Thursday 30 July 2020

Sparks - A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip

Sparks have been releasing albums - 24 of them to date - for nigh on 50 years.
After that amount of time, one would be forgiving and understanding if releases dipped below par, or quality control waned a bit.
Not in the case of Sparks - they don't sound in the slightest bit frustrated with advancing years or bereft of inspiration.
Here's an album every bit as vital to their catalogue as 'Kimono My House' (1974), 'Angst In My Pants' (1982), 'Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins' (1994), or 2017s 'Hippopotamus'.
They hit a seam of quality early on, and have remained consistent to this day.

Opener "All That" lays the foundations nicely - prime baroque-pop with echoes of Abba, The Beatles, and anything else that is simply pleasing to the ear
From there every track demands attention and seems to exist in it's own small world (which at the same time is part of a larger Sparks world).
"Lawnmower" is an almost a repeating mantra about obsession - the constant la-la-la-ing takes root in your brain and stays there.  And there can't be too many songs expressing love for a Lawn Mower, the greatness of a well tended lawn, and a girl from Andover (who drives a Land Rover).
"Pacific Standard Time" casts a retro type 80s dance sound (almost verging Techno?), and the orchestral baroque madness is restored with  "Stravinsky's Only Hit" which re-casts the composer as a slightly bitter washed-up celebrity.  "Onomato Pia" is almost operatic in intent based around a simple pun.
"iPhone" gets almost anthemic and universal in it's desire for the world to "put your fucking iPhone down and listen to me".
There are many moments - perhaps none more so than on "The Existential Threat" - when they sound like they're about to descend into madness, but it is all held together.  And you would expect nothing less.
"Please Don't Fuck Up My World" closes with an almost hymnal eco-anthem to the world they see around them and it's fate.

The album is lushly, thickly produced but never to the detriment of the tunes.  The histrionics of the vocals (which may if that's not your thing, but it is something of a Sparks trademark) are balanced by the sheer warmth, humour and enjoyment of the album.
It is both a product of Sparks and a unique stand-alone artefact.  If you only want to own one Sparks album, you could do a lot worse than this one
(although I'd still make an argument for a score-draw with 'Kimono My House' meaning you'd have to listen to 2 Sparks albums).

"All That"



Sunday 26 July 2020

50 Albums For 50 Years - 1970 to 1979

Now, somehow I've managed to achieve 50 years on this planet.
So what better way to mark the occasion than to drone on about some musical things.

The first installment is the 70s - a decade I don't really remember (surprisingly).  There are bits of clarity - eating Beans on Toast by candle light, getting my finger stuck in a glass bottle at school, being convinced that my hair in shadow looked like Rod Stewart's, the last 3 minutes of the 1979 FA Cup Final (the other 87 were pretty uninspiring), watching Top Of The Pops, getting my first tape player and recording things from the Radio 1 chart countdown. 
As I never actually bought an album until 1982. these choices are "learned" choices either by self-discovery, or by a friend saying "listen to this!"

Many of the selections I have waxed lyrical about before - so hopefully I'm just repeating myself, rather than contradicting myself.

PART 1 - 1970 to 1979

1970 Derek and The Dominoes – Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs
After Cream and Blind Faith, Eric Clapton craved anonymity and just being part of a group.  This he achieved with the formation of Derek and The Dominoes.  This band consisted of 3 members nicked from George Harrison's band, and a personal invitation to Duane Allman.
Not content with nicking George's band, many of the sings here are about nicking Georges's wife.
On first hearing some of the blues workouts sound laboured and overlong - a bit like a jam session rather than a song recording.  But repeated listening drills the songs in and you wouldn't want it any other way.
Personally, I don't think Delboy has ever topped this one.
And yes, it includes that song - overplayed perhaps, but the riff is enough to send you into air guitar frenzy.  And he full version with the extended coda pushes the track into damned near perfect territory.  But it's not the best track here.  That prize goes to:

1971 Who – Who's Next
1969s 'Tommy' moved the band from a 60s singles band to an album band proper.  1970s 'Live At Leeds' showcased their incendiary on stage prowess, honed by incessant touring of 'Tommy'.
'Whos Next' started out as Pete's next concept album - Lifehouse - but he couldn't make the story stick. 
The album is bookened by two absolute belters ("Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again") and the bits in the middle are none too shabby either.
As the concept was dropped, the remaining songs were honed into some of the finest rock tracks to lay in the grooves of a 12" vinyl platter.

