Friday 30 July 2021

Something Happened In The Summer of 1991

1991 was a relatively inoffensive year.

As far as the Singles Chart goes, the year was book-ended by Iron Maiden's "Bring Your Daughter (To The Slaughter)" - not one of their greatst songs - and "Bohemian Rhapsody" returning to the toppermost of the poppermost following Freddie Mecrury's shuffling of this mortal curl in November.
In between that there were a couple of novelty records ("Do The Bartman", Hale & Pace's "The Stonk), but the baulk of the year was taken up by Bryan Adams with that song and Cher Shoop Shoop-ing a lot.

Album-wise, Eurythmics clocked up 10 weeks with 'Greatest Hits', and Simply Red managed 4 with 'Stars'.
Away from the coffee table, REM hit the top (and international success) with 'Out Of Time', and perhaps surprisingly U2s 'Achtung Baby' which confirmed, re-inforced, and even enhanced their reputation as one of the biggest bands in the world never hit the summit (probably due to the Freddie situation which saw 'Greatest Hits II' take the top spot for the final 5 weeks of the year)

But away from the top of the commercial charts, there were some none too shabby albums to be had 

  • Blur 'Leisure'
  • Billy Bragg 'Don't Try This at Home'
  • Carter USM '30 Something'
  • Elvis Costello 'Mighty Like A Rose'
  • Farm 'Spartacus'
  • Jesus Jones 'Doubt'
  • KLF 'The White Room'
  • Levellers 'Levelling The Land'
  • Kirst MacColl 'Electric Landlady'
  • Massive Attack 'Blue Lines'
  • My Bloody Valentine 'Loveless'
  • Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 'Into the Great Wide Open'
  • Saw Doctors 'If This Is Rock and Roll, I Want My Old Job Back'
  • Saint Etienne 'Foxbase Alpha'
  • Teenage Fanclub 'Bandwagonesque'
  • Tin Machine II (well, I like it)
  • Wonderstuff 'Never Loved Elvis'
Special mention too for two compilations which reminded punters that the past is something that should be embraced.  As compilations go, these fall into the category of "not a duff tack on it"

  • Specials - Singles
  • Thin Lizzy - Dedication

But ... in amongst all this film-backed soppy number one singles, coffee table albums, and minority sellers that deserved better (see above), there was a moment in August and September which saw a string of albums which seemingly turned the music world on it's axis.
It was loud, it was brash, it found a ravenous audience, and most of it came from the US.

  • July
    • Mudhoney 'Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge'
  • August
    • Babes In Toyland 'To Mother'
    • Metallica 'Metallica'
    • Spin Doctors 'Pocket Full of Kryptonite'
    • Pearl Jam 'Ten'
  • September
    • Hole 'Pretty on the Inside'
    • Guns n' Roses 'Use Your Illusion I' and 'Use Your Illusion II'
    • Primal Scream 'Screamadelica'
    • Pixies 'Trompe le Monde'
    • Soundgarden 'Badmotorfinger'
    • Red Hot Chili Peppers 'Blood Sugar Sex Magik'
    • Nirvana 'Nevermind'
    • Status Quo 'Rock til You Drop'

If the 1960s (and arguably the early 80s) were termed the British Invasion, the surely those 3 months in 1991 is the US returning the favour.

Can you spot the ringer in that lot, the sole UK entry in the midst of the Grunge Invasion?

Primal Scream being un-Primal Scream like.  Unleashing their heady mix of dance beats, dub, acid house, funk and psychadelia - all mixed up with Stooges-lite/Stones-esque moments.  As much a product of the studio as it is a live band, Andrew Weatherall fashioned the bands demos into something that probably they, and indeed most of the listening public weren't expecting.  They'd never sounded like this before (really), and never sounded like this again.  And 'Screamadelica' remains one of their best, most acclaimed, albums.

It more than holds it's own against the US onslaught.
To consider a couple of them:

'Metallica' was the album that was smoothed by Bob Rock's production with the deliberate aim for commercial success.  Which was duly delivered.  The band sounds more direct, less complicated in construct, but (sadly) not as interesting or committed.

'Use Your Illusion' would've massively benefited by being shrunk to a single album.  Across 2 albums, there is just not enough variety in what they do to sustain

Pearl Jam's 'Ten' was more rock than grunge, but by associations of geography, the album became a key work of the genre.  Thing is, it is an "OK" album with a few undoubted high-points, but again feels limited in capability.

