Category Archives: Muso-Musings

ALWAYS GENTLE ON MY MIND

In the mid to late 70s, EMI suddenly seemed to realize that they were sitting on a goldmine and as a result, no UK household seemed to be without one of their omnipresent “20 Golden Greats” collections.

The three glossy red lips for Diana Ross and The Supremes; The guitar graphic for The Shadows; The surfer illustration naturally for the Beach Boys; The gritty black and white close-up of Frank Sinatra. These sold by the bucketload. Go on have a rummage in your parents’ loft and you’ll find one or other of them.

You might well also find a copy of Glen Campbell’s “20 Golden Greats” not a great sleeve for sure but two wonderful sides of black lacquer within. And you will be amazed how familiar the entire record is to you.

Sadly, as you will know he passed away yesterday.

So many of the tributes focus on his classics “Wichita Lineman” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” which are two of the most achingly sad recordings that it is small wonder that so many think so fondly of them. You can truly understand why they proved so hugely popular with soldiers posted far from home during the Vietnam War.

Now I may sound contentious here but I think it is easier for musicians to portray songs of emotional turmoil – after all many of their songs were kickstarted by some kind of trauma. So loss and anger are often called out as the stimulants for many of the world’s most adored tracks.

Joy is something that is much more difficult to make sound convincing and authentic. Pop’s nature can often bland out the attachment to the emotion. I believe firmly that Glen Campbell was one of the singers who could truly express a feeling of joy and human contentment that only the real masters (Presley, Sinatra etc)  ever attempt to attain.

For myself, nowhere is this better exhibited in Glen’s “Gentle On My Mind” – for those who have seen this already I apologize – but in other’s hands (try Dean Martin) it becomes something of a swagger – cocksure – yet here, it is an ode to a relationship of deep relaxed understanding that perhaps we all strive for in life.

And Glen knows it.

So whilst he was always capable of tearing your heart in two the success of his “20 Golden Greats” brought him back to the UK charts for a final time (at least when the charts meant something) and he gave us a similarly smile-laced version of Alain Toussaint’s beautiful but previously ghostly Cajun panegyric “Southern Nights”.

Again, you can here the genuine pleasure in its performance and it I can only delight.

Imagine that was your sole contribution to decorating the corridors of pop pageantry but Glen Campbell was one of the most celebrated session men – he was part of  ‘The Wrecking Crew’ for a while who played on many of America’s greatest pop songs.

That’s Glen on “Hello Mary Lou” by Ricky Nelson and on “Mary Mary” by The Monkees and on “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers and on “Help Me Rhonda” by The Beach Boys and on “Strangers In The Night”  (that’s right – “Strangers In The Night”) which became Sinatra’s mid-period theme song. Apparently, his then flower power hair and wardrobe rather offended the eye of The Chairman Of The Board but when he heard his guitar playing he was excused and later personally tipped!

Mid 70s EMI management have a lot to thank him for

He plays on the sessions for “Pet Sounds”, stands in for Brian Wilson when he could no longer tour and is brought into help out Elvis’s band with some wicked licks for one of his 60s best soundtracks (the film also featured Ann-Margret so it was a double winner in my book).

Oh and for good measure, he starred with John Wayne in “True Grit”… This was a man who walked with heroes.

There were some incredible highs and lows in Glen Campbell’s career and his late illness has been well documented but his contemporaries say that he musically he had the most natural ear and could immediately within bars pick up melodies, chord structures and amplify and improvise as if he had known it all along. His life may not have been pure but his musicianship most certainly was.

It is interesting that as Alzheimers took its toll on Glen, he became the most wonderful advertisement for the power of music where his muscle memory allowed him to remain note and pitch perfect.

His contribution is absolutely interwoven into the historical tapestry of some of the greatest music of the late 20th century and we should be forever grateful for a man who could so naturally convey the highs and lows that we sometimes so struggle to express.

LET’S CHANGE THE WORLD WITH MUSIC

ajemeswzrdoft0dzonq3

In the midst of an era of geo-political turmoil, it seems somewhat ‘lightweight’ even thinking about writing about old pop records but it is our first anniversary and for those of you who have loyally stuck by this ongoing trawl down memory lane, I felt I could not ignore you.

Interestingly, as I read back on some of the pieces I had written, I realised how important changing society was in the writing of so many of the pop classics we had known, loved and, of course – as was the premise of this blog – come to ignore nowadays.

We fed the world; we ran the world; we freed Nelson Mandela; we asked Margaret to stand down; we stopped clause 28.

We even went down to Gorky Park and listened to the Wind Of Change.

So much of what was capable of making us shake a leg at the school disco also seemed to give us an awareness of the greater world and how we might make an impact on it. While Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” raged against the Falklands War and Midnight Oil begged for the return of the Aboriginal homelands in the subtly menacing “Beds Are Burning”, even the awful “99 Red Balloons” by Nena acted a symbol of a nuclear ending none of us wanted.

