Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Melody Maker - Unknown Pleasures - 20 Great Lost Albums Rediscovered - # 4 The Specials - More Specials
Simon Price contribution to this book was about The Specials less vaunted second album. Price is another who has made a good career for himself in music journalism since he wrote this. The Rock and Pop critic for The Independent for twelve years, he's also written for virtually every music magazine going since his nine years with Melody Maker in the late Eighties and for much of the Nineties.
During his time there he was pretty much their Goth and New Romantic correspondent. He raved about many rather dubious bands over the years and a few good ones. He had a perverse obsession with Duran Duran and inadvisably put his full force behind the misguided and doomed Romo movement in the Nineties. The Maker were pretty much the only ones who gave it any press at all and Price was largely responsible. But he probably didn't care and probably still doesn't care if he was misguided, he wrote about what he knew and to give him his due always wrote pretty well which no doubt accounts for his success after he left the paper in 1997.
He writes pretty well here, making a good case for a very interesting and diverse album. More Specials came out at a point in time in Britain when the threat of nuclear war, the Iranian Revolution and the economic and cultural ravages of early Thatcherism made Britain a grim place indeed. The Specials response? Gallows humour and dark, mordant tunes. But tunes that swang. They continued to have hits even as they experimented with their sound. Jerry Dammers, (still really the leader of a band of strong, conflicting personalities), lured them towards a queasy 'lounge' sound. This is most of all a strange album and Price accurately nails it as such on the way upbraiding them for the misogyny of the lyrics of so many of their early records, still the major blot on the band's copybook, even all these years later.
It was the original line up of The Specials' last album. Inevitable really. There were too many conflicting elements in the mix. They were a multicultural band plagued by violent, fascist elements in their audience. One that put out singles focused on the bleakest issues imaginable which nevertheless shot straight to the highest slots in the chart. Their first seven 45s reached the Top Ten. Full of strong characters who were bound to be forced in separate directions sooner rather than later. There was this, there was the Ghost Town, which soundtracked a summer of rioting in British inner cities during the summer of 1981. It stayed at Number One in the singles chart for three weeks.Then they splintered and never really came back together. Dammers abstained from the reformed Specials who reunited in 2009 and have been doing so intermittently ever since in a gradually diminishing line up like a Two Tone Magnificent Seven. I witnessed the first concert of that tour ten years ago at the 02 Academy in Newcastle. It remains one of the best gigs I've ever seen just as The Specials remain one of the truly special bands.
'Enjoy yourself. It's later than you think...'
Born in India, raise in Harare, Zimbabwe, based at one point in Holland but now residing in Peckham, Rina Mushonga is a truly global citizen. She's spent five years working on her second album, In a Galaxy and it's been time well spent.
The record's a poppy confection and sounds as global as Mushonga is herself. She certainly has something of Joan Armatrading's wonderful range. While some of the album passed me by slightly, there's also much to relish.
Monday, February 18, 2019
Definitely an apt choice for this kind of series. Chic are just the kind of artists who seldom get the consideration they're due for their albums. Here Paul Lester, who was one of Melody Maker's main journalists during this period tries to redress this balance.
Lester is a writer who has gone on to carve out a considerable career for himself, working freelance for just about every national newspaper going over the years. He's also written rushed biographies on everybody from Gang of Four to Bjork, Kula Shaker, The Spice Girls, Wire and Robbie Williams. If this list seems haphazard to say the least and indicates that he's something of a career hack, rather than a writer working on a fixed agenda and set of priorities, it needs conceding that every paper needs a balance in terms of the profile of its team of journalists and Lester was the kind of writer who helped provide that for Melody Maker during the Nineties.
Risque was Chic's third album, released in 1979 at the peak of their career when they were the biggest and best black band in the world. They didn't always get the respect and acclaim they deserved in the music press at the time though, largely because they were classed first and foremost as a 'disco' band, and this was a scene and movement that was largely despised by the mainstream music press.