Spin Doctors 'Pocket Full of Kryptonite' was Grunge-Pop to be sold through quickly while the bandwagon was rolling.  There isn't too much redeeming or classic about this album (It's not bad - I listened to it again fairly recently - just not that great)

And now the sacred cow ...

Nirvana 'Nevermind' - If there is one record and one band that pretty much defines the genre and period, then it's this one.  A heady mixture of anger, angst, recycled riffs, energy, passion and attitude.
It is a great little album, but I'm just not convinced by the argument that it is one of the most important albums ever released.  Yes, I agree it's monumental and certainly created a shift in commercial attitudes and thinking, and indeed has a pervading influence.  But ... is it an absolute stone-cold classic?
I think it's gradual decline in those oft published "All Time Top 100 Best Ever Ever" lists is suggestive that maybe the content is not wall-to-wall stonkers, and that over-playing (and indeed over-mythologising) could be it's downfall too.

I know it looks like I've slaughtered 3 months of music, and it sounds like I haven't got a good word to say about any of them.  Not true, I like many of those albums, and still play them from time to time.  I'm just not convinced that they turned the music biz on it's head as the legend (and the rock press) would have us believe - and in the case of Metallica, Guns n' Roses and The Pixies, I'm not even convinced those are their best albums.
And of those clutch of albums that saw the light of day in those 100 days of Summer/Autumn 1991, the most returned to the turntable is ... Primal Scream 'Screamadelica'
(and that's not even my favourite of theirs)

Primal Scream - Loaded

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit

Weird Al Yankovic - Smells Like Nirvana

Saturday 10 July 2021

ZZ Top

In December 2019, I took the whole month off work.  All that accrued holiday that I was unable to use in a stupidly busy year was splurged on a whole month of doing "not a lot".
And as I wasn't working, the razor stayed in the drawer and slowly ran out of charge, whilst I developed a lustrous beard.
(for "lustrous", read "patchy, with bits of grey")
And then came New Year and time to return to work, I kept the facial hair, trimmed it down a bit, and returned to work for a full 3 months until Covid took hold, and I've been working at home ever since.

The beard is now part of me, and I'm not getting rid of it.  I have harboured ambitions of getting it to ZZ Top standards, but for one dissenting voice shouting "oh no you're bloody not!".

The most famous beard wearers in all of Rock Music (apart from the drummer who is ironically called Frank Beard), Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard have been working together since 1969, with just a few solo sojourns in between.
(Are they the longest surviving band with no personnel changes?  They may very well be)
The early years of the band weren't as hirsute - Beards and tache, yes.  But not until 1979, and the release of 'Degüello' was the full length topiary that made their legend first seen.

My entry point to ZZ Top (like may others I'm sure) was 1983s 'Eliminator' - a bright, clean sounding but bluesy rocking slab of 12 tracks, which spawned 4 singles "Gimme All Your Lovin", "Sharp Dressed Man", "TV Dinners" and the lascivious "Legs".  The look of the band, and the visuals created by the album and it's sound sat them in prime position for MTV, and lap it up they did.
Although I didn't know it at the time, 'Eliminator' was another evolution of the bands desire to innovate and develop their sound - starting on the aforementioned 'Degüello - enhancing their basic 3 piece Bar Blues sound, using a range of synthesisers and studio technologies.

And what's so wrong with innovating and trying to stretch yourself?  Absolutely nothing, and fair play to them for doing so and keep it interesting.
But if anyone asks me (and they haven't yet) my advice would be that a fine place to start the ZZ Top journey is at the beginning in the swampy-blues sound of 'ZZ Top's First Album' (1971) or 'Rio Grande Mud' (1972).

Over and above those though, my go to "you must hear this" choice would be 1973s 'Tres Hombres'.
This is their third album and they've now got  feel for the studio, and are becoming more adept at recreating their sound in the studio confines - not going in, plugging in, and laying it down.  This album feels stronger than previous efforts - the playing is more solid, certainly at the bottom end - allowing the guitars to sit above the groove and the songs to bloom, rather than replicate what you would hear on stage.

There is much to like (and move your feet to) on the album.  From the somewhat funky-blues-boogie of opener "Waiting For The Bus" through "Jesus Just Left Chicago" to "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" and "Move Me On Down The Line".

But surely the standout track is "La Grange" - a John Lee Hooker-like Boogie, with a searing guitar bolted to it.
Undoubtedly one of the highest points in ZZ Tops's half decade, and one often overlooked in favour of the Beards, Cars, and Girls videos of 'Eliminator' and 'Afterburner'