4,000 published posts on here. Now 4,000 and one!
Tuesday, May 31, 2016
I went to Rosie's tonight wanting to hear a particular Cat Stevens song from Mona Bone Jakon. They didn't have that. Or else the Bugsy Malone soundtrack. They didn't have that either. The third idea in my head was Portishead's first album. That was there. So I put this on.
'Mac' McCulloch. He had his dreams as a teenager, staring incessantly into the mirror. Then he realised them. Entirely. He also brought existentialist perspectives into the pop charts in the early eighties when such a thing was possible.
Monday, May 30, 2016
May 29th 2016. Tynemouth Station Market £5.
Always room in your record collection for just one more. Sunday morning, a good friend visiting and we've driven out to Tynemouth. Mona Bone Jakon going for a fiver in the market there. A done deal.
And a very fine album. Recorded in 1970 after a prolonged, illness and stress related break from the music business it's the true birth of the Cat Stevens we know now, something apart from the perky, early hit singles, much more reflective, questioning and inward looking.
Produced by Paul Samwell-Smith of The Yardbirds, clothed in a quite bizarre, potentially dreadful but actually quite inspired cartoon image of a weeping dustbin as the sleeve, it sets off with Lady D'Arbanville, not a personal favourite of mine, as it's rather too thought rather than felt, at least to my ears. Thereafter though it rarely puts a foot wrong. Maybe You're Right, Pop Star, I Think I See The Light and Trouble, an inspired run of songs on the first side.
This inspiration continues throughout the second side. Deeply ingrained with an awareness of mortality and desire to ask the deeper questions, its at the same time melodic and soothing, the perfect Sunday afternoon listen. Not a huge commercial success on its release, it gained greater attention when a clutch of its tracks were featured in Hal Ashby's 1971 masterpiece Harold & Maud.
Stevens has never really gathered the critical clout of other singer-songwriters like Dylan, Mitchell, Buckley and so forth, perhaps because his touch was too light and his perspective too generally poppy and commercial. Still, this is a record filled with love and wonder and I'm very glad to have it to nestle among the 'S's' on my shelves.
It's also a pointer to the truth on the top of this page about the centrality of memory in life's experience. Playing it again now on Monday, my friend having departed, I'm filled with disparate emotions and reminders of hearing tracks from the record down the decades, and the whole panoply of feelings that evokes. That's music for you.
While we're on the subject of Malkmus, here's David Berman, leader of Silver Jews a band which he has also featured in and whose records don't really get the attention they deserve. Laconic, world-weary more heartfelt than Pavement usually got and generally quite inspired.
Sunday, May 29, 2016
Saturday, May 28, 2016
'Seekers of the Sinatra of the blues, you've reached your goal. The arrangement is a bathos of strings, flute and an airy female chorus, the lyric a preposterous confection that's wonderfully absurd from its very first line...
And so it goes, a tour de force performance in which Bland never pushes, never strains and nevertheless leaves you feeling engulfed with a misery unmistakably his.'
And perhaps a polar opposite to Blossom. Rough against smooth. An utterly distinctive, defiant outsider. 'The great lost voice of the Greenwich Village folk scene,' although really as a singer she's in a category all of her own, A favourite of Dylan's and later Nick Cave's. Her mother was Cherokee, her voice a howl of pain at the world. More about her story here. Her legacy lies in her fabulous recordings. Their reputation will surely grow and grow.
Today is Blossom Dearie Day here on the blog. A breathy, girlish but impeccably light jazz singer, with an incredible soft and elegant vocal touch. I was alerted to her upon spotting one of her songs listed on a Spotify Playlist for a book recently published on the growing concept of Twee which I had just ordered and it makes perfect sense for it to be there because oddly her records are not a million miles away from the worlds of Belle & Sebastian and Wes Anderson.
