Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Iggy Pop

Born James Osterberg in Michigan, and began his musical caerer at High School as a drummer for local band The Iguanas.  His tenure in The Iguanas provided his first appearance on record - the self-financed cover version of Bo Diddley's "Mona".

He left The Iguanas in 1966 and joined another local band, The Prime Movers, who re-christened him Iggy.  His time in The Prime Movers was relatively brief, and Iggy quit University and moved to Chicago, continuing to play drums in various Blues bands and bars.
Returning to Detroit, and now out front rather than behind the drumkit, he formed Psychedelic Stooges.  The desired sound of this new band was an amalgam of his beloved Blues with the harder sound of like fellow Detroit residents MC5 and The Doors.

The Psychedelic Stooges (soon to jettison the 'Psychedelic' moniker) comprised Iggy, Ron Asheton (Guitar), Dave Alexaner (Bass) and Scott Asheton (Drums)...

Inspired by The Doors, and Jim Morrison's stage presence. Iggy began to develop his own on stage persona - a combination of Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger and James Brown, with a healthy dollop of antagonism, theatrics and stage diving thrown in.

When Elektra Records visited Detroit intent on signing the MC5, guitarist Wayne Kramer said to Danny Fields (Elektra A&R): "If you like us, you'd love The Stooges".
Kramer was right, Danny Fields did indeed love The Stooges, and signed up both bands.

The Stooges released two albums for Elektra.
Neither sold in huge numbers which, with hindsight, is a surprise considering the esteem and cited influence they now hold.
The debut album (entitled simply 'The Stooges') released in 1969 was originally intended to be a document of the best tracks in their stage set.  However, Elektra rejected the original 5 track version, and the band returned to the studio to create some extra tracks.
The 5 core tracks were: "I Wanna Be Your Dog", "No Fun", "1969", "Ann" and "We Will Fall".  These were augmented by "Real Cool Time", "Not Right" and "Little Doll" quickly written, virtually sticking to a template and played and recorded in one hit in the studio.
Why have I mentioned all 8 tracks from the album?
Purely because there is no one true stand out above all others - all are as vital to the experience as each other.  Is this a damn near perfect album?  Well, it may not be to everyone's taste, but there are no duffers here.
The 8 song album was now accepted by Elektra and released to the US public.  Unfortunately, there were few takers.

Both the band and the record company were undaunted by this.  Live shows continued, reputations enhanced, and the band booked into the studio for work on their next album.
'Fun House' (1970) pushed on from the raw debut.  The prime difference here is that whilst the production on the debut sort of cleaned and (arguably) sanitised The Stooges live sound, the production here was almost a case of "turn everything up and play loud".
The bands confidence and playing ability is noticeably improved, even though the studio surroundings were not exactly comfortable (if anything, they were too comfortable, until they ripped the innards out and performed side by side in a live state with instruments bleeding into one another).
Sometimes sounding like a descent into madness, or the sound of a nervous breakdown (this is meant as a "good thing").
There is one less track here, but both the title track "Fun House" and "Dirt" break the 7 minute barrier.
There is a mad squwaking sax popping up on tracks which just adds to the mayhem, but again, like the first album, the mixture of danger and excitement remains.
The closing track "LA Blues" is a combination of avant-garde sound collage, a drunken jam and Primal Scream therapy.  It is in effect 4 and a half minutes of screaming over feedback, but is oddly memorable and not one that you feel compelled to skip.
The hopes of both the band and the record company were once again dashed as the album failed to sell.

The usual cocktail of drugs and booze was taking hold of the band, ultimately leading to the sacking of Dave Alexander.  He was replaced by Jimmy Recca, and James Williamson turned up too on second guitar fattening the bands sound.

By mid 1971 - the drugs and booze had firmly taken hold, nothing new was being recorded, and the band missing live dates.  This unreliability, and the ongoing commercial failure led to the band being dropped by Elektra, and then splitting up.

After the demise of The Stooges, and obviously at a loose end, Iggy was considered as a replacement for his original influence Jim Morrison in a re-constituted Doors.
Various reasons exist for why this never happened, ranging from Iggy not feeling he was capable or even worthy of replacing Morrison, he tried out but wasn't up to the job, or the very simplistic (and ambiguous) "Plans fell through".

Iggy met David Bowie at Maxs Kansas City in New York and this association and virtually instant friendship resulted in Iggy signing to Bowies Mainman Management company.  A new recording contract was arranged with CBS, and soon after Pop and Williamson flew to London to commence recording a new album (with David Bowie in the producers chair).

It is generally accepted that the original model/inspiration for Ziggy Stardust was Vince Taylor, but there were two other characters in Bowie's mind in the formation of this alter ego.
One was Lou Reed, and the other was Iggy Pop - both from commercially unsuccessful bands, not always critically hailed, but had a firm following.
By late 72, Bowie was working to rescue/re-calibrate both performers acting as producer for Lou Reed's 'Transformer' and Iggy's 'Raw Power'?

Iggy and James Williamson set to work on a new batch of songs, whilst trawling round for a rhythm section.  When they couldn't find anyone suitable (or available?), a message was sent to the Asheton Brothers (did Iggy say: "We're putting the band back together"?).
The final incarnation of The Stooges was re-convened - the main change in the team was Ron Asheton switching to bass.

'Raw Power' opens with the needles flying into the red, feedback and instruments bleeding all over the place.  The pace and energy of this album never subsides - only "Gimme Danger" really veers from the template, sounding almost like a Wild West epic, but it still has the same edge.  The album lives up to its name by being both Raw and Powerful.
Songs like "Search And Destroy" and "Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell" are the essence of what has been called "proto-punk" (not a title or genre I particularly like to use, but it does the job).  Arguably, this album is more "proto-punk" than the first two as it just feels more relentless.
The prime difference with this album is it actually sold units - OK, not massively more than The Stooges debut in the US, but (possibly as a result of David Bowie's patronage) it did achieve a Top 50 placing in the UK.

Augmenting the band with Scott Thurston on piano, they headed out in tour in support of 'Raw Power'.  Iggy's ever increasing heroin habit, and relationships within the band hung over the tour.  By the time it was completed it, they had been dropped by their record company, sacked and re-instated James Williamson, and were generally falling apart once again.  Some shows on the tour were aborted due to an inability to play properly, or the desire to be on the same stage together.  The last show descended into a mass brawl between band and audience. After this the band split up for the second time.

Descending further into heroin addiction, Iggy took himself to rehab to try and get straight.  One of his few visitors was David Bowie, and in 1976 Iggy was added to the entourage for Bowie's Station To Station tour.

By late 76, David Bowie was decamping to Berlin (via Switzerland), and Iggy followed.  The plan was for them both to beat their narcotic addictions together in the isolation of Berlin.
This continuing support and collaboration resulted in (a) a 3 album deal with RCA, and (b) his 2 most acclaimed, best known, and probably best selling albums 'The Idiot' and 'Lust For Life' (both released in 1977)

'The Idiot' was a mutual collaboration between the two musicians - Iggy had been impressed by Bowie's work ethic seen on the Station To Station Tour, and Bowie was convinced of Iggy's abilities as a songwriter and performer.
Recorded using Bowie's current band, the album comprised 7 Iggy/Bowie compositions, plus 1 with Carlos Alomar.
Whilst the thrash and urgency of The Stooges may not be here, there remains the same tension.  There is a pervading darkness and coldness, a feeling of European-ness (whatever that is?) and a touch of Kraftwerk-ism.  Doubtless the influences and sounds arise from both the recording environment and the personal situations of the songwriters, about the album too.
"Funtime" approaches the swagger of The Stooges (albeit in a "cleaner" restrained manner) and "China Girl" would go on to make Iggy some welcome cash.
The Stooges story is re-visited/re-considered in "Dum Dum Boys" complete with it's insistent guitar riff throughout, and closing with the dark, experimental, almost desolate "Mass Production".

David Bowie and has band went from 'The Idiot' into the recording of 'Low' - taking Iggy along too, he provides backing vocals on "What In The World".

A new band was put together (Ricky Gardiner (Guitar), Tony Sales (Bass), Hunt Sales (Drums)) and The Idiot was toured with assistance from Bowie on piano.
Straight after the tour, they returned to the studio and knocked out 'Lust For Life' in a fortnight.

There is a greater rock & roll swagger to 'Lust For Life' than the previous outing.
The Pop/Bowie collaborations is present on 7 of the 9 tracks, but gone is the brittle, cold, and experimental nature of 'The Idiot'.
This is Iggy letting loose in Stooges-stylee, with David Bowie restraint (does that make sense?).

The album houses two of Iggy's best known songs in the shape of the title track (later to bring him to a new audience (or remind his audience) when used in Trainspotting, and "The Passenger".  "The Passenger" shares a darkness with 'The Idiot' material but is delivered in a more upbeat manner, and another insistent guitar riff (that even I can play).

