Monthly Archives: February 2016

DAMN RIGHT I GOT THE BLUES…

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The Blues is a curious genre of music. It inspires incredible devotion from its often purist enthusiasts who rather scorn its transformation over the years into different variations – some of which, dare I say it have verged on popular and even pop.

It is nothing like as obscure as they might you believe and remains more accessible than other forms of similar duration such as jazz. So why is that?

I would hazard that it may be its universality but also that its reinvention and subsequent promotion has come from some of the most unlikely sources and therefore moved the game on without ever losing the simplicity of tale-telling and rawness of presentation.

The story of Mick Jagger meeting Keith Richards at Dartford station with an armful of blues LPs is particularly famous but it was the result of this chance meeting that not only saw the birth of the Rolling Stones but an appetite for Blues – tours would come featuring Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters throughout the 60s and 70s – that you would not  initially have expected to kick off in Kent.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, purveyors of some of the finest and bluesiest swamp-rock, came not from the Mississippi bayous but from California so should perhaps have had more in common with the Big Sur than Baton Rouge. Yet John Fogerty’s delivery was no less fervent or genuine.

Not everyone can have the locational credentials of BB King or even Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan but it’s not just the derivation of the sound; it’s the meaning and the emotion. It is a very human and personal type of music.

That still doesn’t really lessen the surprise of listening to Gomez’ “Bring It On” and realizing that they came from Matlock.

And that isn’t the only surprise because I kept thinking that this album was only five or six years old but came across a specially remastered 10th anniversary edition which had been released in 2008 – naturally I bought it again – but the mind plays terrible tricks.

Perhaps it’s because this record is incredibly timeless. Sure it updates the blues format with the use of effects and a bit of computer wizardry but it has the authenticity of any recording by say, Beck.

I could go as far as to say it may be one of the last winners of the Mercury Prize  that you might still feel the urge  to actually listen to. The earlier winners were much better mirrors on the time than the string of obscurities we seem to be treated to nowadays – obviously I am going to exclude the Arctic Monkeys, Elbow and the belting Franz Ferdinand.

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But back to “Bring It On”. It is a fine album of contemporary blues – telling fantastic stories of travels by their gang (“Whippin’ Piccadilly”) and an insight into a world that seems strangely exciting whether you are in  the Mississippi Delta or (in their case) mid-Derbyshire.

“Get Myself Arrested” is an excellent example of a blues story but miraculously transported to the here and now with the backing of their spooky box of electronic tricks and a bouncing reggae-ish backbeat. This theme is picked up by the excellent “Tijuana Lady” which has a real epic quality in its setting but with a subtlety that uses percussion as a rhythmic driver to paint us a picture in full vistavision of ‘mariachi desperadoes’.

The bonus disc has several excellent Radio 1 studio sessions where the excellence of their live performance really lifts tunes like “Rie’s Wagon” and this is replicated when you see some of their fantastic TV appearances especially on the thunderous opener “Get Miles”. I defy you not to be amazed when you hear the throaty voice come out of such an angelic looking singer. “Love Is Better Than A Warm Trombone” that has all the eccentric character of Matlock’s other great artistic contributor of current times – “This Is England” director Shane Edwards – and could easily be the soundtrack to “Once Upon A Time In The Midlands”.  A collaboration between the two would be delightful.

Gomez are a very difficult band to characterise – they sometimes sound like The Byrds, sometimes Beck and sometimes 13-era Blur but the most original flavour they bring is in the juxtaposition of the vocal styles they use, mixing soft with harsh and a smattering of effect-treated strains to develop an entirely original end-result  – try “Here Comes The Breeze”, which manages to sound like country and folk at the same time. Future Mercury winner Badly Drawn Boy was certainly listening to their genre bending style

The two highlights are the dreamy “Make No Sound” and the laser-sharp “78 Stone Wobble” with its “open-hearted surgery never works” refrain that captures all the latent aggression of Nirvana Unplugged.