I don't particularly go for Lester's essay on the importance and sheer majesty of Chic. He tells us how he first fell for them at the time of Risque's release and the obsession he developed at the same time for a girl he saw on the bus he was taking to school. He was reading an article about The Undertones in a music paper when he first saw her.
He talks about Chic's career trajectory, how their music by contrast to most of their disco and dance contemporary artists actually sounded strikingly white in terms of the clinical, glacial way it was put together. He cites them as spiritual heirs to Roxy Music and the Bowie / Eno Berlin records. He makes a lot of good points but doesn't actually write very well for my tastes as far too much of the article is about him and is full of effusive gushing, not really a style of music journalism that does it for me.
Anyhow, the album he writes about, is well worth hearing. Chic were at their peak then and there was good reason for it. As Danny Baker, one of the few music writers making the case for them at that time wrote of them at in the NME, 'If disco should need to go on trial - well, with Chic, the defence rests its case.'
Sunday, February 17, 2019
Melody Maker - Unknown Pleasures - 20 Great Lost Albums Rediscovered - # 2 Captain Beefheart - Clear Spot
The second review was from David Stubbs, one of the better writers working on Melody Maker at the time. He'd studied at Oxford, where he'd been good friends with Simon Reynolds who went on to work with him for much of the late Eighties and Nineties at the paper before it folded in December 2000. They both favoured an intellectual approach to writing about music, namedropping Post Structuralists at the drop of the hat but both were highly readable at the same time. Since he moved on from The Maker Stubbs has worked for NME, The Wire, The Guardian and numerous others and branched off into books. He wrote the highly praised Future Days about the Seventies German Krautrock scene which was published in 2014.
His article here was about Captain Beefheart's 1972 album Clear Spot. It's a great example of Stubbs' writing style; compact, literate, humorous and informative. He makes the case for Beefheart's genius 'one of the few genuine rock mavericks of the last forty years' and the relevance of Clear Spot, 'the place to start'.
Critics are always writing about 'the place to start' with Beefheart. He's that kind of artist, as untamed and unruly a musician as Rock music has ever produced. But in this case I'd agree with Stubbs. This one and Safe as Milk are the ones I go to. Trout Mask Replica is generally thought of as his masterpiece, Stubbs writes that it remains 'one of the greatest rock albums ever made,' but it's a deeply forbidding record at the same time. Clear Spot offers a way in, while staying true to Beefheart and his band's essential deranged qualities.
It also has some of his very finest songs. Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles, My Head Is my Only House Unless it Rains, the title track, Long Neck Bottles and of course Big Eyed Beans From Venus. It may not be coherent. Beefheart hardly makes sense at the best of times. But it is a great one.
Saturday, February 16, 2019
Huey Morgan playing what can only be described as an eclectic mix on BBC 6 Music on a Saturday morning. He played Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast half an hour ago which caused me no little pain, particularly as I'm nursing a headache. This is more to my liking and fitting to my mood, although the steals from old Nick Drake and Francoise Hardy records are akin to fingerprints found at the scene of a crime. Rose has a new album, called No Words Left, due in March.
Melody Maker - Unknown Pleasures - 20 Great Lost Albums Rediscovered - # 1 Neil Young - Time Fades Away
These days we're more than used to music magazines providing a giveaway CD with each edition. Mojo and Uncut, the two leading British ones, do it every month. But back in the day when we still had weekly magazines here, they would regularly go the extra mile.
In 1995 Melody Maker gave away a small book with one of their March issues with a set of articles about lost albums they considered deserving of re-evaluation. Written by their staff team of the time, and they had a talented roster, it's a neat period piece, and I still flick through it occasionally leading me back to the individual records focused on there. I treasure my copy anyhow but as this blog indicates, I am the type who would.
Since the early Seventies when Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray were first signed up by the NME and subsequently played such important roles in turning that paper's fortunes around, Melody Maker had definitely played second fiddle to its biggest rival. It was generally seen as less credible and as a result its writers seemed to try harder, but it was always an interesting read anyhow and this small book shows it at its best.