They speak of the distant and altogether cooler past. I'm Hip is a note prefect replication of that, name and scene dropping crowd-pleaser that Audrey Hepburn pulled off in Funny Girl. But here it's Bobby Darrin and Playboy Magazine rather than Jean-Paul Sartre and Montmartre.
As so often, what I've posted here is the merest tip of the iceberg. Make sure you enjoy Blossom Dearie Day out there and more importantly, explore some more!
Friday, May 27, 2016
'Anyone sane living in this world will realise on hearing 'Plenty' that The Woodentops bring with them a new age of enlightenment.' Morrissey, Melody Maker, 1984
No Woodentops on here so far, which is a misstep. Here's their debut single which was much loved by Morrissey. He made it single of the week in Melody Maker back in 1984, hired the band on that basis and then sacked them on a misunderstanding that he was nearly killed in a near miss road accident. Who knows the truth of this anecdote is, but it's a good one.Giant, the first and best Woodentops album, released on the same day as The Queen is Dead will be reviewed on here at some point to tell the whole story.
Thursday, May 26, 2016
The demented but hugely likable geek at the front of the B-52s. Almost consciously turned himeslf into a cartoon character, of B Movies culture and American Kitsch at the front of the singing and dancing Rock and Roll version of a Hanna Barbera cartoon, (it was fitting when they eventually provided the music for the Flintstones film). Virtually a daytime equivalent of Lux Interior, representing so much of what is truly great about that vast country.
In a recent webchat on The Guardian, Kevin Rowland was asked if there was anybody around who had caught his attention recently. He replied:
'When we appeared at Imagining Ireland at the Royal Festival Hall, there was a girl called Lisa O'Neill on the bill. And I thought she was absolutely brilliant, the best thing I've seen in ages. Totally pure artist.'
Being Kevin Rowland of course he's not wrong. O'Neill is just astonishing and has no small share of Rowland's own distinctive fearlessness about her. Just listen to her latest record Same Cloth or Not, from last year a collection she'd put together carefully over several more. Pretty much any track from it will convince you very quickly that you're in the presence of something very special. As long as you don't react negatively to her highly distinctive singing style. Many will.
If you stick with it, it's a very rewarding album. Immersed in memory, experience and place, the record takes you to somewhere very intimate and understood, you recognise what it's talking about immediately. O'Neill's vocal delivery is quite specific, an expression of her self, where she comes from and what has made her and what she feels about it all. As with all the best discoveries it makes you deeply grateful for and in awe of the magic properties of music.
She's only thirty one but her performance is so lived in and realised that she could be twice that. Rich and versed in centuries of Irish tradition and expression, the lyrics and voice are thick and expressive. You could be reading Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, O'Brien or Banville, so resonant is its poetry. The album is beyond category, an object of intense wonder. Thanks Kevin for the direction.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Burt Kwouk who just passed was most famous for his duels with Peter Sellers playing the role of Kato in the Pink Panther. But for anyone raised on British children's television in the seventies it's equally worth noting his role as narrator in the fabulous Chinese feudal warlord show, The Water Margin. Here's the theme tune.
There are a very few moments when you hear something you've never heard before and your heart stops. It happens very rarely in life. Such was the case for me in the late eighties when I went with my younger sister to my older brother's flat in North London. His flatmate had the recently bought Nick Drake's re-released box set Fruit Tree, a collection of the three released Nick Drake albums plus another album of unheard tracks. My brother put it on. It was the first time I'd ever heard anything by him. This is the track I remember.
Since then Nick Drake has risen to the surface and become part of the general conversation. Brad Pitt, Angelica Jolie and pretty much everyone else are fans. But it's still worth remembering where you were when you first heard this ghostly, other-worldly music, and started to appreciate it.
'Keith's greatest hit. Like a lot of delicacies, you wouldn't want it as a steady diet but when it comes into season, it's always welcome. For a guy who can't sing (or decide how to spell his last name), this is awful powerful stuff.'