These two milestone albums gave Iggy an artisitc re-birth and (at last) some proper commercial success.  What next?
For whatever reason, he wanted to end his 3 album deal with RCA quickly so put out a hastily mixed Live album ('TV Eye', released 1978) split the remainder of the advance with Bowie and left Berlin and Bowie to start afresh under his own terms.

He signed to Arista and released 'New Values' in 1979.
Alongside Stooges compadres Jame s Williamson and Scott Thurston, this is a very good album.  Unfortunately, it's not a great album, and suffered the same fate as previous albums in that it just didn't shift units.
Two more albums followed on Arista ('Soldier' (1980) and 'Party' (1981)) but neither did the business, and Iggy was again dropped by his record company.

The 80s weren't really a rare old time for Iggy.
His continuing patronage from David Bowie resulted in a steady(ish) income - "China Girl" was covered on 'Lets Dance', and was a Top 5 single.  'Tonight' contains 5 Iggy/Bowie co-writes, and one more of 'Never Let Me Down'.  This provided Iggy with some form of commercial success, but not in his own name.  He could however take some time out to become an actor - albeit not totally successfully, but he tried.
The 80s albums contain a raft of special guests including  2 Sex Pistols (Glen Mattock & Steve Jones), 2 Blondie members (Chris Stein & Clem Burke), a Rich Kid (Steve New), 2 Guns (or Roses?) (Slash & Duff McKagan) and a B52 (Kate Pierson).
1986s 'Blah Blah Blah' renewed his producer/artist relationship with David Bowie, and finally gave Iggy a Top 10 single in the shape of "Real Wild Child".
The albums of the 90s and 00s were of a similar offering - good to hear that Iggy is still about, but not earth-shattering.
He also "retired" to Florida, played golf, and became something of a celebrity - Car Insurance, Radio shows, TV interviews.

It's fair to say that his last truly great albums came in 1977 ('The Idiot' and 'Lust For Life'), so 2016s 'Post Pop Depression' came as something of a welcome surprise.
It had only taken 30 years, but this was the follow-up that those two high points demanded and/or suggested.

The collaboration with Josh Homme proved fruitful and some of the songs bear a passing resemblance to the Berlin output, with passing nods to both Scott Walker and (the ever present) Bowie.
The album has a focus, a purpose, and is delivered with energy and commitment of old.  You get the felling that the pair laboured over this to make it the best it possibly could be, rather than the feeling from some of the 80s/90s output of "Oh, that'll do").

It's Iggy's name above the door, but this is just as much a band album as a solo album.  And in the shape of Josh Homme, Iggy has found another collaborator that has a similar alchemy.

The recording of the album commenced 2 days after the passing of his friend, supporter and mentor.  So whether by design or coincidence, the influence is noticeable.  There are at least two songs here (probably "Keys To Your Heart" and "Sunday" which may well have been covered had there been a 'Pin Ups Re-Re-Visited' in future years.

There are times when he comes over like a snarling Leonard Cohen against a solid garage-rock bed.  At other, there's a balance of anger, intelligence and eloquence in the lyrics.
If this is to be Iggy's last outing (as has been widely suggested, if not always believed), the closer "Paraguay" is not a bad way to sign off.
And he can rest assured that (in my ears at least) he has salvaged his legacy which may have been lost, or at least sullied, with his ho-hum 80s output.


I Wanna Be Your Dog

Search & Destroy


Lust For Life


Gardenia



Saturday, 1 July 2017

Led Zeppelin

When you're first getting into all things "Rock" and "Music", and particularly the variety including the words "Heavy" and "Metal", a little history is always sought.

My kicking off point was Iron Maiden, so (in simple terms) a little backward movement brought UFO and NWOBHM era into my sights.  Slightly further back was Motorhead and Judas Priest.
Further back marks the "Beginning", the genesis (not the band) of Heavy Metal.
The names Black Sabbath and Deep Purple are synonymous with this event.  As are the band often spoken of in rarified tones, a Heavy Rock equivalent to The Beatles ... Led Zeppelin.
And in my Metal phase, I never really liked them.  I liked "bits" but never went balmy on the full album experience.  It was only in later years that I properly listened, more so due to the recent (2014) Remasters.


The Headlines:
  • They were the biggest band in the world
  • They wrote the rule book of Stadium Rock shows, and Rock n Roll Excess
  • They set the template (either directly or in-directly) for pretty much all forms of Hard Rock that followed
  • They may (or may not?) have entered into a pact with the devil in return for unparalleled success
    (The fact that their subsequent solo careers have not exactly been stellar by comparison does possibly add some weight to this almost preposterous theory)
  • Their life span was a little over 12 years, and they released 8 albums and 1 live album - this total number is expanded to a nice round 10 if you include the posthumous "sweep up / vault emptying" collection (some people don't)
  • They have sold in the region of 300 million albums
  • In a sign of solidarity and singularity as a band, they split a couple of months after their drummer died
But were they really "all that" ?


Formed following the demise of The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page was left with contracts and live dates, but no band to fulfill them.
Page's vision was to form a supergroup, and trawled around for the best players he could find.  First choice vocalist was Terry Reid - but he was committed to 2 US Tours with the Rolling Stones and Cream.  Reid suggested Robert Plant from Birmingham band Band Of Joy, and drummer John Bonham came along as well.
Session musician John Paul Jones had crossed path many times with fellow session-er Jimmy Page in the past, and had expressed interest in playing with Page on any future projects.
Upon hearing of the vacant bass player position in the new band, Jones whacked in his application, which Jimmy Page readily accepted.

Together the as yet un-named band (they started life as the New Yardbirds) started brief rehersal together in August 1968, and the following month flew to Scandanavia to complete the pre-planned tour.
By the end of September, the four piece were in the studio recording their debut album, and had acquired a new name - Led Zeppelin - based (apparently) on a Keith Moon quip that a previously mooted supergroup featuring Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, John Entwistle and Keith Moon would go down like a Lead Balloon.

A contract with Atlantic was duly signed, giving the band virtually complete artistic control in all aspects of recording, performance and promotion (there was apparently a clause which stated "No singles", but Atlantic either mis-read,forgot or ignored this section as around 10 singles were released in the US).
The debut album followed in early 1969.  It is 9 tracks of full on heavy blues riffage mixing effortlessly with acoustic passages, with wailed (almost anguished) vocals - without wishing to get all upmeownarsejourno about it, a veritable tour de force.
Opening with "Good Times, Bad Times" the pace never flags even on the slower tracks like "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" and "Black Mountain Side".  And "Communication Breakdown" was/is the probably the heaviest thing to ever be committed to record at the the time.
Critical reception was initially luke-warm, but subsequent sales and the interest in the live shows tells perhaps a better story than the reviews.

By the end of 1969, their second album (imaginatively titled 'Led Zeppelin II') was released. Recorded at various studios wherever the mood took them and wherever they were in the US or Europe, as a result 'II' doesn't have the cohesive feel of the debut.
It does however repeats the same trick of being massively heavy (probably more consistently heavy than the first release) interspersed with moments of lightness.  It also includes a Drum Solo - "Moby Dick" - which would become a highlight of future live shows.
Opening track "Whole Lotta Love" was used as the theme music for Top Of The Pops throughout the 70s, so although many people may claim to never have heard Led Zeppelin, they were probably exposed to it every week without knowing.

A debut album recorded in two weeks, the second recorded in a studio wherever they found themselves, for the third album the main composers (Page and Plant) took themselves off to a deserted cottage in Snowdownia to recover from the US Tour and prepare material for the new album.  After a couple of months recuperation and composing, the rest of the band convened at Headley Grange Manor House to rehearse and record the songs.  The pressure of constant touring was lifted (although they visited the US again before the albums release in October 1970), and the songs reflect both the pastoral, peaceful nature of the Bron-Yr-Aur sessions, the greater influence of folk and acoustic songs and a more relaxed atmosphere as a whole.
"Immigrant Song" picks up where 'II' left off, and "Celebration Day" rocks like anything they'd done before.
Previous albums had been mostly heavy riffing with acoustic interludicals, this album turned the template in favour of the acoustic.  Despite the change, it still has the sheer "oomph", the same presence (albeit acoustically rather than blasted through a wall of Marshall stacks) and shows the sheer versatility of the band.

You've invented Hard Rock, you've perfected the formula further, and then you've brought acoustic, folk, and even a tinge of psychedelia into the mix.  Where next?
You bring it all together in one perfect 40 minute statement.