1. Neil Young - Time Fades Away (1973 )
Allan Jones, the paper's editor, wrote the first piece. He was a few years older than most of his colleagues, having been on Melody Maker's staff since way back into the Seventies. Jones had particular taste music-wise, tending to champion what's now generally termed Americana. So it was appropriate that he opted for Neil Young here.
He chose Time Fades Away, a live album and a commercial and critical flop at the time of its release. Jones argues that it was one of his most important records, for its sheer bloody mindedness if nothing else, making him the artist who became so revered by critics and fans over time. Made at a phenomenally harrowing moment of Young's life, following the death through overdose of his guitarist and friend Danny Whitten, (which Young blamed himself for), as well as through his struggles with the music industry and fellow musicians who didn't always match the high expectations he set for himself.
Time Fades Away isn't exactly always an easy record to listen to but Jones makes a good case for its importance. It's one of the best pieces of journalism I've read by him. In many respects he was Melody Maker's equivalent to NME's Nick Kent for much of the Seventies and as with the paper he wrote for he often had to cede next to best.
It's clearly something that irritated Jones and still grates. As editor of Uncut he still makes a point of excluding Kent's articles from collections of writing from the Seventies which they periodically release. I would say that for the most part Kent is a far better writer though Jones makes a very strong case for himself here though he does use the 'f' word far too much. Back to the point I made earlier about Maker writers trying too hard on occasion. But the article definitely makes you want to hear the record so in that respect it's a job very well done.
Friday, February 15, 2019
'I am big! It's the pictures that got small.'
Gloria Swanson, star of the silver screen and also renowned for her magnificent turn in Billy Wilder's 1950 masteripece Sunset Boulevard gets a song. And it's an appropriately atmospheric and fraught one from Le Corbeau who, despite their name are a Norwegian project constructed around Oystein Sandsdalen.
'One - Two - Three - Four'. And they're off again. Holiday Ghosts are back, with their second album, West Bay Playroom another missive from the West of England. Already at this early stage in their careers they have a good claim to be the best band to ever to hail from Falmouth, Cornwall and though this may not be such an achievement, they're certainly a neat little band worthy of your attention aside from any geographical concerns.
Following on from their 2017 eponymous debut, which made my end of year album list that year, West Bay Playroom finds them reading from a similar script of sharply written and joyfully performed Indie Rock and Roll evoking all the pleasures of a performance in the back room of your local pub.
It all reminds me slightly of The Velvet Underground's fabulous late bootleg album 1969 Live, where Lou, Sterling, Mo and Doug, a band at the height of their powers, perform extended sets for what sound like half empty rooms in Dallas and San Francisco. There's a similar sense of captured energy here and the Velvet Underground Mk 2 is a definite, abiding influence as it was on their debut record.
The record chugs. Everything sounds as if it was recorded live and there's an earthy rawness that rattles effortlessly along the tracks to very pleasing effect. I gather from some rudimentary Internet research that the sound they arrived at may have been enforced by the fact that their local studio had closed down leading them to take matters into their own hands and record West Bay Playroom for themselves in their guitarist's bedroom which they transformed into a home studio. If this is the case, things have worked out well as it all results in a pleasing, warm intimacy.
To the best of my knowledge Holiday Ghosts have shed two original members since the making of their first record but if this is the case, their replacements have bed in very nicely. Swapping between equally adept male and female vocalists over the course of the record's twelve tracks but never once letting the pace slack, West Bay Playroom is a fine record that more than fulfils the promise of their debut and which I hope will help the band reach a wider, appreciative audience.
Thursday, February 14, 2019
It's Valentine's Day in case you hadn't noticed. They've been playing love songs all day on the radio. Most of them not much to my liking. Until this came on. 'One of the best songs of all time',The DJ commented afterwards, completely correctly before going on to spout an awful lot of nonsense as poor DJs invariably do. I switched the radio off.
The song meanwhile had transported me back for a moment to my second year at university in Norwich in 1986 when I first heard this song and its parent album, the equally perfect Rapture.