Telegram's first album, Operator, released a few months ago is an interesting case study. A classic piece of left-field guitar Pop, had it been released a few decades back it would surely have swept all before it. It really exhibits astonishing nous, reminding me most immediately of Supergrass in terms of the way it recasts the classic sound of British Pop music that we're all so familiar with and serves it up again for a new scrum of kids to imagine this is the first time this has ever happened because it's the first time it's ever happened to them.
Some further reference points: Super Furry Animals, (singer Matt Saunders is Welsh and sings with just the required edge), Elastica and Suede's first albums, touches of the Syd Barrett Floyd, but most of all Glam, Glam and more Glam. Roxy, Sparks, Mott, Bowie and T.Rex. In addition to the Welsh thing, Saunders does a fine Bolan rasp and warble.
Twelve tracks in all and they don't put a foot wrong within that given terrain. Every decade needs at least one of these albums. So you have Electric Warrior, Hatful of Hollow, I Should Coco, Up The Bracket and now Operator. It's really that good. Not remotely original, you've heard this all before, but if I was sixteen I'd probably absolutely love it and them.
I'm more than three times that and I have to say I'm still rather partial. It's a long time since anything remotely like this has sounded so good to me. As I've said though, I think this stuff simply doesn't have the commercial purchase it once did. Aren't people just more interested in Beyonce and Kanye nowadays than a bunch of gladrags throwing shapes and wiggling their arses? Telegram are out of time. I suspect that if they'd brought this out during the prime years of Brit Pop they'd have absolutely cleaned up and could have wiled away their slow afternoons downing tequila chasers and doing lines with Damien Hirst, Alex James and Keith Allen at The Groucho's Club. Alas, or possibly not depending where you stand, these days are long gone.
The marketing and branding of the album are telling too. See the sleeve at the top of this post. It's classic retro design, you can imagine diving through a time tunnel and coming out in a record shop in 1972 to find this staring smartly at you from the front of the rack. As for the name. Telegram. It's a classic one word tag that hasn't be taken but it's hardly like calling yourself Television, Magazine or Wire in the nineteen seventies. What on earth does it really say? When was the last time you sent or received a telegram? I suspect it's in homage to T.Rex's Telegram Sam. If so, it's quite touching really to see the spell the great music of the increasingly distant past can still cast on the pop kids.
These are mere quibbles though really, Telegram have certainly got the record itself right, never mind the look. Have a look at them below looking like a bunch of extras from recently released seventies dystopian film High Rise. All power to their collective retro elbows. Back to the future!
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
'Here this Robert Zimmerman. Though I don't suppose we'll meet.'
And here's a song for him. Perhaps the most off-cue thing on Hunky Dory but strangely touching for all that. They did meet of course though it's worth wondering if Bowie actually imagined it when he wrote this.
And here's a cover from their first album. A very passable stab at Can't Explain from their first album. The original was on Love's own debut, almost twenty years before, an excellent record that is strangely neglected, possibly in due deference to what they did next.
One interesting trail for me about writing on here and subsequently looking around more actively for music has been the growing realisation about just how influential trends and bands that I grew up with in the eighties have proved to be over the course of time.
Such is the case with all that independent jangling I heard on UK night-time radio in the eighties. It was impossible to imagine at the time that it was built to last. But all those bands like The Shop Assistants, Talulah Gosh and The Flatmates have a definite, enduring legacy, one you could never foresee them building.
The baton from these bands was first picked up by Black Tambourine, a quartet from Washington D.C. though you would never know from listening to them, so absolutely grounded is every note and vocal inflection from that frantic English strumming and dreaming of the C-86 bands.
It had to be said that Black Tambourine did this all very well and there's a little more bass muscle in the undertow here than many of those bands could customarily manage. They in their turn are now considered 'seminal', having passed the baton on themselves to a series of bands keen to preserve and replicate their own slight variations on the sound of eternal teenage wistfulness and faint longing.