Overall, it’s an enjoyable and overlooked album now – thanks Mercury – and is probably too esoteric to find itself at the top of anyone’s playlist but it is wonderfully expressive and originally constructed. It uses all its reference points and influences to terrific effect and rightly defines the category of Modern Blues.

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NO PRETENCE

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I know that sometimes Chrissie Hynde can come across now as a bit of a mad old goat, gripping her protests and eyeliner but there are two things of which I am certain, she may be strident but she is entirely sincere, and that no other front woman in rock apart from her contemporary, Debbie Harry, has come close to her in when she was in full swing.

And yes, I have heard of Janis Joplin.

The Pretenders had launched their first album at the end of 1979 and had after a slow build become the quintessential face of English New Wave even though their photogenic lead singer came from Akron, Ohio. “Brass In Pocket” had been a deserved number one single that honestly never really tires or dates and their first album was already being acknowledged as a classic debut.

It still is and critics never forget it.

Which is why I decided to dig out the equally accomplished “Pretenders II” released around eighteen months after its predecessor. The band seem by now to have found their groove and are less self-conscious of their influences, creating their very own distinctive sound that like all good ‘new-wave’ products – such as the Clash – weaved rock, soul, reggae together and topped it off with a very contemporary angular guitar. In truth, a track like “Bad Boys Get Spanked” manages to hold itself in place with a throbbing rockabilly rhythm track – check out Pete Farndon’s quiff and Martyn Chambers’ sideburns for added verification.

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Chrissie Hynde had been a music journalist and, as such, much of their output over the period of the first two Pretenders albums shows the band to have been willing students of the past but with the desire to create a fresh sound. Even the moody, half-lit cover, without a title and shot in tribute to early Stones albums, seemingly, made them appear the rival gang in town to The Clash.

Of course, the most notable example is the transformation of the previously dormant and little-known Kinks demo “I Go To Sleep” in which the band take the song and make it their own. It is dreamy, wistful, plaintive and utterly beautiful.

Small wonder, Ray Davies was to become so enraptured by his number one fan – they were soon to be officially a couple.

And allied to this was the intelligent writing (often humorous or acerbic) that so characterised New Wave albums but “Pretenders II” has insights as sharp as anything that Messrs Costello or Jackson may have produced at the time. “Pack It Up” is a perfect example of this with its taunts of poor trouser choice and an “insipid record collection” spat out at its sleazy target with real venom. Likewise “Waste Not Want Not It”, with its lolloping reggae swing has the customary anti-establishment sniping so common in records of the early eighties.

However, one of the most interesting characteristics of the album is the ability to take on the guise of various characters which you never really think of the Pretenders as being capable of. “The Adultress” and “Bad Boys Get Spanked” may have the kind of saucy ‘Readers Wives’ attitude but they are really flip sides of one another – male dominant and male subservient. If you’re looking to make an impact when you open an album that should do it .

“Jealous Dogs” is the kind of song that many newly successful bands turn out as they find that their world and the people they know have changed as their circumstances have. That said, it has a fantastic sharpness in its performance that really picks up the lash of the lyrics’ intent.

But not everything has such vehemence, as, like “I Go To Sleep”, there is also great sensitivity in tracks like the languid “The English Roses” and even the rather ordinary “Day After Day”“Birds Of Paradise” uses the kind of delightful jangling guitar harmonics that we would recognise later on “2000 Miles” though admittedly with Robbie McIntosh playing rather than hugely talented James Honeyman-Scott.

And of course, the tragic story of the death of Honeyman-Scott and Farndon following the release of this album is well-known and so makes the recording all the more important. There would be other successful recordings but it is in the first two albums where the sassy American and three guys from the rock ‘n’ roll capital that is Hereford (yes… Hereford), produced such a vibrant  and enjoyable legacy.

For me, aside from the astonishing Kinks cover, there are two other real highlights – the majestic “Message Of Love” – all angles and spikes – which is the most complete band performance and the sublime “Talk Of The Town”, which is a brilliantly written and performed track which would characterise a band that was completely at ease with its direction and composition.