Poor writer with a set of scary and frankly deeply unprincipled ideas espoused in her fiction and throughout her life in general. Alarmingly influential in cultural, political and economic circles during her lifetime and regrettably even more so since her death. 'Don't believe her', advise the excellent Novella on their debut EP from 2012.
Now seriously, what's all this about? Bow Wow Wow's quite brilliant first single, if single is the right word for it, as it was the world's first ever cassette only release, (to my knowledge at least), when it first came out in July 1980. It was later re-released as a 45 on vinyl.
Bow Wow Wow were very much a 'contrived' band though not quite in the 'old' Fifties and Sixties sense. Originally musicians Dave Barbarossa, Leigh Gorman and Matthew Ashman were the Ants behind Adam until Malcolm McLaren convinced them to give him the elbow and rename themselves. In his place they eventually brought in fourteen year old Annabella Lwin, famously discovered singing along to the radio in a laundromat.
Given her age, it was all highly dubious practice, something McLaren was no stranger to, but also highly newsworthy, which attracted his interest like almost nothing else. As their opening salvo the band released this, basically a song of praise to home taping, ( although it wasn't just that ), which the music industry was then engaged in a laughable war against. What exactly were tape cassettes, which the industry made huge profits from, for if not for this?
C-30 C-60 C-90 Go!, the lead off song, was, and remains, just wonderful! It was on the radio yesterday and it still has the power to quite stop you in your tracks. Not just for the sound of it, which first introduced the wider world to that extraordinary Burundi drums driven pop thing which Adam and the reformed Ants were also touting on their own new single Kings of the Wild Frontier and would lead them to so much chart success of their own over the next few years. But also for the guitar explosions throughout the song, Annabella's singing and the lyrics ludicrous Carry On double entendres, (blowing a policeman's whistle and repeated reference to the lead singer's bazooka) . In addition to the song there's also its promo where the three band members dance behind Annabella with beatboxes on their shoulders. The press screamed hype and they were right but it was clearly the Eighties. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and regrettably Bros came thereafter.
They, ( Bow Wow Wow that is ), turned up to their first interview with The Face's Jon Savage in Vivienne Westwood's latest clobber. In the interview they slagged Adam for ripping them off and slagged McLaren off because they could. They also insisted that they could play, something that genuinely mattered in those days. Reading the interview it was difficult to tell who was exploiting who but such was always the way with McLaren's Fagin persona. They didn't last long with him anyhow.
The band went on to a reasonably successful pop career, made some great records, ( an under-acknowledged point ), and more controversy. Eventually Barbarossa, Gorman and Matthew Ashman sacked Lwin, (good career move eh?), and she read about it in the NME. One thing about Bow Wow Wow, they were truly of their time. Almost forty years on band members are now embroiled in arguments about who owns the name.
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
On a day of much radio listening for me this one really stood out. An outstanding new song from London's Ibibio Sound Machine. Something from the Eighties and something from the here and now.
This song suddenly came into my head a few days back. I can't have thought about it, or heard it really since it first came out as a single in the mid-Eighties in the UK, got maybe a couple of radio plays and went precisely nowhere. I think I had the single once. I certainly don't anymore.
There were a lot of American guitar bands that sounded a little bit like this at the time. Guadalcanal Diary, Swimming Pool Qs, Miracle Legion, Rank & File, 10,000 Maniacs. All of them closer in spirit to R.E.M. than Husker Du or The Replacements. Nice kids. Nice songs. All going against the grain of Reaganite, mainstream American culture which was brash and vulgar. It wasn't even really necessary to explain why. Just watch the television and the films and the MTV videos from the time. The shallowness was utterly in your face.
Going against all that mattered at the time. As it did over here. Zeitgeist, (their name fittingly roughly translates as 'spirit of the age'), had to change to The Reivers to fend off a lawsuit. They had other songs of course but this is the only one I know. It's two minutes and twenty eight seconds long and cuts out suddenly like it's a studio outtake. Perfect. It carries off the neat trick of seeming to start right in the actual middle of the story as well as the song and never telling you what it was that actually happened in the freight train rain. It's about a feeling. Momentum. Like lost youth and not knowing thirty five years on what happened to the first person you really fell in love with but having the photos in your bottom drawer to prove that you did anyhow.