So what’s happened?

Brexit, Trump, Duterte – the world wants change and majorities all over the world has told us so and whether right or wrong, the people have spoken. but who was singing?

It makes me wanna holler and throw up both my hands…

Our beloved soundtracks used to help guide us in more than just a bit of bedroom dancing or gloomy introspection, it begged us to think about more than just “the moon in June”. Of course, I’m not saying that there is no important music anymore but ‘messages’ are often moved to the fringes and often left to be therefore overly aggressive, without a mainstream following.

In the words of the incomparable Edwyn Collins, “there’s too many protest singers and not enough protest songs”.

So can the spirit of Dylan and Lennon, and believing that “Love is all you need” – or if not that another answer was perhaps “blowing in the wind” – perhaps now be recaptured by our musical heroes as they may at last feel they have something serious again to rail against.

How poor Bruce Springsteen must despair as, despite his urgings and clear Democratic leanings, his contemporaries once more misunderstand “Born In The USA” and use it for a wholly different purpose of exclusion and isolation that is so not the mantra that the humane Boss would want anyone to espouse.

Can we change the world with music, as one of my favourite artists, Paddy McAloon, once exhorted us to do?

I would like to think so but as music has become such a fragmented and individual expression of taste, it seems less easy to rally millions behind causes in the way that music in events or recordings did in the past.

live_aid3s

So whilst i do hope today’s major musical figures will not simply decide to focus on bling, boybands and bleeps, I fear that their efforts will not have the same effect as their eighties predecessors due to the fragmentation of channels through which it was previously easier to coalesce.

But let us not be down-hearted because voting patterns would show that the younger generations seem to be more open to a world of tolerance and diversity with far less discrimination than their seniors. We should all feel proud of that – our generation may have dabbled with espadrilles and mullets but we knew enough to take some important messages to heart and pass them on and that should hopefully keep Kanye West out of the White House.

Perhaps Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” leaves a far greater legacy than many Nobel Peace Prize winners.

In the meantime, music still has the power to change my world. It can still make me feel like laughing or crying, like winning or losing. I can feel liberated or enclosed – I can sing out loud or hum in my head but the power is there to make me feel different.

A great record can always make you feel like starting fresh all over again.

Exhibit A.

Bono said that “music can change the world because it can change people” and that being the case, in a period when so much has left us feeling uncertain, please head to the stereo and I guarantee there will be a positive response lurking in there somewhere.

So fear not, while there are remasters aplenty (and November 11th was reissue heaven so watch this space) and old records to hauled out of the loft, there will always be the ability to change the world with music and if you keep reading, I’ll keep trying to find things to keep making things feel brighter again.

Tomorrow never knows. Thank you for reading.

nena-99-luftballons-2

ONE NIGHT ONLY

770269c4a9567bededb78e9420dce08c

For those of us of a certain vintage, this year has seen several sad losses of the pop heroes from our yesteryears. Each one has brought back incredible visions from the old memory bank – “Starman”, “1999”, “September”, “Lyin’ Eyes”, “Me & Mrs Jones” to name but a few. All of these artistes can supply something from their catalogue to add to the poignancy of their passing and so add to the sombreness of the retrospection.

Not so, Pete Burns.

His work with Dead Or Alive was fast, furious and fun. No lilting ballads or mellow chill-out; everything they produced was at 300 miles per hour from start to finish. In only my last review, which looked at SAW and Mel & Kim, I had praised “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” for its breakthrough nature in taking the Hi-NRG Disco sound into the pop mainstream. It still remains one of the very best “getting ready to go out” records ever made and set the tone for everything the band ever produced. High-speed Goth Pop.

In case you think I’ve taken leave of my senses, just listen, for instance,  to the a remix of the excellent “Tower Of Strength” by the Mission and imagine  an SAW beat behind it – it’s not such big leap. Wayne Hussey Of The Mission had of course, been a member of Dead Or Alive so the Gothic connection is perhaps a fair one.

Whilst the previous single was never really ever surpassed by the band because it was simply so defining, I always had a soft spot for several of their other singles “In Too Deep”, “Brand New Lover” and especially “Something In My House” which really managed to conjoin the brightest of pop production with the darkest of vocal performances.

There was always something just a little bit crazy about all of their records – overblown and almost operatic – and they seem to reflect the larger than life persona of their singer. Legend has it that prior to stardom, while working in both fashion and record shops, he would throw out those customers with whose tastes his own did not align. His later career as a celebrity reality TV certainly backed up his reputation as sharply acerbic.

That said, his musical legacy ensures that there will not be moments of quiet self-reflection but simply of unadulterated full-on fun and that is surely the way Pete Burns would have wanted it to be.

However, his untimely death did make me recall the story of the Mystery Girls a band that performed once only in 1977 as a support band to Sham 69 in Liverpool’s legendary new-wave club, Erics.