Officially, 'Led Zeppelin IV' has no title - it was released in a cover containing no reference to the band, no photographs and no track listing.  There is no title printed on the record label, only the bands name, although there are 4 printed symbols, or runes, apparently representing each member of the band.
This has led to this album going by various titles including: IV, Untitled, Four Symbols and Zoso (or Zofo) - a literal interpretation/reading of the symbol representing Jimmy Page.
Pick a favourite track?  "Black Dog" and "Rock And Roll" are the rockingest, riffiest songs going.  "Battle of Evermore" (featuring Sandy Denny) continues the light, folk-y touches with added lightness and folkiness, as does "Going To California" (but this time without Sandy Denny).  Oh, and this is the album that features "Stairway To Heaven" - a little known Zep track, but one that is pretty good.
Pick a track, any track and it is a bona fide classic of their cannon - I can confidently say this album is "all killer, no filler"

The first 4 releases are undoubtedly their absolute masterworks, and depending on which day of the week it is, thy will interchangeably sit as the critics (and probably most fans) Number 1 choice.
4 - 1 -3 - 2: that would by my choice (recommendation?).
Interestingly that is also my Credit Card PIN (no it isn't)

But ...
After those, what came next was a series of ever diminishing returns - a lot to like, but never as consistent or wholly enjoyable as the first releases, often getting lost in 'sonic experimentation' (ie they were trying to add to the already winning template), stretching and lengthening songs, self-indulgence, and general jamming.


'Houses of the Holy' sees the band stretching themselves further into reggae ("D'Yer Maker") and funk tinged ("The Crunge") songs, and bounds along nicely if never feeling as essential as the first four.
After four albums identified by numbers (or in the case of the fourth, not identified at all), this was the first album that could've conceivably had a tile track - it didn't.  The opening track "The Song Remains The Same" was later used to name their Live Album and film.
The track "Houses Of The Holy" was recorded in the sessions for this album, but not used and eventually appeared on subsequent album 'Physical Graffiti'.
It is a great album, probably their last consistently great album, but just feels less "live" and more a product of studio technology

1974 marked the end of their record contract with Atlantic.  No doubt eager to hang on to the cash cow, a deal between the record label and band saw the creation of Swan Song Records - the label was wholly owned by the band, but distributed through Atlantic.

The first Led Zep album on Swan Song (and the third in the catalogue after Bad Company and The Pretty Things) was 'Physical Graffiti'.
A sprawling double album, and maybe, just maybe, having their own label meant that the Quality Control button went missing.  Originally planned a single album, the band found themselves extending songs, pulling old stuff out the closet, and when they realised they had more than a single album, adding some padding (good padding, but padding nonetheless).
Similar to The Beatles White Album, this would've been a phenomenal single LP but by pushing it to a double it all becomes a bit strained.
There are some very good songs here ("Kashmir" being a prime example, and the most common option for "Best Zep Toon which isn't Stairway To Heaven").  But there are also some dragged out moments which makes listening to this album in one sitting sometimes difficult.
If Led Zep did indeed set the template for Hard Rock/Heavy Metal, then 'Physical Graffiti' is the specific template for all US Hair Metal of the 1980s.

Following the tour in support of the album,culminating a 5 nights at a sold out Earls Court, the band took a break after almost 6 years of continuous writing, recording, touring and excess.  Another US tour was planned for late 1975, but following Robert Plant's car accident in Greece (which broke his ankle and necessitated a blood transfusion for his wife).  The tour was cancelled, and focus switched to preparing the next album.
After Plants recovery, and brief rehersals, the band moved to studios in Munich to record.

The recording, overdubbing and mixing was complete in just 18 days.  The album was very much a return to the straight simple rock sound of the past - very direct and inyerface, if not quite rocking like a b*stard as previously
As such, it sits slightly awkwardly in their cannon.  Listened to in sequence, it feels a bit of a step backwards after the relative progression of the first 4 albums the stretching/experimentation on 'Houses Of The Holy' and sprawling self-indulgence of 'Physical Graffiti'.
It is an absolute triumph when one considers the background it's creation, and the speed it was recorded.
OK, it sounds laboured in places (and I'm going to use the phrase again: the self-indulgence is firmly in check here), but in the shape of "Achilles Last Stand" and "Nobody's Fault But Mine" there are at least 2 tracks that stand admirably in the catalogue ("For Your Life" almost, not quite, makes 3).  In fact, like most of their outings, there is not really a duffer on show here.
In retrospect, and despite my initial misgivings of this album, now I listen to it again, I'm sticking it at Number 5 in My Zeppelin List.

Next up was the double live album 'The Song Remains the Same' (recorded at Madison Square Garden 1973).
Including a selection from the first 4 albums, plus "No Quarter" from 'Houses Of The Holy', one can either be mesmerised or frustrated by the amount of extension that goes on with the tracks.  "Dazed And Confused" gains 23 minutes and fills a whole side of the album, and other than the first 4 tracks, all the others gain at least 3 to 5 minutes of soloing, noodling and jamming.
Like 'Physical Graffiti', if you're in the right mood you are almost marvelling at the jamming capabilities of the band.  If you want to rock out Zep style, you may press skip a few times after side 1.
Released in conjunction with the film of the same name, the concert film was interspersed with backstage footage (Peter Grant arguing mainly) and a series "Fantasy Sequences" showing the band at home and occupying their imagined worlds.
Like it's parent album, the film can be a bit difficult to get through in one sitting too.

That pact with the devil was obviously starting to crack, as after the problems leading up to 'Presence', preparation for their next album were dealt another massive blow.
John Bonham was becoming a fully blown alcoholic - never enjoying time away from his family when touring, the booze helped and eventually reached almost dependency status.  Jimmy Page was also dabbling in the world of heroin - this had the effect of creating divisions within the band with the (relatively) clean John Paul Jones and Robert Plant on one side, and the drunk Bonham and spaced out Page on the other.
Add to this, the death of Robert Plant's son in 1977 (made worse by the fact that he was away on tour at the time) and 2 years enforced tax exile meaning the band couldn't perform live in the UK, then this was necver going to be an easy album.
As a result of the relative incapability of Plant and Bonham, 'In Through the Out Door' is led by Jones and Plant.
In retrospect, because we know this was the last Zep album, its a tough one because it does sound like a band dying on its arse.  At the time, no-one knew this so this was the sound of a band trying to find somewhere to go to re-invigorate themselves.  It's a brave attempt, but does sound lumpen and dis-interested (in fairness, other than Jones, none of the others really had their focus at the time).  "In The Evening" is not a bad start, but the album never really gets going or finds a groove.
It just sort of happens - I don't think there are any real stand-out tracks here, at least none that I want to tack onto a Led Zep compilation.

After 2 years away from the stage, and 4 years since their last appearance in Britain, they played two concerts at Knebworth in front of nearly 200,000 people.
A Brief tour of Europe followed in 1980, with a planned jaunt back to the US for October - their first Stateside visit for 3 years.

However ... the death of John Bonham following an all day drinking session (obviously) led to the cancellation of the upcoming US Tour, and ultimately (before 1980 was out) the official dissolution of the band.

The final Led Zeppelin album 'Coda' was released in 1982 - this was a collection of unused tracks and out-takes from earlier sessions.
This collection pretty much cleared the vaults as their ethic was to use everything they recorded.
Interestingly, the three tracks not used for 'In Through The Out Door' ("Ozone Baby" "Darlene" and "Wearing and Tearing" may have saved that last album from being a bit lumpy (certainly to these ears anyway).


So where they really all that?
In the main Yes.
They were a band that were greater than the sum of it's parts.  Certainly their relative success in solo careers shows that they needed each other to push things further.
The solo life an Page and Plant is all very competent in the main, but never quite pushes into being essential.  But with all that weight of history and expectation, being a solo artist was never going to be an easy task.

Where would they have gone next, and would there be a place in the world for them if they were still together now?
Listening again to 'In Through The Out Door' it really does sound like they were at the end of their time together, and whether there would've been any new Zep product is debatable.  But by the same token, there are glints in some of the tracks where the might've tried to go (ultimately though, you feel that they would've resorted to type and continued the big heavy riffing which is their recognised stock-in-trade)
It is of course possible that they may have rode out the 80s Rolling Stones style (ie lacklustre albums, ageing rock royalty) and followed the same path of massive arena shows with maybe the odd album (containing one or two half decent songs).

The Heavy Rock equivalent of The Beatles?  Why not, it seems a fair comparison

The band had only been playing together for a month or so and they came up with this:
Communication Breakdown


From 'Presence', probably the last (or one of the last) "Classic Zeppelin" track:
Achilles Last Stand



Every band has it's imitators, and Led Zeppelin were no different.
How about an Elvis Presley fronted, reggae infused version?
"No such thing" I hear you shout.

Au contraire

Dread Zeppelin - Whole Lotta Love

Thursday, 15 June 2017

It says nothing to me about my life ...

When you're 13 or 14, the only way to start your weekend was by settling down on the sofa and switching to Channel 4 to watch The Tube.
The jump from Top Of The Pops to Whistle Test (it had only recently lost it's "Old Grey .." moniker) was perhaps to great to take in one step, and so The Tube offered an alternative route.
A music show that didn't take itself too seriously, placed the bands and the music at the forefront (not what they were wearing, or what their favourite sandwiches were), and didn't come over like a glorified Youth Club party fronted by Radio DJs that were virtually ancient, and despite their enthusiasms really showed no great love for the music on offer (John Peel and Kid Jensen are exempted from this observation, as they seemed to spend their allotted half hour subtly ripping the p*ss out of everything)

It was on The Tube that I first heard and saw The Smiths.
The song was "This Charming Man" - it was genuinely exciting on first hearing.  Certainly compared to the relatively lame opposition.  It had that added frisson of excitement being an Indie record (when being "indie" meant being independent not having a guitar and sounding like a pile of other bands).
But I wasn't so taken with the pillock of a lead singer - all hearing aids, National Health Specs and flowers.  What's that all about?  Is he trying to be a northern version of Neil from The Young Ones?