Monday, May 23, 2016
Now here's something extraordinarily odd. A self-titled album by a Peruvian band called Telegraph Avenue from 1971. I chanced upon it last week due to a recommendation from hipsters MGMT and which I was so immediately taken by that there's already a vinyl copy winging its way to me from Holland. Despite that, it's such a bizarre listen that I'm still not entirely sure what I think about it but I did know that I relished the idea of owning it greatly. Record collectors will understand!
It's obviously deeply inspired by the West Coast hippie vibes of the late sixties, part Santana, part Sly & the Family Stone, part that whole messy love and peace scene, but there's a lot more going on than that. Inspired by lead guitarist Bo Ichikawa's six month stay in San Francisco it reminds me a little of the only visit I've ever made to South America about fifteen years ago.
Sent to Argentina by the school I was working for on a marketing mission, I was taken by how familiar the look and feel of Buenos Aires was to me yet at the same time slightly different and almost alien from anything I'd ever experienced in Europe. It was almost as if the architects who built the city had taken a ship to Argentina with an idea of the place that they wanted to build at the other end, a replication of the spirit and boulevards of Paris, but once they got there their memories of the Paris they knew had gone slightly askew and the city that went up instead was something different as well as something unnervingly familiar, and as a result something altogether quite strange.
Telegraph Avenue is a defiantly strange record. Full of odd, unexpected shrieks and exhortations and musical detours, sung in English but in weird, deeply accented vocals, harmonising in an attempt to recreate those West Coast vibes that Ichikawa had been so inspired by and fed his band mates with stories about on his return. For the course of the record, the band zealously set about creating their own version of the hippie dream and like those original architects of Buenos Aires, made something of their own instead.
The album is a never ending ride of inspired, joyous highpoints. Just as you think they must have played all their cards they lay down another ace. Now I'm tempering all this with the disclaimer that this is not a 'classic' in the given sense of the word. It's an album you will listen to in wide mouthed awe, delighted that such a record exists and that you have stumbled on rather than coming to a sudden epiphany that perhaps this is almost as good as Forever Changes.
It's not. But it is a kitsch treasure trove. Skilfully played, (the band were all multi-instrumentalists), and knitted together with no end of energy and love, its appeals for everyone to come together must have struck a chord in a country that was undergoing intense political crackdown and would have embraced utterly its buoyant love and peace vibe.
From opening track Something Going On where the vocal hook to all intents and purposes sounds like 'Wiggle it, got it in...' to closer It's OK, and at every stopping station in between Telegraph Avenue never once disappoints or let's down the joyous momentum established in its first few seconds.
Special mention goes out to penultimate track Telegraph Avenue, a five minute tribute to a five mile road that traverses San Francisco. 'Smiling faces all around you...' It's a late companion piece to Scott McKenzie's San Francisco (be sure to wear flowers in your hair). The dream in San Francisco had doubtless long curdled by this point, but not in the minds of Telegraph Avenue or the grooves of the record they made. The album lacking in your collection may well be this one.
Present at the first Sex Pistols gig, they were supporting Bazooka Joe, for whom he was playing bass. This was the essential game-changer in his life, as for so many of the original punks who saw the Pistols in their early days. Always prone to mental instability, perversely a handy ingredient for those drawn to the idea of Rock and Roll stardom, but an ongoing concern in his career and life from his teenage years, he nevertheless channeled his talents and energy into music and was one of the most important players in the Punk scene.
Eventually he made it absolutely massively in the early eighties upon forging a partnership with Marco Pironi, and breaking through with Adam & the Ants, previously a cult concern known mostly for fetishism, violent imagery, John Peel sessions and the general critical derision they inspired in the music press. Nevertheless, they were pretty much the hip band name to drop for a season at my secondary school, before breaking through with their first Top of the Pops performance playing Dog Eat Dog. From one week to the next they were stars and my schoolmates frenziedly erased their name from their school bags and pencil cases and went in search of hipper concerns. Stiff Little Fingers would never let them down in the way that Adam had.