This little-known band was made up of Phil Hurst (who you won’t recall) with Pete Burns, Julian Cope (later of Teardrop Explodes) and Pete Wylie (later of the various incarnations of Wah!). A veritable mad hatters tea-party of 80s pop if ever there was one.

But, boy did they produce some great records.

Julian Cope, who though based in Liverpool was actually the most famous pop-star from Tamworth, broke through first of all with his band The Teardrop Explodes. They produced two of the best singles of the 8os in “Reward” and “Treason” as well as the legendary “Kilimanjaro” album and then after one more release imploded under immense strain and so established the legendary mystery that surrounds the band still.

Since then, Julian Cope has just become gradually more bonkers turning from Scott Walker doppelgänger to silver medallist in a Worzel Gummidge look-a-like competition. His music would also become infinitely more experimental but periodically, amongst all the LSD, he was still capable of conceiving another incredibly polished pop performance, witness “The Greatness And Perfection Of Love”, the thumping “World Shut Your Mouth”, “Beautiful Love” and even the wonderfully psychedelic “Sunspots” (sadly no video I could find).

Julian Cope

Perhaps the nearest to a return to pop stardom came with “Saint Julian” in 1987 which preceded another drop into a creative abyss but did leave us with some fantastically loony outpourings of which “Eve’s Volcano (Covered In Sin)” – and I don’t need to go into the not so hidden meanings of all that – was always my favourite.

So with Messrs Burns and Cope in a group, one would imagine that there would be ego enough in there but there was also Pete Wylie, another purveyor of some of the best and most dramatic singles of the 1980s.

unknown

His band Wah! – later known as The Mighty Wah!, Wah! Heat and Shambeko Say Wah! amongst many others – were the first to gain critical acclaim with singles such as “Seven Minutes To Midnight” and were very much the darlings of the UK music press but couldn’t sell a record. Wylie, himself, was never backward in coming forward and made very bold pronouncements about his own talent.

He likewise was very much part of the Liverpool New Wave scene and had worked with Ian McCulloch of Echo & The Bunnymen and Ian Broudie of The Lighting Seeds in earlier groups before his one-off night in Erics as part of The Mystery Girls.

Wah! in all their guises hit on a fantastic formula of big orchestral numbers which would have Wylie’s heart-ringing and instantly recognisable vocals driving the emotion from the get-go. “Come Back” was the record of the year from John Peel in 1984 and “Sinful” was another big panoramic production two years later but it was “Story Of The Blues” that still sounds utterly rapturous – even with the Pt.2  Talking Blues version which has his rambling quasi-poetry over the backing track – a style he often enjoyed (even if his fans were less convinced).

Sadly, he was never able to bring any momentum into his career and so didn’t really capitalise on his undoubted talents except with a big hit every two years in the middle of the 80s and then not much. However, he would have one more big hit in partnership with The Farm and it is his unique counterpoint vocal that makes “All Together Now” the radio classic it deserves to be, because it manages to capture a mood of community that never descends into mawkishness. That said, there is an American version of the promo film that does its damnedest to drag it there – this one isn’t it.

One can imagine that the Mystery Girls were no great shakes and the one night together probably did little to set up the careers that were to come except that it is extraordinary to think of such talent all in one place. None of the three ended up making records like the others so it must have been quite an argument over the setlist.

No wonder they only performed for one night as I have doubt whether a big arena stage could have contained those enormous characters let alone the tiny but hugely influential Erics. Still, a top 20 from all three would make a heck of C-90.

gary-jones-outside-erics-gary-jones-flikr

THE PAST IS THE PAST (IS THE PAST)

absolute-beginners-british-quad-poster

I’m truly hoping that you all have had a chance to watch the excellent video-documentary “The Origin Of The Species” in which Keith Richards manages to be charming (much more so than in “Life”) and hugely wise in telling the story of his early life growing up in the rather grey world of post-war Britain. It uses fantastic editing and different video techniques to bring to life the various episodes of Keef’s early life long before he started Rolling with the Stones. It is engaging, warm and beautifully constructed.

This construction comes from breaking the conventions of normally biographical documentary story telling and has a pace and visual attractiveness that I suspect many are about to follow. I was not therefore, surprised to see that the director was Julien Temple, a long-time collaborator with the Stones and one of the pioneers of some of the most memorable moments of MTV history.

He had been the director of the Sex Pistols “The Great Rock N Roll Swindle” (and later “The Filth & The Fury”) often bringing social and political commentary into his work at a time when others were still chasing frothier pursuits. The once-controversial “Undercover Of The Night” may look tame now but succeeded in gaining the sort of front page notoriety from the more statesman like Stones they hadn’t seen in years because of its very strong political leanings and the use of guns – Mick’s mustache is still just as disturbing, however.