Sadly, it was not to be.

And so there is always a little of the sense of ‘if only’…

Although they were without doubt one of the world’s hottest bands, they still sound like the best night out in your local bar. The Stax-esque closer, “Louie Louie” has all the garage good-time you would expect from the E-Street Band that’s for sure, complete with horns, glissando keys and stinging guitars.

Somehow, it is the second album that is the more pleasurable of the two – perhaps the Pretenders just knew what they were supposed to do and that success was possible for them – ultimately, not without casualties… but if you’re looking for fate-filled clues in this good-time album, you won’t find them. They may have been called the Pretenders but they were no fakes.

Ray Davies and Chrissie Hynde backstage at ABC TV show Fridays September 18, 1981 Hollywood Propect Studios

TRIAL AND ERROR

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Chances are that if in the 80s you favoured Miami Vice, a Ford model with an XR suffix or the wearing of an espadrille (guilty! – albeit a brief flirtation) then you probably owned a copy of Robert Palmer’s biggest selling album “Riptide” – released in late 1985.

Chances are that you probably didn’t buy either of his two previous albums – “Clues” or “Pride” but for this review to work, I need to refer to the pattern set by both of these previous recordings.

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Let’s start with the major plus point in that Robert Palmer was a truly innovative recording artist and was undoubtedly one of the first people to ally the new synthesiser sound with a more recognisable rock styling and a unique blues vocal. In the earlier albums, this had given us the claustrophobic classic  “Looking For Clues” and equally tense “Some Guys Have All The Luck”.

Of course, later in the decade everyone from ZZ Top to Van Halen were selling bucketloads by bringing previously ‘pretty-boy’ keyboards into their albums but Robert was trying this out long before the others. He had already made an interesting collaboration with Gary Numan in covering “I Dream Of Wires”.

There was no doubting that he walked the walk.

His other great innovation was championing some of the more underground electro dance sounds of the early 80s – largely thrust out of the mainstream by the “Disco Sucks” movement – and nowhere was this more prevalent than on his world-beating cover of “You Are In My System” which could still fill a floor even now.

On “Riptide”, the best example was the stunning cover of Cherelle’s “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On” which had been written by Prince disciples Jam and Lewis. It’s a sharp edgy recording that considering the singer came from Batley, had a thoroughly contemporary feel to it. It has long been over-shadowed by the ubiquitous “Addicted To Love” but I think it is a far more subtle and clever piece of experimentation.

Extra marks are given for such an under-stated and controlled vocal performance which heightens the implicit threat of the song.

And really we should deal with the elephant in the corner…

“Addicted To Love”.

Everyone knows this song and everyone knows its rightly famous promo film, beautifully directed by Terence Donovan, featuring the backing band of excruciatingly attractive band of identically dressed supermodels. Someone once observed that if you watch the film closely enough you can actually see Robert Palmer in it.

I think it’s a great song but I can’t be sure.

The reason is simple – it just can’t be divorced from its accompanying visual which is so regularly set up as an example of all that was glossy and flash about the decade that its familiarity diminishes the effect of the song on its own. You hear the first crash of snare and rattle of hi-hat and you see red lipstick and black dresses. It’s a natural response and don’t tell me I’m the only one.

It’s certainly a hugely powerful if unswerving groove the song delivers and this bears the mark of  Palmer’s earlier collaboration with the Power Station. It comes off on this track but the over-the-top production does rather swamp quite a part of the rest of the record. Tracks like “Flesh Wound” and “Discipline Of Love” lose a good deal of any charm they might have had between the drumming of Chic’s Tony Thompson – I suspect only John Bonham may have hit the skins harder – and the rock-god posturing of Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor. It makes these songs lack the subtlety that a song like the unnerving “Johnny And Mary” could produce so effortlessly.