Kings of the Wild Frontier, the album from which Dog Eat Dog hailed is one of the oddest records bar none ever to top the UK charts. Grounded in old school Rock and Roll, Ennio Morricone, Duane Eddy and Johnny & the Pirates, Burundi beat with a twist of Glam (their two drummers, shades of the Glitter Band), they were Ants dressed as Red Indians in renegade military jackets. Quite ridiculous in retrospect but actually exactly what you want at the top of your hit parade, an odd late triumph for Punk before Thatcherite perspectives drowned out the eighties charts. No end of colour, vibrancy, wit, melody and life. If only Wham! Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet had been so interesting or Sigue Sigue Sputnik had had the remotest ability to write such catchy tunes.
The Ants stayed on top in the UK for a fair while. A year and a half of Top Five singles if memory serves and a fair few that stormed straight to Number One. Adam went solo and maintained the pace, then chart positions dropped, he moved to the States and branched into acting. He's suffered since in his personal life but is back touring now and getting at least some the appreciation he deserves as one of the oddest yet most brilliant acts of self-invention in the whole history of Pop Music. And the records still sound just wonderful. Here's that first Top of the Pop performance.
'As raw and wild as any rhythm and blues record ever waxed. I Put a Spell on You might be the greatest record ever made if raucous and weird were all it took. For postmodern cultural nationalists, it might even be better than that, an R&B classic that explicitly defines itself in terms more African than American, dabbling in voodoo imagery straight from the ancient lands. Not only does Hawkins invoke those powerful old griot spirits, he was shut down for doing so: When first issued I Put a Spell on You had to be withdrawn by OKeh because stations all over the country banned it, alleging that its final round of ghoulish screams and moans simulated cannibalism. Hawkins, meantime, had the wit to open up his shows by rising out of a coffin, a move that not only dazzled teens in 1956, but wowed them again twenty years later when George Clinton adopted the gimmick for his post-psychedelic soul extravaganza, the Parliament / Funkadelic review.'
Sunday, May 22, 2016
Oh the Velvet Underground. What would we have done without them? They were probably the most influential band of the entire eighties when I began establishing my own record collection and sense of personal identity, certainly in terms of the British independent music sector, followed, but at a reasonable distance by The Byrds.
The two bands influence on scores of bands who raised their heads above the parapets during those lean years was immeasurable. The Beatles,Stones, Kinks and Who were nowhere by comparison. Whole ranks of pale skinned boys in black and shades clothed themselves either in the aloof, menacing, streetwise glamour of the former or the dreamy, jangling haze of the latter. Kurt Ralske of Ultra Vivid Scene was one of these boys and he gravitated to the Velvets, moving first to New York in an attempt to soak up some of their sleazy glory and then relocating a few years later to the UK to secure a record deal . Signing to 4AD in the middle of that decade, he proceeded to make three albums, not a note of which is imaginable without the massive blueprint established by the Velvets.
Ultra Vivid Scene's first, I think, is their best. Housed in beautiful, state of the art 4AD inner and outer sleeves which have all the glossy sheen of top drawer marketing. The music itself, drawing most obviously on Lou and co, but also on the Only Ones and the Jesus & Mary Chain and the massive sonic shake up of possibilities that Psychocandy had provided, is one sustained lysergic drone.
All fourteen tracks are smothered in the murmured, incoherent vocals of Ralske, (who was essentially a one man band surrounded by a rotating carousel of indie players). They all convey the vaguest sense of the dangerous thrill of decadent urban living, though you get the sense that a lot of this is imagined rather than actually lived. The band were much championed by the weekly British music paper Melody Maker at the time where a set of writers like Simon Reynolds and David Stubbs were pushing an agenda of music criticism forged on the ideas of the Post Structuralist writers that they'd devoured in their university days.The small bubble they projected through these reviews and interviews, failed to shift Joe Public's perspective to most of the bands they supported.