Of course, all this retrospection – together with the untimely passing of David Bowie – impelled me to re-investigate the 30th Anniversary version of Temple’s “Absolute Beginners” – the film that allegedly wrecked the British Film Industry and destroyed Goldcrest, which rather unfairly erases the respective roles of the unwieldy and bloated “Revolution” and “The Mission”.

Nevertheless, it was launched in 1986 after huge hype and sank like a stone amidst some very unpleasant critical vitriol. I know I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Time to revisit the film and its soundtrack.

Honestly, it’s still significantly flawed but much more interesting than I remember and in parts, hugely enjoyable. Perhaps because we end up looking at the past while it is, itself looking at the past, it seems to throw up a lot of discussion points that say so much about now, about then and about the time the film is set.

Firstly, one of the criticisms of the film is that it feels like a bunch of pop promos stitched together, which is using the director as a soft target. In actual fact, the disjointedness of the film seems to have come from the fact that the distributors became so nervous about getting the film out that they used four separate editors at once, all working on different sections of the film, having basically fired Temple and his production team.

But the film does look fabulous and there are some wonderful set-pieces in it that are a triumph of lighting and art direction. David Bowie in the “That’s Motivation” sequence is particularly striking, tap dancing in a Busby Berkeley number on top of the world and a giant typewriter. Indeed, the incredible long sweep opening shot of the sizzling and seedy quadrant of Soho, made such an impression on one of the film’s most famous Transatlantic fans (and her brother) that she used Temple to recreate it for one of the great (and certainly one of my favorite) pop promos of the period.

On reflection, the original from the film is still better.

At the heart of the film’s problems is a lack of chemistry between the two leads. Eddie O’Connell (better than I remembered) and Patsy Kensit (though still tigerishly smouldering, is far worse – “I’m Not Scared” with Eighth Wonder  was just around the corner, to restore her place in my poor benighted heart). In truth, she seems bizarrely better suited with the elderly James Fox as the effete Henley of Mayfair and that basically kills the entire premise of love’s labour found.

From this flaw though,  the film never truly recovers, so we’ll park that.

1440886640487

Because there is much else to enjoy and Temple’s fascination for the era of Be-bop London and subsequent attention to detail should not be over-looked. Admittedly, there were significant liberties taken with Colin Macinnes’s original novel – and that of course alarmed many of its devotees – but this was a musical, made at a time when nobody made musicals – over 15 years since “Oliver” and roughly the same period before “Chicago” with only the anomaly of “Grease” in the way, and no stage-show libretto to work from.

What’s even more interesting is that this period of tremendous racial tension which resulted in the fierce Notting Hill riots in the summer of 1958 should provide inspiration but this film comes from a time only a matter of months from its own significant tension which had struck many of Britain’s multi-cultural inner cities. Temple certainly wanted to make his views well known on the tension and his feelings against the strong and unpleasant undercurrents that were dividing society still. Steven Berkoff is made that terrifying for a reason.

The 80s never ceases to surprise me, looking back, as how welded the music scene was in the desire to change outmoded societal patterns and this film attempts to take nearly all of them on – how do you think Paul Weller gets to be involved. Would we even think pop music had such power nowadays?

Oh and it’s a musical, don’t forget.

Perhaps the place to start is David Bowie. He looks utterly fantastic in this movie – every shape he pulls is designed for a record sleeve; the slick haircut, the electric blue suit. It is virtually impossible (as with every appearance he ever made) to take your eyes off him and yet (and I hate to say this) he simply is not that good an actor. Or maybe he is just too big a star to be anything other than the magnificent David Bowie.

After that sacrilege, let me redeem myself. Aside from the chronologically accurate version of “Volare” which is probably his first attempt at humour since “The Laughing Gnome”, Bowie delivers a title track from the very top drawer. “Absolute Beginners” comes from one of his least celebrated periods (“Blue Jean” had been directed by Temple) and yet may well be one of the most poignant and romantic songs he ever produced. There is a real sense of fragility and delicacy despite its big orchestral riff that keeps re-occurring throughout the soundtrack.

Of course, Bowie himself was very much a product of the late 50s, growing up in Bromley and Temple is very keen to give an authentic flavour to the whole proceedings. You’ll see other veterans of the period,  Sandie Shaw and Mandy Rice-Davies in charming little cameos (which is another of the enjoyable aspects of the film) as well as Lionel Blair appearing as Bobby Charms, the thinly veiled caricature of 60s pop impresario, Larry Parnes.

The lovingly recreated 2i’s coffee bar, street skiffle bands and even the rockabilly bomb site belter from Edward Tudorpole (better known to us as Tenpole Tudor) all give an added authenticity to the visual landscape that the film seeks to create.