However, he always had a knack for arranging an interesting cover and the electro syncopation of “Trick Bag” really highlights his fabulous blues delivery and produces plenty of light and shade that is lacking in some of the other tracks. Sure it has a very 80s sound now but somehow its off-kilter arrangement makes it much more listenable than I remember at the time.

Of course, the other element from Robert Palmer’s box of tricks is his love of crooning, which s something he does to excellent effect on the title track “Riptide” and the strangely charming ballad “Get It Through To Your Heart”. He was able to take the harshness out of his delivery and showcase much softer material – something he would do with greater frequency in subsequent recordings, of course.

Certainly it fitted his image seamlessly – as I think it’s fair to say no-one ever wore a suit as well as he did.

However, it does highlight the problems of the “Riptide” album in particular because whilst as an album closer it’s a pleasant antidote to some of the spikiness and bombast we’ve heard earlier but as an opener, it makes no sense whatsoever and listening now, rather spoils its effect.

So there you have all of Robert Palmer’s albums of this time – a ragbag of rock, dance, electro, new wave and of course, crooning. Therefore, none of them ever feel quite complete or a straight-forward listening experience as they dot from one style to another. I certainly wanted to enjoy “Riptide” when going back to it but it is an unsettling listen thirty years later.

But this is why we should always think of Robert Palmer’s work as important. He was far more innovative than he was ever given credit for. He defied categories and so, as a constantly evolving artist, in the true sense of the word, was able to give us truly incredible highlights out of his love for sonic experimentation.

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SOCK IT TO ‘EM J.B.

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In the midst of the sad losses of David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Lemmy, slightly blurred in the post-Christmas news cycle was the sad loss of The Specials’ drummer, John “Brad” Bradbury at the age of 62. This of course, followed the passing of their equally likeable trombonist Rico Rodriguez, earlier in the year.

The Specials have a very special (pun intended) place in the hearts of music fans. They ushered in the Two Tone movement that brought together the roots of ska and punk and created a sound and style that was a very British hybrid of influences.

And yet, when we look back, the Specials in the classic line-up were only really with us as a musical force for barely two years.

The first album, “The Specials”, is much loved and much played. It is, along with the first Selecter, Madness and The Beat albums,  the very definition of the UK Ska sound that swept the country at the end of the seventies. It was deliberately multi-racial, politically motivated and angry. All laced with dryness and irony. Very 1979.

Less discussed is the second album “More Specials” which is far more of an oddity and less easy to categorise. The ska influences are there but only sometimes as the album most certainly branches out into a huge number of areas and largely driven by the unique, manic and esoteric direction of founder, Jerry Dammers, who seemed to have soaked up a myriad of different themes – not least the lounge exotica of Esquivel and space-age meanderings of 60s producer and eccentric, Joe Meek.

I should, perhaps contrarily, start with the bonus disc – called “More Extra Specials” – which rounds up singles, B-sides and rarities covering the period just preceding the album’s release and the group’s demise in summer 1981. I kick off the review here because much of The Specials’ very finest work is here. Starting with Roddy Radiation’s acerbic “Rat Race” which bashes students and their “sacred college scarves” long before it became a recognised pastime.

There’s two brilliant BBC sessions of “You’re Wondering Now” and the rock n roll classic “Sea Cruise” led by the delightful Rico which capture the band at full throttle. Then the single-entendre politics of the cover of “Maggie’s Farm” which acts as a counterpoint to the anthem to decidedly average Britain “Friday Night Saturday Morning” – think Pulp’s “Common People” fifteen years earlier. It has all the dreary and dark details of Jarvis Cocker’s masterpiece.

However, despite all of these superb treats, none is finer than “Ghost Town” – presented in its full and little heard extended version The legend of the song and its timing with the Toxteth riots is only matched to its place in the band’s history when as Britain’s number one, they appeared on Top Of The Pops, tense, fraught and obviously at odds with one another and promptly split up backstage.