Good song (nay, great song) but my boat remained well and truly unfloated.

School days in 1983/84 is split into distinct factions when it comes to music (and this is a sweeping generalisation):
  • The "girly pop" of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet
  • The Reggae bods - serviced by UB40 and Bob Marley
  • The scruffy metal heads, pretend punks and part time goths - Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motorhead very much to the fore
  • Goths and Indie kids - 4AD, Bauhuas and The Cure.  When it wasn't dark, it was all a bit maudlin and student-y
  • The cool kids who probably read books, wore polo necks and were likely to go to university - U2, Simple Minds and maybe some jazz seemed to be permanently playing on their Sony Walkmans.
The Smiths straddled these last two groups bringing together hitherto un-communicative tribes
Despite owning, and playing to death, a copy of U2's 'War', defending the greatness and importance of the Human League, flexing my "classics of history" chops by listening to The Shadows, and defending the vocal prowess of Rod Stewart, I fell firmly into the scruffy sod category - a designation I felt entirely comfortable with.  Having a predilection for very loud guitars, thumping drums and a general air of chaos meant my occupation of this group was probably pre-determined.  Citing Worzel Gummidge and Compo as fashion icons and only added to the confirmation.
(Hence the title: at the time, it really did say nothing to me about my life - or at least no reference that fully fitted (I had never seen a punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate, nor was I the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar)

Now, this wasn't quite the open warfare of Mods and Rockers or Punks and Skins, the battle lines were only shakily sketched and there was great tolerance - or at least "some" tolerance (usually) of each other musical choices (although anyone who declared Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon as the greatest song ever written was likely to get serially duffed up).

I had a sneaking admiration for Morrissey's anti-popstar stance - the moody pictures in Smash Hits, the difficult interviews, a glamourisation of an unglamorous past that I didn't understand, and the use of big words.  And all that was underpinned by Johnny Marr's jangling, insistent guitar.
And whilst the songs I had heard always made me think "mmm ... bloody good that" it never translated into a single or album purchase.

But you can't resist forever, and in early 1987 I finally succumbed and purchased a copy of the compilation 'Louder Than Bombs' on import from my local, friendly Our Price.
The singles "Shoplifters Of The World Unite" and "Sheila Take A Bow" had burrowed their way into my head, and I was now at the point where I had to have more Smiths material - the compilation (despite it's increased cost due to being an Import) was a necessary purchase.
OK, I could've saved myself 3 or 4 quid by buying 'The World Won't Listen' (the UK version of the expanded US release 'Louder Than Bombs'), but this ignores the snobbery of owning an Import, and the fact that the US version had extra tracks, including some earlier material.

I bought this, listened to it, digested it and returned it to the shelf - "Yes", I thought. "there are good songs there.  It ain't half bad.  But it's still not me".
And then over the next few weeks I would find odd tunes or a lyric popping into my head for no apparent reason - I may have become infected (except that was by The The - another band beloved of the Indie Kids and the beatnick-chique Cool Kids)

Yes, I had been bitten - Louder Than Bombs was pulled from the shelf and re-played - this time the jingly guitar and (apparently) downbeat lyrics were going in.  I wasn't a born-again Smiths fan, but I could certainly now appreciate what was going on there, and wanted to hear more.

And then in July 1987, the NME (my paper of choice at this time (with a side order of Metal Hammer) carried the headline: Smiths To Split.
Typical - a band I've just got into, and will spend my hard earned cash diligently buying new releases from are calling it a day.
Timing was never my strong point, and as per usual I'm late to the party ... again

September 1987 saw the arrival of the new (and final) album, and in my state of new found fandom I bought it on the day of release.

'Strangeways Here We Come' is an album, I have come to learn, that divides opinion among Smiths aficionados.  Indeed, 'The Queen Is Dead' is often cited as their masterwork, and this album usually props up the list of  their 4 studio albums.
Some bemoan the stretch, or adoption of different stylings and influences, others cite the glossier, richer production at play.
Me, I had nothing to compare it to in 1987, and all I could find here was an absolute cracker of an album.
From the opener "A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours" to closer "I Won't Share You", Morrissey and Marr supported by Rourke and Joyce are presenting their best work.
OK, "Unhappy Birthday" don't quite cut it, feeling a bit forced and smells a bit of padding.  And "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" almost outstays it's welcome (and all goes a bit Pink Floyd-y), but 2 (not total) clunkers out of 10 tracks aint a bad hit rate for an album recorded in the midst of personality clashes and breaking relationships.
Previously, I would've added "Death At One's Elbow" to the list of "nearly, but not quite", but having re-listened to it, it is a great rock-a-billy workout, almost pointing the route was Morrissey would initially embrace.
"Paint A Vulgar Picture" deserves a mention as lyrically it is a bit of a diatribe against record companies reviving, re-issuing and re-packaging.  It maybe tounge-in-cheek, but it can also be read as a bit rich bearing in mind that The Smiths already had 2 compilations (3 if you include 'Louder Than Bombs') in their catalogue, and would ultimately have their entire output re-packaged several times over in the next 20 years (OK, that was more WEA trying to maximise their returns, rather than the band sanctioning constant re-releases).  To date their are 5 compilations available, and a complete box set of all the albums.


Over the next 12 months or so, I bought the rest of the albums, including the 2 compilations (most of which I already had on the Import copy of 'Louder Than Bombs'. (with the exception of 'Rank' which didn't arrive in my ownership until about 2006)
After listening to them all, I can understand where the doubters are coming from, but can only confirm that 'Strangeways Here We Come' was, and still is, the best Smiths album out there.



"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"

"I Started Something I Couldn't Finish"





Friday, 2 June 2017

How Not To End A Bands Recording Career - The Clash: Cut The Crap

If one's history of The Clash is learnt by compilation albums and documentaries, you would believe that once the US Tour of 1983 was over, and Mick Jones left the band, The Clash ceased to exist.

The demise of the band can be (initially) traced back to the 'Combat Rock' album of 1982.
Relationships between band members, notably Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were fraught, and Topper Headon's increasing drug habit didn't help matters.  The 'Combat Rock' album was initially conceived as another double album statement, and unable to agree a particular style, format or presentation, Glyn Johns was called in to salvage the best of what was available.  The resulting album was a pretty clear statement of were the band were at the time, and possibly deserving of their moniker "the most important band in the world".  The album was also their breakthrough into the US market.

The Clash toured America supporting The Who, but the increasingly unreliable Topper Headon was replaced by original drummer Terry Chimes, but by the end of that tour he also left the band being replaced by Pete Howard.  By May 1983, Mick Jones left (or perhaps more correctly, was sacked) and The Clash (according to popular belief) were no more.

I previously stated that the bands demise can be initially traced back to 1982.  There is another factor here which may push the beginnings of the demise back a little further - original manager Bernie Rhodes returned to in 1981.
Bernie Rhodes was an associate of Malcolm Mclaren, and followed the lead of McLaren by finding and nurturing a band.  The Clash formed and were housed at Bernie's Camden Rehearsal studio.  The Clash concentrated on the music, whilst the non-musical Rhodes concentrated on managing, positioning and marketing the band (his links with McLaren no doubt helped, including ensuring the The Clash were on the bill for the ill-fated 1976 Anarchy In The UK tour).  He departed (or was sacked, there are conflicting accounts) in late 1978, but was to return at Joe Strummer's request in early 1981.
Can it be just a coincidence that Bernie's return sparked a period of increased tension and eventual falling apart of the band?

Pete Howard had joined on drums in 1983, and now following Mick Jones departure a new guitarist was needed to breathe life back into the band.  Whether it was an attempt to expand the line-up, or the size of the hole left by Mick Jones, guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard were recruited.
This newly convened line-up headed out on a self-financed tour in early 1984, and by the start of the following year commenced recording of The Clash's 5th album.
In need of a writing partner, Bernie Rhodes assumed the role, and also that of the records producer (remember this is the bands manager and non-Musician Bernie Rhodes - what could possibly go wrong?)

If I'm being honest, cracks were beginning to show on 'Combat Rock' - fine album though it is, and it is saved by the singles drawn from it, it does feel a bit "aimless".  But the again, it is sort of understandable as each of their albums moved the band into different areas and styles - maybe this was just too far. or alternatively not enough of a stretch to create any "wow factor".
With 'Cut The Crap' those apparent cracks moved to almost yawning chasms.