Tuesday, February 12, 2019
From a bygone age. The only single from Hampshire's Exploding Seagulls, released on the Fried Egg record label in 1980. Riffing on Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. I can tell you little about the concept of exploding seagulls except that it's more than likely an urban legend.
Monday, February 11, 2019
An open guitar strum, then a distinctive voice. Eleanor Friedberger from her 2011 album Last Summer.
Early Eighties Swedish schoolgirl trio Sporten Ar Dod who followed a determined DIY approach and recorded this in tribute to the great British DJ. He in return, played it on his late night show in 1981. Sporten Ar Dod, ( Sport Is Dead ), have their recordings re-issued on Fordamning Arkiv. Read more here on Did Not Chart.
First of all, even knowing nothing about it, Mercury Rev's new record, a track by track re-imagining of Bobbie Gentry's classic 1968 album The Delta Sweete Revisited is a gorgeous listening experience. Twelve tracks in all, each one fronted by a honeyed guest female vocalist and with an orchestral backdrop that positively drips with a sustained, updated evocation of the late Sixties and The Deep South.
It's not frankly, given its ingredients, a record that could easily fail. The original, from which it draws its inspiration, is after all one of its era's greatest albums. From one of the greatest female artistes of all, a singer still shrouded in mystique and romance, particularly since she withdrew from the public spotlight once and for all in the early Seventies.
Like countless others, I love Bobbie Gentry. Her records take me to a place that few others can, to a lost world. Mercury Rev are sensitive to this and Revisited is first and foremost an act of devotion, each track sculpted with care and attention, their labours dictated by service to the song being worked on.
That's as should be, but the project was only ever going to be as strong as the vocal performances it inspired. Taking on Gentry is no easy endeavour. In this respect Rev mostly strike gold as they managed to convince the very best to take a tilt at these songs. Norah Jones, Hope Sandoval, Laetitia Sadler, Margo Price, Susanne Sundfor, Phoebe Bridgers, Beth Orton and numerous others. It's a highly impressive roll call. And for the most point the re-creations hit their mark with closer, Lucinda Williams tilt at Gentry's best known song Ode to Billy Joe, one of the rare moments where their aim fails them.
Apart from this notable stumble almost no-one lets the side down and each track is draped in trappings that can be best described as Cosmic the term that came to be used to describe songs from the era that were nominally Country & Western but chose to aim for and arrive at the stars instead. Job well done.
When Paul Webb started making Drift Code, the second album by Rustin Man, he had a newborn daughter. She's now seventeen and the record is finally out. It would be a shame or worse if the result of such extended labour were not worth hearing. Fortunately it very much is. Certainly one of the most eccentric and doggedly leftfield records anybody is likely to release in 2019 but one that still fits within recognisable categories and gives much to the listener in return for the attention it demands.
Webb originally came to public notice during the Eighties as bassist of English band Talk Talk, a group who first came out with a clutch of pretty conventional New Romantic singles but then took flight with two of the most adventurous albums in the whole of Pop history, Whether you personally take to Spirit of Eden or Laughing Stock, the two landmark albums that utterly recast their narrative is a matter of personal taste. Despite their moods of intense and sustained atmospheric beauty which won over countless critics and fans, (who have stayed with the records ever since), they certainly left themselves open to the charge of preciousness. Probably if you find yourself in the second camp of thought, you may struggle with Drift Code.
I certainly approached the record, produced over almost two decades in Webb's barn, with a certain amount of reserve. I'm always slightly wary about records that project themselves as art, but in this case a couple of plays have worn down my defences. Drift Code is an album that slots nicely next to records like Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom, Bowie's Low, Scott Walker's Tilt and Kate Bush's Aerial on record shelves and remarkably is not shamed by such lofty comparisons, even though I wouldn't necessarily say that it's as good a record as any of these four.
