design it was placed in the middle of the album) it also contains another Top 10 single in the shape of "Tomorrow's Just Another Day".

Now on the face of it, and according to the video, this is a song of hope for better times to come.
And if the video is to be believed, it's about being stuck in prison.
Well, I'm going to offer a darker interpretation here: it is about being stuck inside, but stuck inside oneself, when all around you people are telling you to look forward, because whatever it is that you feel Tommorrow is another day.
I'm taking it as Part 2 of "Grey Day".  In that one, they sang "I wish I could sink without a trace", here they;'re singing "Down and down there is no up, I think that I've run out of luck"
OK, maybe I'm being a bit harsh here, and it is just a song of hope set in a prison.  But, there is a slower bluesier, jazzier, sombre-er version with Elvis Costello on the 12", which gives a clue that it might not be quite so simple.

The album 'Keep Moving' was next, and butted up with the Nutty sounds of "Wings Of A Dove" and "Driving In My Car" were a couple of tracks not quite so carefree.
"Michael Caine" is a song about an IRA informer who is given witness protection, and spends his days constantly on his guard.
And then you get 2 songs which are effectively updated versions of Ralph McTell's "Streets Of London".
"Victoria Gardens" may not be properly dark, but it's refrain "wishing, hoping, things are changing for the better" is not coming from the happiest of places.  This was to be the last single released from the album, but was swapped out for equally sparse "One Better Day".
The video conveys the story of the song (albeit tempered slightly by the first few "Madness style" seconds).  But for all the down tone and minor key, there is redemption in this song, and a certain amount of joy in the final chorus.

Between 'Keep Moving' and next album 'Mad Not Mad', keyboard basher Mike Barson departed, and his input is sorely missed.  It's not a bad album, it just misses one the ingredients that makes Madness Madness.  Their is a general downward sombre tone about the album, complete with its monochrome serious looking sleeve.  And the songs therein continue the theme.  It's a pretty gloomy affair on the whole, but does have some redeeming features.
Madness being dark?  The song 'Yesterdays Men' has a real air of resignation about it, almost like they know they're time is up.  The song "I'll Compete" expresses a desire to carry on playing the game, but you just know that underneath they probably don't believe it.
As it transpires, within a year of the release of the album, the band were no more.  Some of the band did reconvene in 1988 as The Madness (to very modest success), but it was that day at Finsbury Park, and subsequent re-unions that eventually spurred the band to return to recording in 1999.  'Wonderful' marked a return to the sound the public know and loved, and was now with added experience and musical chops.
And the first single to be lifted from it was "Lovestruck" - Madness returned to the Top 10 with an uplifting sing-a-long tune ...about alcoholism.

"Hey You, don't watch that watch this.  This is the Heavy Heavy Monster sound (with some heavy heavy subject matter you may not have noticed)"

Tomorrows Just Another Day (featuring Elvis Costello)

One Better Day


Wednesday 15 April 2020

U2 - Rattle & Hum

There are some bands that can be quite divisive.  Discussion about them will tend to be at the 2 ends of the spectrum - you wither love 'em, or hate 'em
(Maybe hate is too strong a word?).
Obvious examples are (in my experience) Simple Minds, Coldplay and The Corrs.
And here's another ... U2 - their case obviously not helped by Bono's self-belief that he is an ambassador of good-will and good causes, yet will buy an extra ticket on Concorde to transport his hat, and has a "novel" way of paying taxes due to his homeland.
Let's not hey bogged down in the "tosser or not a tosser" argument, let's just say that they have produced some very good music, and very good albums in their time in the spotlight.
And this one - 'Rattle and Hum' - was probably their peak statement.

Until Bono went for a little wander at Live Aid, U2 were not universally known.  Their first couple of albums ('Boy' and 'October') sold relatively well - although 'October' does suffer from "second album syndrome" feeling a bit rushed and shorter on quality than the debut.
Third album - 'War' - sold in large numbers, helped by two big singles lifted from it ("New Years Day" and "Two Hearts Beat As One").  Their next album - the live "Under A Blood Red Sky" - both enhanced, and re-enforced, their live reputation. It also led to renewed interest in their back catalogue.
For their next album, they employed the services of Brian Eno as producer (and sonic architect?).  At this stage, Brian Eno was not the "go to" producer, or all round polymath egghead he is now.
The single "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" reached the upper end of the charts, got the band wider public recognition, and earned Bono a solo vocal spot on the Band Aid single.
And having been on the single, the band were invited to perform at Live Aid - albeit at 5:30 when (after 5 and half hours, the audience were flagging a bit).  They were due to play 3 songs, but because Bono went for a wander, "Bad" lasted around 15 minutes, and "Pride" was dropped.
That little walk though, completely changed the bands recognition and career trajectory.  So much so,  that their next album proper ('The Joshua Tree') was a major event, with major sales to match - even if it isn't that great (oo - controversial!).
Yes, there are some great songs here, but it's very front loaded (courtesy of Kirsty MacColl), and as a result sort of runs out of steam.
Still, U2 were now (probably) the biggest band in the world, as can be seen by the size of the sales, and the size of the tour embarked on to support the album.