Here's the headlines:
  • some of the songs sound like they've not fully evolved from their demo state
  • at points on the album, it feels like Joe Strummer has lost interest and is just "going through the motions"
  • the vocal track is buried so deep on some tracks its virtually inaudible
  • an over reliance on drum machines - drummer Pete Howard never actually hit a drum skin in anger throughout the recording
  • the production adds too many synthesiser splashes and effects - just because you can, you don't have to put a horn part into a song, and similarly a chorus isn't always improved by mass chanting
As a result, the album feels (a) half-finished, and (b) over-produced.
It was released in 1985 - there were many records around that time that were products of the studio and therefore have a similar sound and reliance upon technology.
However, the architects behind these records - prime example being Trevor Horn - were musicians at heart (or at least understood how music worked).  Bernie Rhodes lack of musical nouse renders 'Cut The Crap' as sounding a bit amateur-ish.
With recording complete, Joe Strummer disappeared to Spain leaving Bernie Rhodes to finish the production and mixing.  When he departed, I think Joe took the "Quality Control" button with him, because it seemed to be missing when the album finally came out.

An album is only as good as the songs it contains - all these songs, good and not so good, need to sit together in a way that makes (or breaks) the whole album.
It is perhaps telling that when the first post-existence Clash compilation was release ('The Story Of The Clash' in 1988, it contained no tracks from 'Cut The Crap'.
Of the 12 tracks on the album, only "This Is England" properly passes muster and has now been included on latter day compilations.
Of the other tracks, it's all a bit hit and miss (mostly miss) only "We Are The Clash" and "North And South" properly stand out.  "Cool Under Heat", "Movers and Shakers", "Three Card Trick" and "North And South" nearly cut it, but are hampered by the aforementioned bad production.
The rest of the tracks, in my humble opinion, are not fully formed and no amount of post-production, overdubbing, political posturing or marketing spin can pull them through.
In short, The Clash's legacy lies in tatters - is it any wonder that it has been effectively written out of any officially sanctioned histories of the band.

There is however one bright spot to report from this - whether it was as a result of this albums disappointment, or his recuperation/re-evaluation in Spain (or both), when The Clash finally called it a day in 1986, Joe Strummer sought out his old sparring partner Mick Jones.  Together they co-wrote 6 tracks, and co-produced Big Audio Dynamite's second album ("No. 10 Upping Street").
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but having made this re-connection you just wonder if the tensions in the band could have been diffused, would "This Is Big Audio Dynamite" (or something similar) have been the sixth Clash album (maybe with "This Is England" tacked onto it)?

For better or worse (mostly worse) 'Cut The Crap' was the bands fifth album, released in 1985.  Not a great way to finish off you recording career as a band, but it did give the world the last great Clash track (it also gave Shane Meadows a title for a serial drama 20 years later)

This Is England




Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Oasis - From Nowhere To The Biggest Band In Britain In 5 Years

1991/92, and Grunge was taking hold of the UK musical landscape.
Nirvana's 'Nevermind' (released in late November 91) was doing big business.  Pearl Jam's 'Ten' (dating back to late spring/early summer 91) was selling in similar quantities, as were releases from Soundgarden, Alice In Chains with Mudhoney and Stone Temple Pilots also joining the party.  Indeed, if you were in anyway related to Seattle or the SubPop label, or employed the "quiet-loud-quiet" technique then you were probably onto a winner.
American Alternative Rock/Indie was doing pretty well for itself in the UK - Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Pavement, Smashing Pumpkins et al, all doing pretty well for themselves.

From within the pages of factions of the Rock Press (primarily Select Magazine) a reclamation of national pride had begun.
Madchester, and the whole baggy-Indie dance scene had come and gone, and the patience was wearing thin waiting for the next Stone Roses album.  Blur had failed to crack America and returned home to record a mod-ish inspired second album, and Suede were busily soundtracking bedsit/student angst.
The groundwork had been done, all it needed was a snappy name and a "scene" could coalesce around it.
1993 saw the name "Britpop" appear in print for the first time - a name (allegedly) coined by Stuart Maconie, gave an identity to this collection of bands with the express intention (and media backing) to repel US imports and make Britain musically great again (not that it wasn't already, it just needed to be written about more and giving it a snappy name (albeit a slightly rubbish one) would help give it a raison d'etre.

Around the same time, a Manchester band landed an opening slot at a Glasgow club.  Alan McGee, the boss of Creation Records who was in the club to keep an eye on one of the bands he was managing, was so impressed by what he heard, he offered them a record contract on the spot.  Or so the legend goes ... - in truth it was another 3 or 4 months before the deal was finalised, including worldwide distribution with Sony (via Creation)

Oasis had originally formed two years previously.  Called The Rain, they consisted of  Liam Gallagher, Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs, Paul "Guigsy" McGuigan and Tony McCarroll.
Liam's older brother Noel had previously been a roadie for the Inspiral Carpets didn't believe that his "dopey kid brother" was in a band and went along to see an early show.
One can assume that he must've been (at least) vaguely impressed by what he saw, as he took the opportunity to approach the band with a stash of songs he'd been writing, a work ethic, and a healthy dollop of ambition.
Local gigs, serious rehearsal, a demo recording followed.  They were then invited to Glasgow by another group they shared rehearsal rooms with on the off chance of playing a support show.

The band entered the studio in December 1993 to record their debut single for Creation.  After some time trying to capture the song "I Will Believe", the band started idly jamming and Noel created "Supersonic" (apparently on the spot).  "I Will Believe" (albeit in a previously recorded live version) was relegated to the B-Side, and "Supersonic" released in April 1994.
Second single "Shakermaker" followed swiftly in June, and August saw the release of "Live Forever".  This single was the first to crack the Top 10 and set the band up nicely for the release of debut album 'Definitely Maybe' at the end of the month.

Opening with a statement of intent, a manifesto in 5 minutes, "Rock 'n' Roll Star" ushers in 48 minutes of high energy raw attitude (plus 3 minutes of acoustic reflection).
Right from the start, there's a swagger to the album, a certain lairyness and a simmering danger.  But this is all underpinned by a stack of tunes that are both comfortably recognisable and also brand new.
Alongside all the previous singles, is the first outing for Creation (in the guise of a White Label demo) "Columbia" and a batch of other songs equally as urgent and snotty as the singles.
And then at the end is a change of pace with "Married With Children" showing (a) Noels ability to write a song with more than just barre chords, and (b) that Liam can actually sing (rather than just sneer.
Third single "Cigarettes and Alcohol" arrived in October with the album selling by the bucketload.

The final single of the year "Whatever" arrived in December.  This continues the acoustic-y nature of 'Definitley Maybe' closer "Married With Children", and led to a plagiarism suit from Neil Innes claiming (and rightly so) that the vocal melody and portions of the tune are nicked from "How Sweet To Be An Idiot".
The nick of the strings melody from Johann Pachelbel's Canon (or to give it it's full title:  Canon and Gigue for Three Violins and Basso Continuo), passed by un-noticed (or at least uncontested).
The B-Side was "Half The World Away" - this too had a reminiscent melody from Burt Baccharach's "This Guys In Love With You" - but no charges were brought.

And this wasn't the first time Noel G has been accused of "borrowing" - the band had already stumped up $500,000 for nicking portions of the lyric and vocal melody from "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" for "Shakermaker".

When it comes to nicking stuff (re-appropriating) Noel has form - there are pages across t'interweb suggesting most Oasis songs are in some way stolen:
http://www.mygnrforum.com/index.php?/topic/77936-oasis-have-ripped-off-nearly-every-song/

Then again, as Noel says (admits?):
"We ripped about two songs off The Beatles and the rest off Slade."

Despite all the thievery, continued sales and media attention ensured that their next single release "Some Might Say" delivered their first Number 1 single.

Following the recording of this single, the drummer Tony McCarroll was replaced by Alan White.  There were reports of deteriorating relationships and punch-ups between band members, but the official announcement cited McCarroll's "technical limitations" as a drummer.

This period of time was the early days for Britpop (ie before the media got hold of it and sanitised it to mean "any two bit indie band with a guitar and attitude"), and Oasis, with their attendant lairyness and F**k You attitude became sort of anti-poster boys.  Indeed, the bands early recording career trajectory can be measured against Britpops rise and fall.
Their prime competition was "apparently" Blur, and the media wet-dream was duly delivered by the fact that both bands released new singles (Oasis: "Roll With It", Blur: "Country House") on the same day in August 1995, and their later albums were released within a month of each other.  Was there really any competition?  If there was, who won? and does anyone actually care?  These were 2 separate bands who just happened to find themselves releasing records in a similar style, to similar public and critical acclaim, at the same time.
Although there is something perversely pleasurable about the fact that the "biggest chart battle since The Beatles and The Stones" (copyright: just about every media outlet with little or no interest in the actual music) featured two bands releasing probably their worst singles.

Anyway, back to Oasis ...