You get the sense that Ralske had made his way through the same reading list as Reynolds and Stubbs. There was a vague imagining at the time in the indie world and the weekly music papers that this kind of stuff was going to break through at any moment into the proper, grown up charts. Sensitive, long fringed indie boys in guitars and clad in polka dot shirts and leather jackets and trousers were lining up shyly on a mission to bring the Velvets to the masses. Creation Records artists, The Weather Prophets, Primal Scream, Felt and The House of Love were all in the kitchen mixing up the medicine from a similar set of ingredients, all the while nursing their own slightly misguided ambitions and dreams of stardom.
It wasn't to be. Ultimately most of the actual music, with the exception of a few tracks was essentially indistinct, aimed squarely at bedsits and student halls and certainly lacking the muscle, attitude and belief built to fight it out with Stock. Aitken and Waterman and Simply Red, who were ruling the real roost at that point in time. The bands, with the possible exception of the House of Love, who mustered a small wave of their own, had to content themselves with being stars in their own heads and universes, generally located in pubs and music venues in Camden. The Mercy Seat, Ultra Vivid Scene's one killer song and the best thing they ever did, gained a fair bit of attention and made some waves in the independent singles chart, but this was as far as the band ever got commercially.
Their debut is a perfectly amiable listen, fourteen well crafted and performed songs, and certainly an improvement on either the Weather Prophets or Primal Scream's debut albums released on WEA offshoot Elevation at a similar point in time, the failures of which dampened Alan McGee's initial hopes of a breakthrough for his first raft of bands to follow the Mary Chain's lead. He would have to wait for the Stone Rose's example, My Bloody Valentine raising the bar in terms of sheer sonic ambition, Ride's emergence and the Primal's reinvention with Screamadelica a couple of years down the line before bands on his roster began to make genuine inroads towards daytime radio play and record sales that did more than justify Creation's initial outlay on studio costs.
Ultra Vivid Scene ironically sound in many respects like a Creation band. They certainly have more in common with Primal Scream and the Weather Prophets than the Cocteau Twins and Pixies, musically at least. But Ralske was drawn to 4AD by their exquisite packaging. He had a small vision:
'(his) guitar drew from The Velvet Underground and Jesus & Mary Chain songbook: 'It was incredibly intelligent, but as simple as pop music,' he says,' I felt this incredible wash of noise which I can now describe as Brecht alerting the audience to the idea that all is not what it seems on the surface. It was like putting quotation marks around the music, which I found very exciting. I wanted to make music that seemed simple and direct but wore its intelligence on its sleeve.'
Bertolt Brecht! Vain imaginings. What was really lacking was genuinely distinctive songwriting and a willingness to truly connect. Only Mercy Seat really stands out from the pack and otherwise the record is a pleasant languid drawl, perfect for fans of the third Velvet's album and the quieter moments of Suicide, but unsuitable fare for wider appreciation. It's also worth remembering how few records both of these main inspirations sold during their active careers.
Great music is not all about selling records of course. But Ultra Vivid Scene is ultimately too polite and insufficiently versed in Dylan, R&B or Doo Wop that the Velvets drew on and which Lloyd Cole & the Commotions had also sourced in a similar experiment of bookshelf Rock and Roll with Rattlesnakes a few years earlier to greater commercial and critical effect. This is a perfectly passable record but not one that smashes its way out of the pack and demands that you turn it back over and listen again. Probably fondly remembered by a select few, you'll find a more favorable review of it here, It's ultimately one to put on every few months for a gentle, unchallenging listen before returning to the big hitters in your collection. The Velvet Underground for example!
If you have twenty minutes, listen to this. It's an independent record from 1983 that garnered quite a bit of attention at the time of its release and has continued to do so ever since. A collection of impressions and sounds from a day in the British countryside, it's an honest, courageous and moving expression of the feelings we all share just through being alive and experiencing the sensations of nature and time around us. An object of still but thrilling beauty.