And it was on this tour that the idea of the film first up - billed as "U2 Discover America".  The film is an interesting document of a relatively naive band "finding their roots" (what a terrible pitch on my part that is).
The album is more than just a live document - it's half live / half studio (some emanating from sessions at Sun Studios in Memphis).  There were also cover versions ("Helter Shelter" and "All Along The Watchtower") plus a co-write with Bob Dylan ("Love Rescue Me" - Dylan's original vocal was not used at his request) and a duet with BB King ("Love Comes To Town").
It also spawned their first Number One single in "Desire" and the part biographical/part (mostly) tribute to Billie Holliday - "Angel of Harlem".

Released in late 1988, it just felt like a more complete album than The Joshua Tree.  An element of U2's bombast of old was replaced by a more soulful approach, but still rocked along like a good 'un,
And also in the film you can see the characters and personalities of the bands develop - the eocker, the quiet one, the muso, the ego.  No prizes for guessing the owner of the ego - yes, you can see the first stirrings on celluloid.  In a couple of years time, this ego would rise to the level of "insufferable" - although I think he has reined it in in recent years.

'Rattle and Hum' may not be breaking new ground musically, but does contain many tropes that would stand them in good stead for future releases - the slow build and trebly guitar would be an oft repeated trick.  This album probably marks the point when they knew they now had the time, the freedom, and the audience, to try and be a bit different.  Certainly subsequent album went off in different directions, but when they when they remain rooted in rock (with diversions into blues and soul) is when their at their best.
'Rattle and Hum' is one of the best Rock albums of 1988.  I'm not going to say the best, because there are many other contenders, but pound-for-pound, track-for-track, it does not fall short.

Angel Of Harlem

All I Want Is You

Monday 6 April 2020

Block 33 - 6:36 To Liverpool Street

Well, that was unfortunate timing - after a time spent building an audience, Facebook followers, and YouTube views, Block 33 unleash their debut album (to be supported by an Album Launch Party at the 100 Club) at the start of April.
But with the world in lockdown, the Album Launch Party is deferred to September.
The album did come out as planned though - and it ain't bad at all.  It's had a fair few spins, and there is a very high possibility this will be in the Year End lists.  It's a definite contender.

The official narrative (from the bands Facebook page):
Block 33 are a brand new mod revival band from the South of England. The band are a familiar mix of Energetic driven guitars, rolling bass, charging punk rhythms & quintessentially British, rasping yet melodic vocals that altogether make for a nostalgic sound catered for fans of the modernist subculture. 

Note the word "Energetic".
Yes, oh yes.  There's plenty of Energy here.

11 tracks all meeting the criteria/description above, with a blend of the familiar and the new.
Do you want a simple redux description:  Take the drive of Oasis, top notch songwriting and playing, add a bit of retro-Britpop, and it's getting somewhere near.
The band say themselves "Mod Revival" - now the first reference there will probably be The Jam - I reckon this is nearer to the oeuvre of The Chords - the honesty, the accent and the slight towards a fuller rock sound.
I don't like doing the redux-comparisons - believing that bands and their music should stand on their own.  And this should be no exception.

"Hit The Ground" kicks the album off, and could easily be titled "Hit The Ground Running" because that's exactly what it does.  No slow build or long intro to drag you into the bands groove.  Just BANG! and you're in.
And if it was possible, the energy is turned up another notch with "Eye Of The Hurricane" - to these ears the best of a very good bunch.
And then it just continues to bowl along.

Energetic driven guitars - Check
rolling bass - Check
charging punk rhythms - Check
quintessentially British - Check
rasping yet melodic vocals - Check

Those claims are well and truly fulfilled.  And just to help out this old duffer, the listener is offered a slight breather from all the bouncing with some acoustic and/or downbeat moments - "Lucky Day" and "Beaten" being two good examples - although "Beaten" soon rises to a rising powerful chorus.
But catch your breath, because it's all going off again soon after.
The two closing tracks could almost be partners - "High Street Blues" mourns the loss of the High Street with it's closed down shops and closed down feel, all bolted to a full-on thrash.
"For Those Who Know" seems to extend the thought to one of Escape and/or loss.  This track is another of those more reflective grooves, but with no loss of power or message. There's even a string section somewhere in there.  Despite it's rousing chorus, it all stays nicely reined in.

All this not going out stuff needs diversions, and Block 33 have certainly provided one for me.  It's got a retro feel, a familiarity, but also enough about it to make we want to champion it to anyone who'll listen.
And if this lockdown thing get's lifted in time, I may well be searching for tickets to the 100 Club in September.