You may think it hugely familiar but because of its intricate layering, the record’s impact is never diminished. Its brooding violence portrayed as inertia – especially in the demented “yayaya” chorus of Rhoda Dakar. The full version just heightens the unique atmosphere of threat and tension set to a Clash-like dub backing and the echo of Rico on trombone.

It is rightly celebrated  because there has never been a 45 like it before or since.

Which brings us to the album “More Specials” itself which seems a contrast to their other ‘bonus’ work of the time which is taut and direct because it is a deliriously ramshackle affair, alternating between the more familiar ska of side one and the spooky space-capades of the reverse. This variety seems to be the manifestation of the competing attitudes that had broken out between the band at this time, which ultimately were to tear them apart.

To open, we are on familiar territory with a cover of the ska classic “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)” which in itself was a cover of an old 40s favourite – as so many bluebeat numbers were – this time by Guy Lombardo.

It’s interesting to compare its exuberance and laconic humour (“Hi I’m Terry… and I’m going to enjoy myself first”) with the far darker and slower closing version – backed by the GoGos – which is so obviously intended to be ironic. It also has a sense of finality about it – one more time and that’ll be it.

Interestingly, some of the songs bear the mark of a band who have come across success and has led them into a world they had previously not known. Perhaps the best example is “Hey Little Rich Girl” which has all the scorn of the Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” although “Stereotypes” has the kind of barbed observation of which Ray Davies would be proud.

That said the more rambling “Stereotypes Pt 2” is a lost stoner’s classic.

There are two vivid glimpses into the experimental psyche of Jerry Dammers as he produces two bizarre and discordant lounge part-instrumentals in “Holiday Fortnight” and, particularly “International Jet Set” designed so obviously to unnerve the unwitting listener – it feels like another of their rug-pull jokes.

“Pearl’s Cafe” is obviously designed to try and shock us with its punkish “it’s all a load of bollocks” refrain but it does backfire as a sort of childish attempt to be noticed and lacks the charm that the opening of the song seemed to hint at.

This is the only wrong footing however, and I would forgive just about anything for “Do Nothing” which was remixed with strings for its single release. It is a song that is as much a product of its time as “Ghost Town”. It is a song of boredom, desolation and hopelessness – which for Thatcher’s disenfranchised was probably all too accurate – but set to one of their best ska originals including another resounding Rico solo.

It also spawned one of the classic Top Of The Pops performances where just prior to Christmas the band all turned up in festive jumpers, chewed gum and looked as though they were the coolest gentlemen on the planet despite giving the production crew several heart attacks, not least by swapping their bassist, Horace Gentleman for the Beat’s Dave Steele – they were also appearing on the show.

The political nature of the time – this occasion, the Cold War nuclear threat – gives us one of the album’s real highlights in “Man At C&A” which has a real sense of musical apocalypse about it. It’s fiendishly sinister.

Finally, we should return to the subject that prompted this reappraisal, the sad death of John Bradbury, who with Horace Gentleman provided as tight a backing as you could get for a rhythm section. This was particularly noticeable on an album of so many differing styles and with such an obvious (but joyous) lack of organisation. Try the spirited Northern Soul cover of “Sock It To ‘Em J.B.” as an example of the dexterity of the Specials’ backline.

“More Specials” is a curious piece. It’s ragged and dangerous and obviously, in hindsight, carries the mark of a band stretched to their limits by two years of constant performance in studios, on screen and especially on the punishing road. Yet it has moments of real brilliance and moments of real peculiarity which makes it such an enjoyable listen after all these years. It also hints at the genius of Jerry Dammers and the lack of another true creative outlet for him in the coming years – made manifestly more obvious by his refusal to end the bitterness of the split and return for the reunion.

They were very Special after all.

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GRACE AND FAVOUR

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There’s that interesting parlour game of the people you would invite to your ideal dinner party and I normally reply Sandra Bullock and three waiters, which has sadly never yet come to pass.