Unlike Bowie, Ray Davies, whose own career had had an unexpected early 80s boost through his nostalgic video hit “Come Dancing” – also directed by Temple – seemed to put in a much more credible performance as Colin’s put-upon father. This whole section feels absolutely like a pop promo and in many way a separate entity from the rest of the film but it was directed produced and finished before the rest of the film was even begun as the backers wanted something ready to start to drum up interest with the trade and further investors. It is very much a latter-day Davies slice of life vaudeville number which seems to have become his default composing style.

And if you look closely – there’s Bruno Tonioli, as a Maltese lodger!

The soundtrack however, is the most interesting part of the package. There is a genuine attempt to capture the multi-cultural nature and timeline of the story with reggae, be-bop, ska, rockabilly, pop and of course, jazz. So whilst Smiley Culture toasts his way through Miles Davis’ jazz classic “So What” , the whole piece is welded together by British jazz veteran Gil Evans and this provides a considerable amount of drama to the proceedings especially in its “West Side Story” style gang fights.

However, it really is reflecting an interesting musical genre of the mid-80s which was Jazz-Pop (or Sophisti-pop, as I’ve hideously heard it referred to) and it was  perhaps best exemplified by the original vision of The Style Council and Paul Weller in his “Cappucino Kid” guise with his beatnik musings and hep-cat stylings.

Weller was of course a huge fan of Colin Macinnes’s novel and had written a different song called “Absolute Beginners” during his days in The Jam and his espousing of its virtues as a piece of key literature for the cognoscenti of the post-New Wave world had indeed led to the level of expectation that surrounded the film on its launch. Naturally, he was keen to add to the soundtrack and re-wrote one of the previous year’s “Our Favourite Shop” (a real jazz-pop cabaret piece) stand out tracks “With Everything To Lose” and re-christened it “Have You Ever Had It Blue”. Like Bowie, the film and its closeness to his heart, created a forlorn romanticism that had often been uncalled on in Weller’s more politically directed work of the time. Aside from a bass effect which rather dates the track badly, it still stands as one of his highlight tracks from this (or for me any) period of his career, even if it has, probably because of the film, been one of his least celebrated.

Of course, the film’s intention was to recreate the Jazz Clubs of 50s London but this was also the scene for 80s London. I remember spending late nights in Ronnie Scotts as the mecca of this type of musical movement and hearing several of the characters old and new  who would feature on the soundtrack. Working Week give us “Rodrigo Bay” and Jerry Dammers the frenzied “Riot City” while Charlie Parker veteran Slim Gaillard gets the joint jumping with the belting “Selling Out” lending it all a real sense of authenticity.

The song and performance that perhaps bridges the three decades best is Sade (who appears as the wonderfully named Athene Duncannon) performing a rare track “Killer Blow”, which is as rich and languid as any of her more familiar work and could well have stood out on any of her albums. Her performance is cat-like and screen-filling, which is impressive as she has no dialogue at all. It is another of the key scenes that seems to capture the very essence of the world, Temple wanted to recreate.

Of course, it is a fascinating period piece and particularly interesting when you then compare it to films from the late 50s such as “Sapphire” or “Flame In The Streets” which try to confront an issue that Britain of the time was not at all comfortable with. What you realize is that Temple was of the belief that things had not really improved that much in three decades and looking back, are our divisions much improved now?

51lsxoneutl-_             mpw-59517

The be-bop cool of London in the 80s which had started at places like The Wag Club never really took off after this movie but did transform into the deliberately more cultish and more authentic Acid Jazz. Perhaps it’s problem lay in being simply too Soho-based. The Style Council would certainly decline significantly before splitting up three years later with its vision rather lost in the new world of raves and house.

So, thirty years later, as I finish the film and the soundtrack again, I find myself a defender for everything the film set out to do. It was brave to the point of reckless in combining a conventional boy meets girl story amongst a wealth of social commentary for both its 50s protagonists and its 80s audiences, but in a genre that really had been left unattempted for many years.

The music is still vibrant, the lighting is incredible and the film looks fantastic. Its attention to detail – with the exception of using a bridge that didn’t open for another ten years or so after the film’s setting – puts many period pieces to shame. “Absolute Beginners” was accused of bringing down Goldcrest and the entire British film industry – both of which are untrue – but if it did, it wasn’t through syphoning off the investment because it is all there up on the screen.

If you revisit the film and soundtrack, do as the director would urge and put your prejudices to one side. As we are led to believe this is not a perfect world (and there’s Patsy Kensit’s performance to remind us of that) but if the film is really a failure, then it is a glorious and brave one.

2is

SIMPLY THE BEST???

2000px-RBD_-_Greatest_Hits.svg

There are many excruciating musical moments in the lifespan of North Norfolk Digital’s mid-morning radio host, Alan Partridge. The octave-dropping key-change in his Abba duet, the frankly astonishing rendition of “Wuthering Heights” and of course, his enduring belief that Wings were only the band that the Beatles could have been.