Eye Of The Hurricane

(These Days Are) The Good Old Days

Thursday 2 April 2020

Still Crazy

"Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais" is a virtual stamp of quality.
They're responsible for The Likely Lads (and Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads), Porridge, Going Straight, Auf Wiedershen Pet, The Commitments, Flushed Away and The Bank Job.
They also wrote this - the story of a defunct 70s Rock Band reforming for a second shot at glory.

In 1977, Strange Fruit - who had achieved moderate success - appeared at the Wisbech Festival with Mott The Hoople and Little Feat.
Original frontman Keith Lovell had died a couple of years previously, to be replaced by Ray Simms.  Relationships with other members - Les Wicks (bass), Beano Baggott (drums), Tony Costello (keyboards) and Brain Lovell (guitar) - were strained, and this Festival was to be their last ever performance.

Twenty years later, a holidaymaker (who also happens to be the son of the original promoter of the Wisbech Festival) meets Tony Costello in Ibiza.  He tells of a plan to re-stage the Festival with the original bands, and asks Tony if Strange Fruit would appear.
Tony's first contact is Karen - their Wardrobe back in the day.  Between them, they set about tracking the others down.
Ray they find in his Rock Star Mansion (with a hidden For Sale sign) - at first he's reluctant to join up citing his work on his solo album.
Les now has a roofing business - and is initially even more reluctant than Ray.  Until he climbs into his loft, finds his old bass guitar, and then has a "why not" moment.
Beano, who now works in a Garden nursery (and lives in a caravan at the bottom of his mum's garden), is more than happy to go back on the road and escape the Inland Revenue who are on his tail.
Their old Road Manager, Soundman, and undying supporter, Huey is brought out of retirement, and brings stories and memorabilia of the band's past.
Guitarist Brian is nowhere to be found - presumed dead.
As Record Company interest has been stoked (sort of) - a tour is arranged for Holland, meaning a new guitarist is needed.  From the auditions a young hopeful (probably half the average of the band) is hired.
The tour has a shaky shaky start, with confusion about the key the songs are in, when to start and stop, and general audience apathy.  And then one night right at the end of the tour - as is the way of films - it all comes together, and they are ready for a return to Wisbech.
Whilst in Holland, Ray falls through the ice on a frozen canal, and sees vision of Brian - he's somewhat freaked (as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who's just fallen off the wagon would be).
Also in Holland, Les starts plying on old song - "The Flame Still Burns" - in a supposedly empty tour bus.  The guitarist hears the song and asks Huey why it is not part of the act.  According to Huey, the song - written by Les and Brian - is no longer played because Les doesn't like Ray's treatment of the song, and Ray won't let Les sing it on stage.
In another fortuitous moment for plot chronology, the day after they return from Holland is the anniversary of Keith's death.  Karen visits the grave and finds a card saying "Love You Man, Brian".
Now this could be a crank, or it might actually be Brian (returned from the dead, or never went there in the first place).  She confronts Huey who admits he has been protecting him.  Huey reluctantly tells Karen where he is, and she goes to visit him - convincing him to put in an appearance with the reformed Fruits.

And so they arrive at Wisbech, all fired up and fully reformed.  The Press Conference starts well enough, and then Brian gets more and more uncomfortable with the constant questioning and walks out, and announces he will not be playing.
A stunned Strange Fruit take to the stage to mild applause, and commence an out of tune, out of time, ramshackle performance.
And then, Tony Costello plays the opening chords to the "Flame Still Burns", Ray allows Les to take the vocal.
The crowd noise dies away, and all eyes are on stage.  At the point of the guitar solo, Brian straps on his guitar, and reluctantly takes to the stage, plays the solo like a pro, and the crowd are in raptures at the return of the greatest Prog Rock band of the 70s that no-one has heard of.
For all it's cliche, it is a truly triumphant ending to a film.
As the credits roll, the voiceover comes in, reminding us, the viewer, that not everything in the world of Strange Fruit runs smoothly:
"and how are they going to bollocks it up this time?"

Just what is it that makes this film so good?
1. It's written by Clement and La Frenais - rarely does anything bearing those names disappoint
2, It has a great cast, and avoids the inclusion of a big name (and a big salary) to pull the punters in - and each and everyone put in a convincing performance
3. Unlike some other period films, this has an original soundtrack where some effort was spent on the songs - rather than just creating a simple pastiche, or just re-cycling old tracks.
The main man on the soundtrack was Chris Difford, ably supported by Clive Langer, Russ Ballard, and Foreigner's Mick Jones.  There’s also a couple of Jeff Lynne co-writes (with Ian La Frenais).

The trailer:

All Over The World:

The Flame Still Burns: