Two albums that might've made the Rigidly Digital 2020 Selection, but didn't arrive in time, were:
Paul McCartney 'III' - Release delayed to 18th December
AC/DC 'Power Up' - The gentle advice I was given was "DO NOT BUY IT!" (and yes, there it was wrapped in shiny paper)
And now I can reveal that, I will place them at Numbers 16 and 17. Of the two, I'm preferring AC/DC to Paul McCartney's Lockdown recordings.
'Power Up': AC/DC always deliver what you expect of AC/DC, and this album is no different, although it does fell more committed than the last two outing ('Black Ice' and 'Rock Or Bust') which felt more like an exercise in keeping the name out there than creating new music. This one has echoes of early 80s efforts 'For Those About To Rock' and 'Flick Of The Switch'. Solid drums, root bass notes, pounding relentless rhythm guitar, Brain's wailing vocals. and Angus's fills and solos. Nothing new really (except a slight Led Zep-ism on "Demon Fire"), but you don't want it or expect it. No they won't ever top 'Back In Black' and long ago gave up trying to. What you do get is everything you want of an AC/DC album, and it's always good to press play and just know what is going to happen.
'III': Like McCartneys I & II, all here is preformed by Paul - although it sounds like he has a full band in tow at times - all hail to recording technology. There can be little doubt that Paul McCartney knows how to write a tune, and this album proves he hasn't lost the knack. OK, some of the songs sound a little sketchy and brittle, but he sounds in good voice and playability. This album may not rank amongst his best work, but is not a true duffer. What I find most pleasing about it is that it is an album of songs, and not a collection of outlines, musings, and experiments, and has been polished up and not just thrown out as an exercise in "look what I've been doing during lockdown". Perfectly listenable (as Macca's work always is) but one does wonder how much these songs would've grown in a bigger studio with other players to bounce off.
2020 will be both long remembered, and hopefully quickly forgotten about. Who knew what was coming as we all made brave resolutions for the coming 12 months, and (me personally) filled some holes in my 2019 purchases, and started building the 2020 entries. And by the second week, the first new purchase of the year - The Professionals "Kingdom Come"(number 1 of 3 EPs over the next 3 months - was blowing holes in my speakers. A few more shiny silver discs were added, but the rumblings of this "thing" from China were getting, louder - Italy succumbed, Spain got hit, and then everywhere (including the UK) shut down. "You must stay at home" was the message, and I did. My dining table was converted to a temporary office and I discovered the "joys" of Microsoft Teams, failed VPN connections, unstable internet, and conversations with 2D images of people I used to spend 8 hours a day with generally nattering tosh and taking the p*ss out of people. But - I count my blessings. The lockdown emptied Pubs, Restaurants and Live Music Venues. Bands had to stop touring (for many their main source of income), theatres closed, and a whole host of backroom supply chains (sound, lighting, catering, roadies, merchandise sellers etc) found themselves out of work with no visible means of support or recognition.
Yet through all this, there has been some very fine musical product thrown to the world. As "classic" as previous years? Destined to trouble the All Time Lists in future years? Their best work to date? Who knows - but one cannot deny there have been some very special albums this year, and my carefully curated Top 15 will (I'm sure) confirm this for anyone who can get past the meandering introduction ...
1. Sparks - A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip After nigh on 50 years releasing albums, Sparks have perfected the formula (in truth they long ago perfected it, and each release has just been a new addition). This ranks alongside their very best from the opening acoustic guitar strum of "All That" to the choral closing of "Please Don't Fuck Up My World" there is not a duff moment. 50 minutes of pure entertainment, enjoyment, baroque surrealism and madness (with a few rude words and exasperations thrown in).
2. Duncan Reid & The Big Heads - Don't Blame Yourself He's been a member of the London SS, been on tour with The Ramones, and written one of the finest Punkpop tunes (The Boys "The First Time"). Now on his fourth album with his own band, Duncan continues to fly under the radar and (when allowed) never delivering less than 100% commitment in his live shows. Unfortunately, not all the songs here have had their on-stage baptism and without that comparison this album is a true triumph in his back catalogue
3. Block 33 - 6:36 To Liverpool Street 2020 probably wasn't the best year to release your debut album and hope to recoup costs by performing a keynote show at the 100 Club. But how would they know that it was all going to turn to rats when they planned it. Block 33 are rooted in their own mini Mod Revival and drawing on not just original (1960s) and revival (1980s) Mod, they also pull in Britpop Mod to the mix. Amos turned up, singing in their own accent, and making a glorious noise to boot. Deserves attention, and did not deserve their plans to be put on hold for a year or more.
4. Bob Mould - Blue Hearts After slightly wrong footing his listeners with the often positive and relatively bright 'Sunshine Rock', Bob returns as angry as ever with plenty to get of his chest. From a generally restrained opening trck, the whole thing just flies out of the speakers with the tracks colliding with each other. And if you can't be passionately aggressive and angry in this of all years, then when can you be.
5. Sensible Gray Cells - Get Back Into The World Captain Sensible and Paul Gray reconvene their side Project to duties in The Damned for the second SGC outing. This album is stuff full of tunes, garage rock, hammond organs, melodies, and tracks that wouldn’t go amiss at a Damned show. You do wonder if Captain Sensible filters his songs and keeps all the “grumpy old man with a point” songs and the most melodic-garage stuff for his own albums.
6. Paul Weller - On Sunset Here's Paul Weller, and as ever he's doing exactly what he bleedin well wants to, A bit of soul here, a dance beat there, an ambient-esque bit tacked on for good measure. Yup he's still exploring and still producing the goods. An object lesson in "why rest on your laurels" when you can achieve results like this
7. Humdrum Express - Ultrcrepidarian Soup Ahh .. blessed light relief set to a ska-esque backbeat with stabs of John Cooper-Clarke, Half Man Half Biscuit (and possibly Mike Harding - that's probably the first time that comparator has been used in a contemporary review). If you want comment on modern life with a winsome chuckle and some belly laughs, the Humdrum Express will fit the bill.
8. Massive Wagons - House Of Noise They say it themselves in the chorus of track 1 - We'll give em some big time rock and roll, big riffs big licks big moves - and yup, that is what you got. Big dumb riffs from the AC/DC, Van Halen songbook mixed with The Darkness and even a a touch of The Cult. And complete with the obligatory shrill guitar solo on each song. Under the big riffs is an honesty, commitment and sheer belief in what they do. And not without humour - The Curry Song veers almost in Macc Lads territory.
9. Sports Team - Deep Down Happy As I've said about 874 times before, this year wasn't perhaps the best to release your debut album. But fear not, this debut would grace any year. The latest in the line of great hopes for Indie - and they deserve the plaudits. The sound is a hybrid of Post-Punk, joyous Britpop, a smattering of Home Counties Sultans Of Ping FC, and a dose of early Franz Ferdinand (or that's how it is to these daft ears). Swaggering and sure, they get in, deliver, and get out in around 35 minutes. And no filler in between.
10. Fontaines DC - A Heroes Death Taking it's lead from last years debut, the atmospheric Joy Division-isms remain as does the big Irish heart. Not maybe as immediate as the first, but just as worthy after a few listens (patience is the key). What I originally though of as 50% filler reduced to less than 25% - it's not perfect, but it's better than some others I've heard this year.
11. Green Day - Father of All Motherfuckers Following up a multi-million selling album is not an easy task.. Green Day have tried, it it has taken 16 years to come somewhere close. But they did it and this album is filled with the kind of joyous snarly punk that get them noticed in the first place. Maybe the songs aren't destined for the inevitable 'The Very Best Of Green Day', but they certainly make a compelling case for consideration.
12. Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott - Manchester Calling My first impression here was "this goes on a bit" and "has Paul Heaton lost his knack?", but like Fontaines DC above it just needs a bit of patience. Yes it goes on a bit (it is a double) but is every bit as key as their previous outings. My only criticism is does it need t obe a double, I think there is a seriously strong single album crying to get out. And to answer the last question - no, he hasn't lost the knack, Paul and Jacqui Abbot continue they're singing-sparring as strong as they always have done.
13. Kate Rusby - Hand Me Down Recorded during lockdown at her home studio, Kate Rusby provides a relaxing backdrop with a set of covers delivered in a broad Yorkshire twang. One cannot help but enjoy the songs - I think the choice of The Littlest Hobo theme is inspired. OK, Manic Monday veers on the side of Radio 2-twee, but hey no-one wants to try too hard after months of staring at the same wall.. We all need some comfort, and this one delivered it.
14. The Damned - The Rockfield Files There are many who say that The Damned's best album is 'The Black Album', and I wholheartedly concur. During the middle months of this year, the band returned to the scene of the crime (Rockfield Studios) and wrote and recorded this 4 Track EP. The sound is as you'd expect from The Damned, slightly schlock-y, a dash of Scott Walker, and underpinned by plenty of garage-psych. Tony Visconti's production on the otherewise great album from last year - 'Evil Spirits' - this EP restores The Damned to their finest sound.
15. The Professionals - 123 EPs The Professional's were hoping for a big year - they'd reconvened and re-established themselves with 'What In The World' a couple of years ago, the line-up had settled, and they would be touring with Stiff Little Fingers at the start of the year before getting on with writing and recording. These 3 EPs were a taster of what was to come, and it tasted fine. There is a certain irony that the third EP was titled "2020 Vision"
(OK, I admit it – I padded this out to 15 using a couple of EPs, although The Professionals 3 EPs have 12 tracks, which is tantamount to an album innit)
But it's not over yet - I'm still waiting on 'McCartney III' (delayed to 18th December) and AC/DC - 'Power Up' (which I've been told not to buy, so expect to see it in wrapping paper in about 3 weeks time). I haven't bought Bruce Springsteen's 'Letter To You' either (which I should really be rectifying soon)
2020 - a sh*t year for live music, sport, mobility, and damn near anything else. But a rare old year for recorded music. I've already started scanning the lists of pre-orders for 2021 (Alice Cooper and Bruce Foxton & Russel Hastings in the bag so far) so will doubtless return with more meandering balderdash - both old and new, borrowed and blue - very soon.
One of the good things of this lockdown state is that for the last month my ears have not been battered by the same 12 songs from every shop doorway. But if you are missing them, here is a slight revision to the Sladest of all Chrimbo songs. One where every line is changed to "Are you hanging up your stocking on your wall"
There are a number of bands who are superb live, but never seem to be able to capture the power on record. One disappointment for me was The Quireboys - I'd seen them a few times live and it was always a full on powerful show, but one the album arrived it was somewhat sanitised, over-produced, and all tghe edges cleaned up. Old stagers The Who and The Stones fall firmly into that category now where their live shows exceed the impact of studio performances. Thin Lizzy's best album is 'Live And Dangerous', The Foo Fighters live act trumps their records (they're very good records, but they are a prime live act), and Bruce Springsteen live is the consumate performer putting in shows of up to 4 hours (is he the Ken Dodd of Rock?). Prince too - I've never loved his records, but watching and hearing him live is a pure spectacle (especially when he goes just a little bit wild on the guitar). So why does this happen? Surely all you have to do is rock up to the studio, plug in, and place your live set on tape. But what's missing when you do this is the response from the audience, the chance to do something spontaneous, the missed beats, duff notes or wrong words are addressed and banished, recording is a "job" not a fly by the seat of your pants adrenalin rush.
Pub Rock started in North London in the early 70s when American Band Eggs Over Easy convinced the landlord of The Tally Ho in Kenitish Town to let them play in the back-room. Word got out and audiences increased adn soon a circuit of pubs opened up their doors selling beer, pickled eggs and sweaty rock n roll and r&b. On of the finest purveyours was Duck's Deluxe, who along with Brinsley Schwarz, the aforementioned Eggs Over Easy, and Bees Make Honey, were there right from the start.
Such was their reputation on the circuit, they landed a deal with RCA and went into the studio to transfer their live shows onto record. Little footage exists of the band playing live, but the small amount that does shows a working band high on commitment, playing ability and presence. But their debut for RCA sounded a bit flat by comparison - it's not a bad record at all, it just feels too clean and a bit lacking of drive. Songs like "Coast To Coast", "Nervous Breakdown" and "Fireball" have all the potential just something is missing between leaving the players and transferring to tape. Undeterred, the band and record company tried again with follow-up album 'Taxi To The Terminal Zone', but still no dice. Again, it's a fine album but is sounding flat again. One last single was released - a great version of "I Fought The Law" - before the Ducks called it a day in 1975.
They rounded of things with a live performance at the 100 Club which was recorded and bootlegs appeared a couple of years later under the title 'The Last Night Of A Pub Rock Band'. This was the Ducks at full chat and a better representation of the band on record, as is reformation album 'Rockin At The Moon' (widely available on Spotify unlike 'Last Night ...' which can only be found with a bit of searching (and then not necessarily "freely" available).
Which begs the question: why didn't they put out their live set as an official album? Dr Feelgood did (granted it was their third album) and secured a Number 1 seller. Ducks Deluxe, along with many other Pub Rockers, will be filed in the "oh so nearly" file.
But they weren't completely defeated: Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont joined Graham Parker's backing band The Rumour, while Nick Garvey and Andy McMaster formed The Motors and managed a couple of Top Of The Pops appearances. Sean Tyla though - the guitarist, singer, songwriter, and general driving force of the band stayed on the club circuit - achieving acclaim in Scandinavia and Germany, until health induced retirement in the early 80s.
They had the songs, they had the chops, they had the following, all that was missing was a decent bit of studio engineering to get the crackling sound they made onto a slab of vinyl.
Minor quibble though - the 2 albums are worthy of anyone's time and hint at just what could've been