1972 David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust
David Bowie had been trying to be famous since the mid-sixties - he briefly was in 1969 with "Space Oddity" but was seemingly unable to follow it up, and he watched as his mate Marc Bolan became the biggest pop-star in Britain.  His 1971 album 'Hunky Dory' signalled a change in approach, confidence and consistency (and with the track "Queen Bitch" seemed to lay the ground work for what came next).
'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust' is cited as a Rock Opera with a continuing narrative - this is both true and un-true as the narrative came together after many of the songs were already complete.
Released into a Glam world of 1972, it was perfectly placed and the legend was born - each subsequent album seemed to mark a development, or a change of outlook and style.  For me, it's only the first two of the Berlin-trilogy ('Low' and 'Heroes') which better this album in the DB canon.

1973 Who – Quadrophenia
They've scored with one concept album, they've proved the live chops, and they've failed to make a second concept a reality.  So what next?  I know another concept album (actually a second one, after the aborted planned autobiographical film/next attempt to make Lifehouse stick) - Long Live Rock).
Pete Towshend returned to a more real grounding spinning the tale of Jimmy The Mod and his double schizophrenia.
History and biographies suggest the band (and most certainly Pete) were burning out with exhaustion at this point.  One listen to the album will poo-poo that suggestion.

1974 Slade – In Flame
Slade were very probably the most successful singles act in the UK in the early 70s
 - 6 Number Ones (3 straight in at Number One) and 7 other Top 10 singles between 1971 and 1975.  They also manged 5 Top 10 albums (3 hitting Number One).
By 1974 they wanted to broaden their appeal, and crack the US.  A film seemed the obvious choice - after all it worked for The Beatles.  Initial scripts centred on the band's image and had a slapstick appeal.  The project chosen was an altogether grittier affair - the rise (and fall) of a band from Wedding Parties and two-bit gigs to chart success, including the unsavoury managers and record companies along the way.
In truth, the film (and subsequent attempts at the US) ended up doing more harm than good as by 1976 Slade were in decline.
This album - the soundtrack to that film - contains some of their best songs.  It's unmistakably Slade, but you can just hear them pushing a bit further than the rabble-rousing 7" singles.  It also contains their very best song (if not one of the best songs ever committed to tape).  This one ...

1975 Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
When your last album has shifted many many unite, you'd better make sure your next outing is a corker.  And it was - it just took a little longer to recognise the fact.  How much more Prog can you get - 5 tracks bookended by a 25 minute suite in 9 parts.  1 track is a tribute to Syd Barrett ("Shine On You Crazy Diamond"), 1 can be interpreted as a message to Syd )"Wish You Were Here") and the other two are having a pop at the record business.

1976 AC/DC – High Voltage
Accadacca guitarist Angus Young once got upset with a journalist who said "AC/DC have released 10 albums that all sound the same".  "Not true", replied Angus, "we've released 11 that all sound the same".  And this was the first (or third depending on how you read the discography),  This was the first international release plundering the pick of the 2 previous Australia only releases.
Every track is a thundering slice of Aussie Barroom boogie.
They've now released 15 albums that all sound the same - and with few exceptions in the same league as this one.

1977 Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks
Regular readers of this tosh will now doubt be aware of the affection I hold for this album.  Not just the ultimate Punk Rock album, but surely one of the greatest Rock albums ever.
The sheer force, energy, tightness of the band, and most importantly power of the songs themselves.
Re-issued, re-packaged and re-configured several dozen times, and always a thrill to hear it.