Their second album titled '(What's The Story) Morning Glory' was released in October 95.  This album shows a softening of the sound (if not volume - the post-production compression makes it very loud) with more focus on the anthemic (holding lighters aloft sort of thing), and more instrumentation ( strings, piano, acoustic-y intentions) than the debut.
When it rocks, it rocks.  When it is downbeat, orchestral and anthemic, it does that too.  But, it just feels like it's peppered with filler ("Hey Now", "Cast No Shadow", "She's Electric") - almost like they were saving their best tracks for the B-Sides (and they probably were).
It is a thoroughly competent and easily accessible set of songs, and you can understand why after selling a third of a million in it's first week, it continued to sell for the next couple of years (current figures sit around 5 million in the UK, and 22 million worldwide).
But it just feels like "instant gratification", with no real lasting appeal.
Mind you, as with everything there's always an exception.  This albums exception goes to the epic closing track "Champagne Supernova".
OK, lyrically it's a bit vague and has one or two touches of "never be scared of a rhyme", but the atmosphere it builds (especially when performed live) is tremendous - I doubt that it would work so well if sung by anyone other than Liam though.

To be brutally honest, '(What's The Story) Morning Glory' is not a truly great album.  But it was the perfect album for the time, and the fact that it sold massively in many ways proves this point.

And talking of massive sales ...
The next single "Wonderwall" was released in November 95 and ensured that the album kept selling.  It hit number two, kept off the top by Robson & Jerome, but would go on to become one of their best known songs, and biggest selling singles.
A month after release, a claim was bandied about that the song was a cover of a little known 60s easy listening tune - all the talk of Noel Gallaghers magpie songwriting had some people convinced when Mike Flowers Pops released their lounge version.
If there was a prize for "the most over-played Oasis single", this one would probably win it - it is also their biggest selling single, achieving in excess of 1,250,000 sales (some 250,000 greater than their next best).

Oasis were now probably the biggest, or certainly the most known, band in Britain.
The massive sales continued in 1996 with further plundering of the parent album resulting in big seller number 2 - "Don't Look Back In Anger" (sung by Noel) hit number 1 and hung around the charts for most of the spring and summer.

In the spring, the band played 2 nights at Maine Road, followed in the summer by two nights at Knebworth in front of 250,000 people - demand was so high, it was conceivable that they could've done 10 nights.

Too much, too soon?
Could they sustain this adulation?
The next album must surely be the greatest slab of vinyl ever produced to begin to meet these expectaions ...


Album 1, Side 1, Track 1 - "Rock n Roll Star"

They kept their best stuff for the B-Sides - "Fade Away" (B-Side of "Cigarettes & Alcohol")

"... all the rest we nicked off Slade" (and Gary Glitter) - "Hello"









Friday, 10 March 2017

The Third Album

Whilst not a 100% true rule, there is certainly in the thought/belief that a bands third album marks a sort of tipping point.
As a general rule of thumb (with some obvious exceptions), most bands early years follow a similar pattern:
  • Debut album - consists of the tried and trusted setlist from the past years before getting a record deal
  • Second album - often described as "difficult" as the band has run out of songs and the record company demands product
  • Third album - this is where it is make or break time - and most bands will have a milestone third album leading to either world domination or abject failure
Because this is not a 100% true-ism, there are various sub-categories and caveats that need to be applied to support this theory.
And as there is always an "exception that proves the rule" (I really do not understand the logic of this phrase?), those that suffered Third Album damnation also need to be considered, as do those who thrive on consistency and it matters not if it was the first, third or twelfth album that is considered the high point.


Third Album successes that effectively "made" the band - after disappointing second albums (which have since been re-appraised and are (generally) no longer considered "disappointing"):
  • Iron Maiden - Number Of The Beast
    Their debut album was a landmark of NWOBHM and features songs which are still included in their live set today.  The follow-up was the slightly disappointing 'Killers' which seemed to be leftovers from the previous and din't really move the band on.
    With a new vocalist in the ranks, their third album was several steps ahead in song construct, sound and delivery, and laid the foundations for Iron Maiden to become the biggest Heavy Metal band in the world
  • The Jam - All Mod Cons
    The sheer adrenaline of their debut 'In The City' could not be maintained on 'The Modern World'.  Like Iron Maiden above, the album felt like leftovers from 'In The City' (possibly even the padding of a double album).
    With Record Company expectation tested, this album really was "Shit or Bust" - and was the starting point for 4 years unbroken success including 4 Number One singles, a level of popularity which allowed 2 Import only singles to enter the Top 20, and a real feeling of "loss" among fans when they split up (if you go to The Jam Appreciation Facebook page, this loss and non-acceptance of anything they did afterwards is till very much in evidence)
  • The Clash - London Calling
    Their debut is one third of the unholy trinity of Punk album (along with 'Never Mind The Bollocks' and 'Damned Damned Damned').  The second album 'Give 'Em Enough Rope' was a polished affair, giving a bigger, almost embryonic stadium rock, sound than the debut which was perhaps at odds with expectations.
    London Calling was an ambitious affair being a double album and pulled in all their influences.  The delivery matched their ambition, and the album remains perfect to this day, and never bettered by the band
  • The Damned - Machine Gun Etiquette
    The first Punk band to release a single and album.  Their second album ('Music For Pleasure') arrived in November 1977, and it lacked the urgency and sheer abandon of the debut.  As a result,of the failure, they were dropped by their record company and split up a couple of months later.  When they reformed it was without guitarist and songwriter Brian James, and yet they created this absolute Punk-Garage-Pysch-Pop masterpiece.
  • Blur - Parklife
    Their first album ('Leisure') was OK, if nothing special, and their second ('Modern Life Is Rubbish') a re-invention of themselves as 1990s Mod-ish Brits, and had sold relatively poorly.  'Parklife' built on this British-ness and hit at the right time to perfectly capture a moment in time.
  • U2 - War
    The debut 'Boy' was positively reviewed by the critics and sold pretty well.  Second album gremlins crept in when (a) the band were having trouble aligning their religious beliefs with being in a Rock band, and (b) Bonio had a briefcase full of lyrics stolen just before recording commenced.  As a result 'October' was a bit of a hit and miss affair.  'War' on the other hand was the first indication of the true international potential of the band.  It's sales no doubt enhanced by the release of 'Under A Blood Red Sky' 8 months later - but this album is the point when U2 started being U2 rather than just another rock band.
  • Dire Straits - Making Movies
    Dire Straits debut is probably a collection of of songs performed by one of the greatest pub bands you're ever going to see.  The playing, the songs, the technicalities - all top notch.  Problem was when it came to 'Communique' they tried to produce a carbon copy, and the songs weren't all there.
    Making Movies expanded the horizons - a perfect blend of long songs ("Tunnel of Love"), straight rock songs ("Solid Rock") and downbeat semi-acoustic balladry ("Romeo and Juliet").
    Although "Les Boys" was a terrible way to finish the album off. 
  • The Who - Who Sell OutTheir debut was effectively their live set, and second album ('A Quick One') was, I feel, diluted with each of the band getting publishing deals an contributing their own songs.  In truth, Roger Daltrey aint a songwriter, and Keith Moon certainly isn't.  The closing track on the second album does begin to show Pete Townshend's ambition with the mini-Opera "A Quick One While He's Away".
    'Sell Out' was conceived as a (sort of) concept album in tribute to pirate radio - hence the inclusion of advertising jingles, and unbroken track links.  A strong set of songs re-inforced the bands ambition and belief and gave rise to the milestone (millstone?) that was the fully conceived Rock Opera 'Tommy'.
where the band "went to another level" (third album breakthrough)
  • Rod Stewart - Every Picture Tells A Story
    His first two album garnered minimal sales and no chart placing in the UK, and it was the same story for the few singles released.
    And then something happened ...
    Was it his linking up with the Faces that freed him up to concentrate on the folkier, soul-ier side, knowing that all his rock needs (and partying needs, I'm sure) were taken care of?
    Whatever it was, something gave him the kick to run parallel careers of equal greatness, and this album was the start of his imperial phase where (for the next 4 years) everything he touched turned to gold - even a song recorded to get him some car seat covers (Python Lee Jackson: "In A Broken Dream")
  • Blondie - Parallel Lines
     