But more painful than even these near-fatal blows was the follow-up to the Wings assertion when he was asked what his favorite Beatles album was and he replied that he would have to say “The Best Of The Beatles”. Music lovers and, especially keen students and archivists like myself, winced the world over.

Admit it, your favorite album is never a “Best Of…”, a “Greatest Hits” or a “Golden Hour” and yet almost without exception they are an assembly of the highlights of an artist’s career – often driven by the successes of individual songs.

Surely that would outweigh any one-off offering.

Years of assembled high-points as opposed to a moment-in-time edition of material.

You would think not.

The album experience seems to have so much more for us to enjoy – its associated memories from first hearing to  inevitable purchase, its artwork created to signify the mood of the artist around the work, even the sequencing of the tracks could affect your view of an artist’s latest release. This piece of work may delight you or disappoint you – it started off unknown and then returns to you like an old friend, laden with stories of its acceptance into your listening circle.

A “Best Of…” is just that. There should be no risk, no real exploration. It is supposed to be familiar and deliver an inarguable experience about that artist’s supposedly most recalled work.

But I think to believe this entirely is to be too much of a musical snob and for me, there are several examples that disprove this theory and where a compilation does more for an artist than any of their lovingly-created yet perhaps less enduring long-players.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 4.14.23 PM

I’m sure for most of you growing up in the 70s, the 20 Golden Greats of The Beach Boys, The Shadows and Diana Ross & The Supremes were regular fixtures in parental record collections and by and large they are pretty faultless. They are collections of their biggest hits, their most successful songs and best selling singles and – “Pet Sounds” and “Smiley Smile” notwithstanding – these were bands whose best work was achieved at 45rpm and what could be better than assembling them altogether into one value-for-money listening experience.

They are also successful because there is very little experimentation and very little stylistic difference from beginning to end. Of course, the recordings mature and provide light and shade (that after all is why they sold consistently in their millions) but ultimately the Shadows focus on the masterful sonic twang of Hank Marvin, the Supremes is velvety preening soul and the Beach Boys are majestic vocal harmonies.

For sure, a collection of classic 45s can be a definitive representation of an artist for whom that was really their most representative milieu – step forward Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons or even the unimpeachable Temptations – but that’s not always the case.

Let’s look at the giants – The Beatles and The Stones. There is no doubting the comprehensive nature of “1” in capturing all 27 of The Beatles transatlantic number one singles, nor indeed the quality of the material contained in there but I doubt it is as interesting a listening voyage as unraveling “Revolver” or simply smiling all the way through “Hard Day’s Night”. One is deliberately experimental – trying out new sounds and techniques – the latter, the first all self-written of their long-players. There is an artistic  richness and a vision contained in these original releases that can never be achieved in a compilation’s history lesson.

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 12.42.38 PM

For The Stones, the effect is perhaps even more startling as the band that produced angry mod-ish R’n’B like “Get Off Of My Cloud” was very different to the hippyish experimenters of “We Love You”, the disco denizens of “Miss You” or even the plaintive contemplators of the excellent “Streets Of Love”. It’s an interesting historical journey but for me, simply doesn’t have the artistry of “Beggars Banquet” or the shock of “Some Girls”. Actually, they also make the experience slightly more unsettling by including (fairly ordinary and forgettable) new purpose-made material into their classic historical compilations – both “Forty Licks” and the 50 year anniversary “Grrrr” could easily have done without the inclusions from their less relevant modern-day selves. I would far rather they got together and made a full new album to vet and consider.

That said, when both were still predominantly 45s bands in the mid-60s , they were capable of producing interesting atmospheric and tighter compilations that will have sounded as rounded and complete as any of their regular LP releases of the time.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 5.33.19 PM

So compilations can work well when they cover a shorter lifespan of the artist – where the changes are not so marked and therefore the experience is not jarring but has more of the integrity of an original album. So a contemporary release while the band is still at the height of their powers can be equally interesting – an example of this would be a release like “Sladest” which came out in 1973 when Slade were in the middle of a seemingly indestructible run of hits. The band themselves, (like Madness with the excellent “Complete Madness”) used it almost as an opportunity to draw a line under their work so far – a mid-career pause as they purposefully strode off to explore pastures new.

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 12.33.21 PM

That said, now that I am more familiar with both bands’ works, I would much rather chew over “In Flame” or “The Rise And Fall”.

So, putting the obvious Singles aggregators to one side, can a compilation really ever transcend an artist’s regular releases?

I believe so and you only have to look at the two Daddys of both Bob Marley’s “Legend” and Abba “Gold” to realize this. Both artists made fine albums – Marley’s run of “Uprising”, “Kaya” and the mighty “Exodus” are exceptional and yet it is to “Legend” that even regular listeners return simply because everything you could ever really want is here. The experience is seamless and hugely enjoyable. It’s rightly titled.