1978 Stiff Little Fingers – Inflammable Material
John Peel's affection for The Undertones "Teenage Kicks" is well recorded.  He was also a massive supporter of another Northern Irish band, whose debut single ("Suspect Device") sits 5 places higher in the 1978 Festive Fifty.
This was their debut - recorded in under a fortnight on a 50/50 profit share deal with Rough Trade.  It sold enough on release to become the first independent album to enter the Top 20 of the UK album, and (despite Geoff Travis rarely mentioning it) kept Rough Trade going and allowed them to build into the empire it became.
Terri Hooley (Good Vibrations Records mainman) said: “New York has the bands, London has the clothes but Belfast has the reason".
And SLF had the album that explained the reasons

1979 The Specials – The Specials
Independent record labels, politicsing youth, and a focus on race relations are 3 things bequeathed by Punk. And 3 things Jerry Dammers used when co-creating The Specials.  Harking back to 60s Reggae and Ska, looking sharp, multi-racial band members, and being in charge of their own destiny were all in The Specials agenda, and they were joined by other like-minded bands from their Midlands home and throughout the country.
Punks, Skins, Mods, Rastas - there's something in these grooves that appeals to most listeners.  And while the messages may be deeper, there is also something properly joyous happening

Wednesday 15 July 2020

One Moment In Time ... What Didn't Happen Next

It takes just one moment of decision (or in-decision?) to change the future.  If that little butterfly in The Philippines chose not to flap it's wings at a given moment, the landscape could've been a very different place.

6 July 1957
The weather in Liverpool is overcast with intermittent rain storms.  There's a Church Fete taking place in nearby Woolton featuring a band that a school mate has said is worth a look. Paul McCartney looks a the weather, decides he doesn't fancy cycling the 3 miles in a belting rain storm.
What Didn't Happen Next?
- Paul McCartney follows hid Dad into the Big Band playing piano, clarinet and saxophone at weekends whilst holding down a Middle Management position at Royal Liver Assurance.  He marries old school friend Helena Rigby, and when not working at the office or playing in the band, is also a published author of short stories and novella.
- John Lennon finishes his studies at Art College and takes up the post of Visiting Lecturer at Southampton University.  On a clear day from Southampton Dock he can see the Isle Of Wight.  With the day free, he decides to buy a ticket to Ryde.
- George Harrison completes his apprenticeship and becomes a fully qualified electrician - he expands his business and a fleet of Sparky George vans can be found across the City.  The Company Headquarters is a small lock up behind the barbers on Penny Lane.
- Ringo Starr, after a largely uneventful time as a drummer for hire at Butlins Holiday Camps and around Liverpool, hangs up hi sticks and throws his energy into crisps and snacks eventually inventing a circular potato and maize snack that bares his name.  Bags of Stars fly off the shelves, but he fails to correctly declare his income to the Inland Revenue and now the Taxman is after him.

20 or so years later, Noel Gallagher joins his brothers band, and informs them they should try and sound more like Gerry and The Pacemakers

December 1974
Mick Taylor, exhausted from touring, strung out with his new habit, and miffed he didn't get (promised) writing credits announces that he is to leave The Stones.
Mick Jagger asks Ronnie Wood to fill the gap, purely because he's standing next to him at the party.
Ronnie mulls it over, but keeps loyal the Rod and the other Faces.  Yes, it's true that relationships have not been great since Rod's increasing solo success, but it's still a bloody good laugh with his mates.  Plus, he also knows that discussions are taking place with Steve Marriott to re-join if Rod ever does leave.  "Cheers Mick, but no thanks".
The Stones give the job to Jeff Beck (who stays for one tour) to be followed by Peter Frampton.  Frampton is not a foil or soulmate to Keith, and The Stones fall apart in 1978 after they tour the world for the last time.  Time is no longer on their side, and continuous touring is not giving them any satisfaction.