    Debut album ('Blondie') was pop infused NY Punk, but not world-shaking.  Second album ('Plastic Letters') set the template, but was still lacking killer songs.  A make-over by Mike Chapman set this album apart from it's predecessors - was it really the same band?  Undoubtedly it was the same band as all the hooks and traits seen before were there, but now there was more.  A masterpiece of production and songcraft (including two cover versions).  It was even OK for Punk and New Wave fans to like Disco.
  • Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run
    Signed to Columbia in a wave of glory and expectation in 1972, the debut and it's follow-up ('Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ' and 'The Wild, the Innocent & The E Street Shuffle' (both 1973)) just didn't sell, despite critics wetting themselves.  This was make of break time for Bruce, and whilst he was preparing 'Born To Run' he became pre-occupied with making it ever more cinematic and bombastic.
    And then cam "the moment" - journalist Jon Landau wrote: "I have seen the future of rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen".  Landau steered Springsteen to finish off 'Born To Run' and upon release (bankrolled by Columbia's marketing budget), Springsteen's epic found an audience and a place on American Rock Radio, and has sold pretty consistently ever since.
  • Metallica - Master Of Puppets
    Along with Slayer and Anthrax, Metallica were identified as one of the "Big 3" Bay Area Metal bands - their first 2 albums had found a solid and loyal audience, and in line with their status there were hailed as leaders of the Thrash movement.
    'Master Of Puppets' added more to the armoury, and would/should have found a bigger audience if it weren't for the reach of indie label Megaforce/Music For Nations (the album fared better in the US where it was released on Elektra), massive sales would surely have followed.  From a worldwide perspective, massive sales would have to wait until the follow-up - sadly the follow-up was the "sonically-challenged" '... And Justice For All', and world domination would have to wait another couple of years until 'The Black Album'
  • Queen - Sheer Heart Attack
    The first Queen album came out in mid 1973.  Despite backing from EMI and it's proggish affectations in tune with the period, it failed to find a massive audience.  Unperturbed, they tried again with 'Queen II' preceded by a Top Of The Pops appearance alongside The Wombles with "Seven Seas Of Rhye".  The success of the single pushed it's parent album into chart contention, and also saw the debut belatedly sell enough to warrant a chart placing.
    Buyoed by critical acclaim, responsive tours and, no doubt, sheer ambition.  Their third album hit the racks in late 1974.  It blended the proggishness, straight rock and a dollop of camp.  Lead single "Killer Queen" ensured their "breakthrough" - this was the album the fully defined the band and laid the confidence for what came next.
high point, then it was downhill from there (ever diminishing returns):
  • Marillion - Misplaced Childhood
    OK, trying to do Prog-Rock in the 80s was always going to be a tough choice.  Fair play to Marillion they didn't bend from the choice, and ploughed a fairly lonely furrow (even getting namechecked on The Young Ones as one of hippy Neil's favourite bands).  'Misplaced Childhood' is perhaps their masterwork - a fully fledged concept piece released in the summer of 1985.  It spawned two Top 10 singles and sat at the top of the album charts.  A vindication of sorts that it wasn't such a daft idea to "do" Prog in the 80s after all.
    The follow-up 'Clutching At Straws' very nearly sustained it, but Fish's departure eventually led to a downturn in the bands fortunes.
  • T.Rex - The Slider
    Marc Bolan went from cult-ish hippie to Electic Warrior in a little under 4 years - he also invented Glam Rock along the way.  By 1972, he was in a position to virtually dictate the terms of his record deal with EMI  -this album marked the absolute peak of his popularity.
    Always more focussed on the 3 minute single tha the whole album, later albums sounded confused and un-focussed - sadly, so did the singles.  1976s 'Futuristic Dragon' had the feeling of something about to happen for him again, and 1977s 'Dandy In The Underworld' just about kept this going.  Unfortunately, we never got a chance to find out if he had it in him to push on and equal 'The Slider'.
  • Boomtown Rats - Fine Art Of Surfacing
    The debut album was like The Rolling Stones on speed - properly revved up R&B.  Second album had more pop sensibilities in line with Geldof's ever burgeoning media celebrity.  By this album they'd refined the music and performance, even getting a bit of social comment in with the never to be avoided "I Don't Like Mondays".  Sadly, this was it for the Rats and later albums just sound confused, like they're trying too hard
  • Pogues - If I Should Fall From Grace With God
    Taking steps froward with each of their previous albums, they arrived at this album with confidence and audience at a high.  Songs like "Fiesta" became a memorable part of often ramshackle live performances.  The presence of "Fairytale Of New York" ensures there will always be interest in the band, and possibly this album too.  However, the "fragility" of Shane MacGowan ensured that this was a high point they never reached again.  Subsequent albums are OK and often contain great tracks, they just never hang together as well again.

third Album Success rule applies but is (probably?) not their greatest album:
  • Def Leppard - Pyromania
    Although they continually deny it, Def Leppard were one of the prime exponents of NWOBHM (OK, they were out at the same time and followed the template of a self-financed EP, a Kerrang front cover, and a fine debut album.  By the second album (' High n Dry'), they made no secret of their transatlantic aspirations.  And for this, their third album, the Mutt Lange button was fully pressed - perfect for the rockier interludes of MTV.  Be-decked in Union Jacks, Def Leppard became (for a period) the biggest British band in America.
  • Carter - 1992 '101 Damnations' and '30 Something' were mainstays of any self-respecting Indie Disco of the late 80s/early 90s.  The signing to a major label (Chrysalis) seemed like a natural progression, and Chrysalis were ostensibly an Indie-Major, so everything should be fine.  Shouldn't it?
    Maybe the pony had run out of tricks, but all the rough edges were cleaned up and some of the songs began to sound laboured.  It may have sat at Number 1 in the album charts, but it was all downhill from here.
a masterpiece, but took so long to arrive the audience had gone:
  • Dexys - Don't Stand Me Down
    Constant re-invention was Kevin Rowland's game.  From the street gang look of 'Searching For The Young Soul Rebels' to the Soul Revue of Dexys Mark II (sadly with no real major label backing, so bar the odd single there was no real product), to the Celtic Soul Gypsies of 'Too-Rye-Ay' - 3 distinct looks, 3 different incarnations, 3 years.  They disappeared for 3 years, returning with a sort of yuppie-stockbroker look (business suits, groomed hair) and an album of meticulously created, and seemingly laboured over, songs that took the band somewhere different again.  There was little, if any, promotion of the album and no lead single upon release, and the take-up was minimal.  The album has since become recognised as a true masterpiece (and re-configured at least a couple of times), but spelt the beginning of the end - next stop was the theme for BBC sit-com Brush Strokes, and then dissolution.
    They did return in 2012 with the superb 'One Day I'm Going To Soar'

trying too hard to create a masterpiece, and end up with an overblown lump of stodge:
  • Oasis - Be Here Now
    It's good - but is it really the definitive statement of the band that was promised?  There is plenty of good stuff here, but suffers from over-producing (kitchen sink theory?), and would've benefited from a bit of editing.

when it doesn't work:
  • The Quireboys - Bitter Sweet & Twisted
    The long awaited and not wholly disappointing (although a bit shiny) debut ('A Bit Of What You Fancy') followed by a big selling Live album.  Their third album (or second album (proper)  arrived just as grunge was taking hold and the band found  their Faces-esque blusey-wailings no longer had an audience.
    (I admit to "stretching" the rules a bit, as their second album was a Live album, but ...)
  • Buzzcocks - A Different Kind of Tension
    Should've been massive - a better album than the previous releases, but the public disagreed.  Maybe the change was just too instant, and like many Punk/New Wave bands, their original audience wasn't quite as quick to move on as they were
  • Specials - In the Studio
    With half the band departed, this re-invention was too much for the great british record buying public to pallette.
  • Stereophonics - Just Enough Education To Perform
    The band sort of ran out of steam midway through Performance & Cocktails, and seemed to spend the third album either repeating themselves or trying to re-invent themselves - neith of which happened successfully here.  They would spend years re-inventing continually themselves and, save for the odd track ("Dakota"?) never got anywhere near the output of their first two releases
  • Guns n Roses - Chinese Democracy
    Overdid it with 'Use Your Illusion I & II', and were unable to replicate success of 'Appetite For Destruction' (be honest - were they ever liklely to?), too much tension led to their split despite promise of third album in production.  When it did arrive it was GnR in name only - the record is absolute dogsh*t!

does it matter whether it is the third, fifth or twenty-seventh album - consistency is the key:

These third albums are often held up as the artists key work, or spoken of in hushed tones.  The truth is that these are (pragmatically) no better or worse than what came before or after.  OK, everyone suffers a dip in fortunes once in a while, but this lot kept it at a consistent level of brilliance
  • Beatles - A Hard Days Night
    The first Beatles album comprising entirely of Lennon & McCartney songs.  Some cite The White Album as a sprawling, unfocused mess, others say Let It Be  was the death throes writ large.  As far as I'm concerned (and I may be wrong, but I doubt it), there was no let up in energy or craft right to the very end.
  • Radiohead - OK Computer
    If I'm honest (and others are too), no-one could really foresee the future for Radiohead at the time of their debut - it was good, but wasn't really earth-shattering?  A similar argument could be levelled at 'The Bends' too although you could see the stretch, the development and the desire to be unique.  'OK Computer' was a different beast altogether. Some said they would never surpass - well, they probably did (if only on artistic terms) by being the same, yet different on every subsequent release.
  • Paul Weller - Stanley Road
    A second appearance on the list for the bloke from Woking.  But this time he didn't have a disappointing second album behind him.  On the contrary, 'Wild Wood' sold ny the bucket load.  By the time you get to 'Stanley Road' there is the definite feeling that Paul Weller has reconciled himself with his opast and his influences, and can now stop experimenting with different aspects of his influence, and create a whole that is (a) immediately recognisable, and (b) because of when it was released, it assured his position as the Godfather of Britpop.
  • Led Zeppelin - III
    Led Zep I & II were stuffed full of dirty,heavy, blues-y rock.  Was it the template for Heavy Rock and Heavy Metal?  Was it the devil's work a la Robert Johnson?  Was it the perfect chemistry of 4 musicians, a forthright manger and a very powerful record label?
    Whatever it was, people bough the records by the ton, and continued to do so, even when the band took a sharp turn around in sound, or when the quality control went a bit screwy towards the end ('Presence', 'In Through the Out Door').