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 12.38.29 PM

As for Abba “Gold”, I personally think that there albums were always a bit hit and miss – although they all improve as their careers progressed especially the excellent final album “The Visitors” (maybe a later subject for this humble blog) but again all you really need is the compilation – there are very few highlights excluded (though it does have the nails down a blackboard of “Thank You For The Music”).

That said I think there will be very little debate about either of these inclusions not least because they have continued to sell by the bucketload in every single format and combination ever since their original releases.

There are however, some less obvious compilations which for me transcend any of the artists other work and feel like a tailor-made collection in their entirety. You may like to investigate these five further.

71zfQep16nL._SL1056_

I’ve written about Grace Jones before and my admiration for her talents have been expressed already. However, perhaps because of her desire to experiment, her regular albums can come across as a little uneven – not everything she attempts, works straight off the bat. However, with “Island Life”, all her best slinky grooves and accompanying subterranean rhythms are assembled to produce an entirely satisfying off-beat album that really does better anything else she has put together. “Private Life” blends into “Love Is The Drug” which lopes into the tango beat of “I’ve Seen That Face Before” and all before you’ve even hit “Pull Up To The Bumper”. Sensuously slick.

 

R-65429-1393398691-3048.jpeg

Perhaps because Disco is genre that really did focus on singles rather than albums, the compilations seem to far outweigh any of the individual albums that were often littered with filler tracks of truly limited memorability. The Queen of Disco, Donna Summer, actually regularly attempted to make more conceptual album recordings and, with “Bad Girls” in 1979, made one of the very finest of its type. However, but 6 months later, the highlights of that album (including “Dim All The Lights”, “Sunset People”, “Hot Stuff” and the title track itself) were put together in a segued compilation of her best work to date which included her Giorgio Moroder classics (“I Feel Love” included) and the relentless eleven and a half minutes of “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Barbara Streisand. Superb fun, continuously sequenced and so guaranteed to get any party started – even the less familiar sound like you’ve known them forever.

 

51RxZh88WwL._SX300_

Honestly, I feel a bit of a ‘pseud’ putting this album down but I came across it quite by accident and have played it constantly ever since. There are several who have tried to interpret Jacques Brel’s dark catalogue, including David Bowie and Marc Almond but none beat this. Scott Walker was one of THE pop idols of the mid-60s in the Walker Brothers but found his good looks and teen stardom at odds with his desire to be more musically experimental and delivered several solo albums in the late 60s – imaginatively titled Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4. The fact is that nothing on any of these albums are as strong as the material he borrowed from the Belgian genius and often he tries to copy them with limited success. But when he kicks off… Pow! “Jacky” Biff “Mathilde” Bang “The Girls & The Dogs”. He can spit out the lyrics with all the sardonic knowingness of their author.

 

61pT+7vH1HL

Of course, everybody is a Nick Drake expert nowadays but anyone who tells you they were a fan at the time is probably a big fat liar as he tragically sold probably no more than 20,000 copies of his three albums in his lifetime. This is exactly what it says – a wonderful introduction to the work of one of the most startlingly original singers and writers. The fact is that he was tragically overlooked during his short career and the popularity for his poetic aural landscapes only emerged nearly two decades after his sad demise. His three albums are all exceptional so my reason for inclusion on this occasion is simply based on quantity. His albums particularly the dark “Pink Moon” were notoriously short and put simply, it’s just more pleasurable to have more Nick Drake to listen to without having to change the disc. Here are the four seasons of England etched in vinyl – sometimes bleak, sometimes bright and always profoundly moving.

 

Oasis-stoptheclocks

Famously, compilations are often bundled together by unsympathetic record executives to complete contractual obligations – a rush-release for Christmas markets for instance. Accordingly, their subjects often dissociate themselves from them. However, when Oasis ended their relationship with Sony, Noel Gallagher decided that rather than just let the record company butcher their canon, he would select their best work, himself.  Consequently, it’s not a greatest hits but really a greatest songs – so we have much more from the first two albums of their career, a couple of later inclusions and nothing thankfully from the overblown “Be Here Now”. Chart-toppers such as “The Hindu Times” (a song I simply cannot recall ever to hum the melody) and the Blur runner-up “Roll With It” are deemed not fit for purpose. Instead, at the very height of their powers, Oasis were writing better B-sides than most other acts could put out in their entire recording lifetimes and it is a delight to welcome “The Masterplan” and “Acquiesce” for instance – rather than the derivative “Whatever”  -into a listening experience which allows them to stand alongside wonderful non-singles such as “Champagne Supernova”. It;s undoubtedly a brave move but Noel really curates Oasis in their pomp… If they could only have always exercised such wonderful quality control. And you get a beautiful Peter Blake cover.

As always, I am determined to put sounds you might have forgotten out there but in truth, a compilation is always the best way to introduce yourself to a band. I’ve never found the desire to listen to anything other than the “Best Of The Eagles” when you need a little California easy rock in your day and no matter how many albums they produce nothing is as good as their selected highlights. As something like 1 in 7 of the worlds households have an Eagles compilation it’s not really worth analysis by me – however popular.