1 December 1976
Freddie Mercury takes a couple of aspirin to dull the pain of a toothache.  He's feeling fine, and Queen can attend the scheduled TV interview (EMI were preparing to give the gig to their new signings, but were hoping Freddie's choppers would be OK).
Queen get to the Thames TV studios, but the pain in Freddie's mouth re-occurs.  He downs a bottle of brandy to numb the pain.
In the studio he remains silent whilst Bill Grundy goes through the motions of reading out the press sheet word for word.  He then turns to the band and says: "Bohemian Rhapsody - what was that all bout.  Faux classical music in a pop context.  Are you serious, or are you just taking the mickey".
An incensed Freddie stirs from his slumber: "Oh, you drunken old bitchy queen".  Brian May smiles inanely, John Deacon says nothing (as usual), and Roger Taylor just looks confused.  Freddie launches himself towards Bill Grundy and starts screaming, shouting and slapping the host while tears roll down his face.  Security are called, and the band led away.  The front pages of the following days papers all lead with the continuing strikes and and damage to the UK economy.  On page 9 of The Daily Mirror is a short piece about the events last night, with Freddie Mercury saying "I'm sorry, but I was very very drunk at the time".
As an apology, Freddie agrees to become co-presenter and news reader for the next 3 months.  When the stint is over, the press asked him if he enjoyed it.  His reply was: "I've read the News time after time, I've done my penance, and now it's all fine".  He then goes out for dinner with Bill Grundy to a French restaurant.  Bill Grundy pays the bill - he bought the champignons. 

30 October 1982
Paul Weller announces to the press that the current Jam Tour will be the last ... for a year or so.
He's taking a year off to build his studio and develop his record label.  After 5 years constant writing, recording, and touring with the band, he needs a rest.  Bruce and Rick could do with some time off too - just to get more into the groove of where Paul is trying to take the band.
When they do reform 12 months later, the band has fattened out with a horn section, a troop of female backing singers, and Mick "You Need Wheels" Talbot on keyboards.  They also have a new name - The Elegance Committee.
And it was in that Studio that the band began to fall apart - as did the Studio.
Whilst recording their second album 'The Boutique We Quite Like' (the follow-up to 'The Green Takeaway') that the structurally unsound Studio began to crumble - they sat and watched as the walls came tumbling down.

11 January 1984
Despite it falling down the charts, Mike Read becomes almost evangelical about the debut single from Frankie Goes To Hollywood.  He declares it as a "dancefloor banger" and particularly enjoys the near the knuckle lyrics, which he says has a touch of Punk about it, and may well get up the nose of parents and squares.  He plays it incessantly for a week, nut the British public are un-convinced, and it disappears from the chart a couple of weeks later.  Frankie Says ... nothing.

23 October 1984
After an eventful gig with the Boomtown Rats, Bob Geldof arrives home nursing a hangover.  Arriving home he shows the family a new pet chimpanzee that he won in a drinking competition while on tour.  He retires to his bed to sleep off the last of the excess and misses the early evening News.
Paula Yates tells him about the News Report in the morning, but he stand in the kitchen looking disheveled, and says: "What the f*ck can I do about it?  Maybe I should give 'em the f*ckin' monkey"

which leads to another "it never happened"
13 July 1985
Just another sunny July day.  Nothing much going on in the world.

1 February 1995
Despite not being in fighting shape, Richey Edwards boards a plane to the US with the other Manic Street Preachers.  Their albums to date have been solid, if un-spectacular and not really living up to the hype and bluster they once pedalled.  Maybe now it's time to push their case in the US?
During a day-off, the band visit DisneyWorld, and Richey is entranced by the new world before him.  Back at the Hotel he announces that he will not be returning to the UK, preferring to seek the simple life of a ride attendant at the Theme Park.
And he's there to this day spinning the tea cups on the ride shouting "Faster!"

June 25 2009
Reports state that Michael Jackson, who has not been seen in public for at least 3 months is missing.  Reports speak of his re-location to a dessert island, his attempts to go under cover and live a simple hobo life, or even his demise.  There is much to support the latter story with Doctor's confirmations, and even a body seen lying in state.
However, just before Christmas Jackson emerges from a hidden alcove in the dining room of his Neverland mansion.
"Yes, I know I've been bad but I do love a good game of Hide and Seek.  You can't beat it" 

Of course, none of this happened (merely the dumpings of a fevered mind).  But it could have been a reality but for one random flutter of a winged insect.