And spare a though for those that never get to number 3:
  • Stone Roses
    A magnificent debut followed by a critically panned second album (which took 5 years to see the light of day), and then ... nothing
    (Note: 'Second Coming' is the better of the two albums.  It just is ...)
  • Joy Division
    Mitigating circumstances here (obviously), but the reception of their two albums, and the reverence they are held in today, does make you wonder what would've came next.  It is wholly possible (although can anyone be 100% sure?) that the band would've followed the trajectory of New Order, which would then put them in the "consistent" bracket above.


OK, it doesn't bear too close a scrutiny, and if you cut a sample size down to small enough numbers you can prove anything (which I think I might've just done), but there must be something in it ....

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Saturday Record Shopping Run

There is often talk of how much better life was in the past, and how it would be a dream to return to those halcyon days.
Really? A return to power cuts, 3 day weeks, strikes, smog, ricketts ...
Maybe that's taking it a bit far, but the one thing the past did do better was Record Shops.
Last week, HMV Canada announced that it was closing it's stores nationwide.  Now, I don't know about the competition or record buying habits of Canadians, but do recall in the UK when it looked like HMV was going down the pan, it was close to having very few outlets for Music on the High Street - bar the independent stores (which are always worth a visit), buying music on the High Street is a tricky affair.

Not so many years ago in the time of my youth (yes, I feel very old writing those words!).

I was about 11 (maybe 11 and a half, detail is important at that age) when I started to buy my own records.  These purchases were always parent-accompanied, and enabled by pocket money and any other cash gifts that came my way (grandparents, birthday money, a sudden rash of parental indulgence/benevolence).
Just before my 14th birthday I landed a paper round - I was now earning my own money, and was granted enough trust to go into the town by myself (or at least with friends).
A couple of months later, I got a second paper round - I now had one in the morning and one in the evening - and also delivered, and collected money, for Charity booklets once a month.
All this income (well ,nearly all of it) went over the counters of the Record Shops of Reading.

Saturday Mornings involved a strict routine of counting up the paper round collection money, extracting my wages, going up the road to the newsagent to get paid for the other paper round, bus into town and start shopping.
After a weeks research of Radio 1, Smash Hits, Record Mirror, Sounds, Kerrang (or whatever music magazine I had bought) and recommendations from friends, I had a pretty good idea of at least one single and album that I wanted to get my grubby mitts on, but the joy of browsing and discovery cannot be ignored for the sake of firm plans.

Being a creature of habit, I always alighted from the bus at the same stop and went straight to the nearest shop - a small, but perfectly stocked branch of Our Price.
This was the first stop on a habitual route march around all the record shops - noting prices and stock, and then a return run making the preferred purchases.
The route was always:
  • Our Price (Butts Centre)
    Small, but rarely full and usually turned up a few surprises not seen in the other shops
  • Listen Records (Butts Centre - upstairs)
    Independent shop - specialists in Rock and Heavy Metal.  Always busy, always loud and a 14 year old felt very "grown up" going in there.  Brilliant shop - sadly it closed down in 1992 as a result of the Rough Trade distribution collapse
  • Our Price (Broad Street)
    Bigger than the Butts Centre branch over 2 floors, yet conversely seemed to carry less depth of stock, and the people that worked there didn't seem as knowledgeable about what they were selling
  • Woolworth
    Was there ever a time Woolworth didn't have a sale on?  Always woth a look, especially around the time of stock-checks when they'd cleared their storerooms out
  • Boots
    Not famously known for their music retailing, but often had cheaper prices for chart stuff than anywhere else
  • NSS Newsagents
    Another not known for its music retail prowess, but plenty of odd / interesting stock, import records and brand new old records (ie stuff still in the shrinkwrap from about 1978).  It was also the first record shop in Reading that I can remember selling these new fangled CD things.
  • WHSmith
    Magazines at the front, Record section at the back.  This meant you could pick up a copy of the NME and a shaped picture disc in one shop, and emerge on the other main shopping street of the town - if feeling peckish, there was also a McDonalds next door (and/or a Burger King 3 doors down)
A quick right turn and a quarter of a mile walk would bring me to the shop more responsible than any other for (a) giving me a musical education, and (b) feeding an ever growing vinyl addiction.
  • Pop Records - a second hand shop, with 2 branches (and if it wasn't raining or the specific record I wanted was in the second shop, a detour would be incorporated into the route).
    The shop was best described as "organised chaos", coupled with the aroma that will fever be defined as "the ideal record shop smell" (musty vinyl, slight whiff of damp, coffee and cigarette smoke).  The usual A to Z browsing racks surrounded the walls, one central island for 7" singles, boxes and crates placed under these racks, and piles of unpriced and unsorted records all over the counter and around the floor space leading to the counter.  Of course, this was a time before Fire Safety Regulations meaning a clear evacuation path had to be left at all times.
    Prices were set at Albums for £1 to £4 (depending on condition (obviously), and singles ranged from 25p to £2.  At either end of this pricing spectrum were the collectable items - usually stored behind the counter, or hung in the wall inside PVC sleeves, or the disorganised crates where albums and singles could be found for as little as 10p.

Starting work brought more money to spend than 2 paper rounds, but the route remained the same.
Over time, the traditional route shortened as Our Price consolidated into one shop, WHSmith and Woolworths underwent refurbishment and re-opened with smaller record sections, Boots went back to flogging make-up and hairdryers, and NSS Newsagents closed down.

And then came some dreadful news - Pop Records was closing down.  It's two shops were to be demolished as Reading town centre underwent a major re-vamp (one shop stood on the intended site for the Oracle Shopping Centre, and the other was a victim of road re-organisation.
As both these shops were (sort of) out of the town centre, the rent was presumably lower, but with nowhere else to go the owner decided to sell-up and close down.

Fortuitously, as Pop Records closed, another second-hand goldmine opened.  The Record Basement was another second-hand shop which had been opened for a few years at the other end of the town.  I visited it a couple of times, but it's main stock was Dance music (not my thing) - but when it moved premises near the Station, it sub-let the back of the shop to another trader who carried stock more to my taste (indeed, some of the stock bore the recognisable Pop Records price tags.

Record Basement became an integral part of the itinerary.  But with many of the old haunts now closing, the route was destined to become shorter, and possibly not so fruitful.

But wait ... by this stage, Reading had got it's own HMV store.
Yes - HMV the stuff of pre-planned expensive trips to London.  These trips would also involve visits to Virgin Megastore, Tower Records and the record shops of Berwick Street and surrounding areas.  I even bought a CD once in Harrods, just so I could say I bought something in Harrods.
And now Reading had it's own proper store. HMV had been in Reading before, opening as the HMV Micro shop selling computer games, and then as a relatively small store, but now here was a much larger store over two floors with stuff on the shelves never seen before in deepest Berkshire.
And to top things off, in the next couple of years, a Virgin Megastore opened too.

The Saturday Record Run remained, however there was one big problem for me: a new family meant there wasn't quite enough disposable income to (in the words of my wife and family) pointlessly fritter away on un-necessary items - most of my purchases came from the supermarket.  HMV and Virgin did get a visit, but this was probably (at best) monthly.

The Saturday Record Shopping Run was consigned to history - it still happened, but not with enough regularity to define it as a "tradition" anymore.

The rise of the internet, and the ease of purchasing from Amazon further consigned the Record Run to the past.  The final nail was probably the collapse of Zavvi, and the continuing diversification of HMV into a retailer that didn't seem to have a clue what it's core product was anymore.
With the high street market free from competition, it was really difficult to understand why HMV became such a shadow of it's former self.  OK, it couldn't truly compete on pricing with on-line retailers, but it had the presence and visibility, staff were often knowledgeable and helpful - what went wrong?
It went into administration in 2013, but was saved from complete closure and went through a period of restructuring, downsizing and streamlining.
I can happily report that the HMV stores I have visited recently are not quite as laughable as they were in the recent past, and do seem to be getting back to being a "must visit" shop, not just a "must visit for old times sake" shop.

Most of my purchasing is now done from the seat that I am sitting in at the moment - it's quick, easy, and usually cheaper than HMV can offer it for.  This is supplemented by (at least) monthly visits to the three local independent stores near me, and regular visits to Charity Shops (in the hope (rather than expectation) of finding something interesting.

But I do miss the traipsing up and down the same streets, through the same doors, seeing the same faces and idly flicking through the racks looking for inspiration and that unexplainable moment of joy when you find something new, interesting, or something you've been looking out for for months (or possibly even years, or decades)