So to look down on listeners who simply prefer highlights is musical arrogance of the worst  kind – at least they ARE listening. The disappointment is not to follow up with further exploration but even that isn’t for everyone.

Nor always wise…

The key difference is that more often than not a compilation is the dream child of a marketing executive looking to cash in on an artist’s popularity whilst a regular long-player more often than not has the love and attention of its instigators running through every aspect of it and so can tell us more of the mood of its authors or reflect its surrounding atmosphere. An album is an historical artifact and so has all the joy of living history rather than an exhibition, where the story has often already run its course.

But honestly, as long as you keep listening, I don’t care…

hqdefault

ALEXANDER NEVERMIND

maxresdefault

It seems extraordinary that barely three months since we were mourning the passing of David Bowie, the other great pop chameleon, Prince, should so unexpectedly depart. The media is already full of retrospectives and discussions about one of the undoubted masters of pop. I use pop in its broadest term as, like Bowie, here was a man who could fuse genres in a key change – part-rock, part-soul, part-funk, part-disco and always pop.

For what it’s worth, my favorite album is the unusual “Around The World In A Day” which in true Prince style followed quickly after the all-consuming global success of “Purple Rain” and took a complete sidestep from what had only months before turned him into a global superstar. It confused some audiences but I absolutely loved its lush orchestrations, its stunning cover and all-round psychedelic vibe – especially ints three hippy trip singles – “Paisley Park”, “Raspberry Beret” and my favorite of all his songs “Pop Life”.

Interestingly, if you’re looking for clips of Prince to show your tribute to him you’ll find them few and far between as disputes with his publishers and his record companies have necessitated much of his excellent and inventive broadcast material being pulled down.

This actually presented me with the ideal opportunity to talk about Prince’s considerable prowess not as a performer, which all of us who have seen him can gladly attest, but as a songwriter.

Prince was incredibly prolific and this ability to turn out material had the power of unsettling his audience but all artists should be provocative and the simple movement from the dance floor vibe of “1999” to the rock/pop of “Purple Rain” and then to the psychedelia of “Around The World In A Day” and the sparseness of “Parade” all occurred in a four year period. During this time, he also toured the world and made two movies. He never settled on a definable style and this genre-hopping allowed him to experiment constantly.

Everyone, will therefore have a period they prefer to somebody else’s but at an initial rate of nearly an album a year, there was little doubt that something you would enjoy from his canon would come along at some stage.

However, this paucity of existing promo material to put in front of you led me to consider the fantastic material he was able to pass on to other artists. A considerable amount of course, went to his Paisley Park coterie and here he was able to extend his band’s more recognizable sounds but always with an added twist.  Whilst some preferred Wendy & Lisa or Apollonia 6, I personally always loved the dance floor beat of the work he did with his sultry percussionist, Sheila E – highlights being the duet of “Erotic City” (a B-side to “Lets Go Crazy”) is a real unplayed classic (except in Newcastle nightclub “Julies”) that hinted at what would come in the excellent “LoveSexy” era and especially, “A Love Bizarre”.

Over the years, Prince took on a variety of pseudonyms to present material to other people – so while we all know that famously he wished to change his name from Prince during his Warner Bros dispute, he also presented himself as Christopher Tracy, Jamie Starr and Camille amongst others.

In the same way, that he took on different soubriquets, he was also able to switch genres almost effortlessly either in his writing style or in creating songs that would simply allow variation and interpretation.

He had written two UK number one singles, the haunting “Nothing Compares 2 U” for Sinead O’Connor and the comparatively under-rated “I Feel For You” by Chaka Khan, several years before he finally achieved his only UK number one under his own steam, the majestic “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World”. All three of these will doubtless attract a lot of tributes in the coming days and weeks.

I also witnessed an absolutely inspiring cover version of “Purple Rain” by The Waterboys which really did play perfectly to their concept of the ‘Big Music’. But my favorite remains the track he wrote as Christopher, originally for Apollonia, but to enormous success for the Bangles – “Manic Monday”.

Legend has it that Prince was in the UK appearing (rather bemused) at the 1985 Brit Awards in London where he won the first of his six awards – famously, he strode with a huge entourage of bodyguards swiping all before them to deliver a four word speech – and caught up with the other overseas visitors to the show, The Bangles while they were traveling back on Concorde and slipped them a demo cassette of two songs of which this is one. At the time, they had not really broken through, this was to be their big chance and so they reinvented the song with some baroque touches and the rest is history.

Prince simply loved what he did – he loved music. He loved performing and he loved writing – that will feature in all of his tributes. But he was also enormously generous with his talents and affected the careers and breakthroughs of so many other artists as well.

Sadly, we lose another of “The Beautiful Ones”.

628x471