What I would say about Drift Code is that it's pretty good company with no little eccentric pop charm to bring to the table. Listen to fourth track, Our Tomorrows for example. It's got one hell of a tune, albeit a wonky, unorthodox one which points to another possible reference point. Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weil laid down some of the most significant lyrical and melodic flagstones for Rock music to eventually take a more adventurous route through the forest and Webb seems to have taken notes, like Morrison, Bowie, Walker and Iggy Pop before him.
Webb and Rustin Man have chosen a potentially rocky artistic road, fraught with obvious pitfalls. I'm pleased to report that for me personally they succeed for the most part and their sheer ambition is certainly to be applauded. Drift Code seems to me a record that will reward repeated listening greatly. Best listened to in its entirety when you have a good hour on your hands and can give it your full, undivided attention.
Sunday, February 10, 2019
Yet another band from Melbourne, Australia. Where exactly do they all come from, except Melbourne, Australia obviously ? This bunch, obviously in thrall to all things ludicrously Sixties and Psychedelic.'The Jimi Hendrix Experience joining forces with The Seekers and produced by Sergio Mendes and you're there,' according to comment on their Bandcamp page. I'd throw the Zabriskie Point film and soundtrack into the mix. Enough to say they probably won't be for all tastes. If the promo indicates they have very specific but recognisable tastes and are certainly trying very, (probably too), hard, the song at least is fine.
Saturday, February 9, 2019
And to top off that review and underline the point made in it that much of the record sees Mould digging through and re-casting his memories, here as Sunshine Rock's second to last track, a frazzled reconstruction of Shocking Pink's Send Me a Postcard, which was wonderful enough to begin with. Mould invented this particular trick of course with Husker Du's early calling card, their version of The Byrds Eight Miles High, which was positively messianic. Here he arrives full circle.
It's odd listening to a new Bob Mould record in 2019. Particularly as that record, the freshly launched Sunshine Rock, is so clearly and faithfully sculpted on the template of great Bob Mould records of yesteryear, And that yesteryear, now the best part of thirty years and more behind us.
Sunshine Rock is first and foremost, a very well made album. Twelve well written, well played, well sung and well produced Alternative Rock songs that sound as if Mould has found his way out of the gloom that has long been his personal cross to bear onto a pleasant sunlit plain.
Sun is the operative word. It's all over the song titles and lyric sheet of the album. A thinly veiled metaphor for the man finding some personal calm and fulfilment. Mould has relocated to Berlin in the last couple of years and judging by recent interviews it's a relocation that suits him well. And with Sunshine Rock he's also found his way back to the music that fits and serves him best; the triumphant and defiant primal blast of the two bands he's most readily associated with; Husker Du and Sugar.
Mould always made the ultimate case for the primacy of the trio as the Rock and Roll unit. If he didn't win that particular argument then, he seals it now. Sunshine Rock is a fine record. An elegiac one maybe, wrought with the hard won lessons of middle age but ultimately an impressively positive and optimistic one. During the making of the record Mould lost Grant Hart, his sparring partner and creative spur during his time with Du, one of the fiercest and most notable bands there's ever been. It's impossible not to detect clues to that here. You can clearly isolate moments of Mould looking backwards, looking at now, looking to the future.
My verdict on Sunshine Rock once I've listened through to it for the first time. I think it's a quite remarkable record for a man, well into his fifties and with plenty of weight to bear from the past, the recent past at that. But Mould doesn't sink into the darkness, in fact makes his way determinedly towards the light. The summit of Sunshine Rock if you will. I don't mind the abundant echoes of Husker Du and Sugar here. In fact I'm grateful, because they make perfect sense. Mould is honouring the past of those who've loved his records and playing over the years so much as well as the musicians he's performed with and his own well documented personal struggles. He should be commended.
Friday, February 8, 2019
March will bring new albums from two of the great figures of early Eighties Independent music in Edwyn Collins and Robert Forster. I posted a taster from the latter a couple of days back, here's something from the former. Outside, from the forthcoming Badbea, is a long way from the early Orange Juice, almost 'rockist', but altogether welcome.