However, this review will bring together the unusual conversational melange of Miss Grace Jones, Trevor Horn, Ian McShane and Terry Wogan. I doubt there will be too many awkward silences.

“Slave To The Rhythm” was always touted as one of the first multi-media commercial musical experiences – though really this is because she featured in an advertisement for the launch of the Citroen CX and they used her song as a soundtrack and clips from the commercial featured in her video, which doesn’t sound very multi-platform these days but was a piece of synchronicity, that was not that common in 1985.

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It’s actually a very exciting piece of film now let down only by the appearance of the car, itself. Ultimately, you can’t sell a poor product.

Most of her videos at the time were made by Jean-Paul Goude whose reminiscences of meeting Grace Jones were written in his book “Jungle Fever”. These were then recited as links interspersed in the album by the rich oaky tones of Ian McShane – an actor who seems to get better with age (Al Swearingen in “Deadwood” is one of the most masterly performances on TV in the last ten years) – though then he was at the height of his “housewives choice” bemulletted Lovejoy powers so was an even more surprising collaborator for all that.

There’s also excerpts from an interview with journalist, social commentator and ZTT collaborator, Paul Morley, in which Grace comes across as funny and approachable – a far cry from her then handbag-bashing public persona.

Indeed, the album cover, itself, which featured in the promo film was also intended to be a twist on her normally poe-faced presentation by turning her into a cartoon-like character.

Interviews, narration, product placement, image distortion. Just the right side of pretentiousness. So far, so far post-modern…

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However, the real twist comes in the fact that this album is really one song presented in many many different forms. It is a high-concept and whilst many of Trevor Horn’s productions are dazzling (and this no less so), the “Slave To The Rhythm” album is undoubtedly the piece where his imagination runs wildest. There’s the bangs, crashes, flourishes and drop-outs that we have come to see as his trademark but here spliced with more drama to create a musical autobiography of Grace Jones.

If there’s a criticism it’s that it’s not an album you can easily dip in and out of and some of it is plainly a bit of sonic showing-off; but  listen as it moves seamlessly from one mood to the next – some epic, some lilting – with repeated phrases and observations linking the fabric of the recording. There are some very Balearic touches in here – especially in “The Crossing (Ooh The Action)” and “Don’t Cry – It’s Only The Rhythm”.

It’s almost as if Grace Jones had decided that the world had completely the wrong idea about her and used Trevor Horn as her Boswell to put the record straight. She is obviously enormously alluring but no longer aloof, she is funny and intelligent – no longer the icy May Day! As Paul Morley expresses at the end of the recording, he has found her surprisingly unintimidating – and he’s right.

Of course, the final post-modern twist comes when you look for the track “Slave To The Rhythm” itself and are treated to a very different, harsher version from the familiar and epic single. Apparently, this has caught out several compilation makers over the years…

You’re looking for the sinewy “Ladies And Gentleman Miss Grace Jones” – a real panther of a record.

It’s the kind of contrary trick that an artist of the calibre of Grace Jones would play and I do love her for that.

Whilst the content both commercial, visual and musical were so hugely linked on this recording, it is to a separate presentation that I want to round off our story and where better than with Terry Wogan.

The sad departure of the genial broadcaster has brought a lot of worthy tributes to his warmth on Radio 2 for so many years or irony in dealing with the kookiness of Eurovision but it underplays a couple of his other notable contributions to music.

Firstly, in a world where much of today’s radio output is pre-programmed and focus-group validated, Wogan was a champion of music and an enthusiastic fan. Now I am not going to confess to being a supporter of Eva Cassidy or Katie Melua or many of his other easy-listening country/folky crossover favourites (I’m most definitely not) but he found them and he backed them and whether you agree or not, radio DJs should listen and inform their audiences’ tastes, take a genuine interest in music and happily introduce new options to them rather than just fill in between Simon Cowell’s latest shiny items for purchase.

He cared about the musical education of his listeners and we should not allow that to be forgotten. But it was not just on the radio…

“Wogan” from 1985-92, furthermore, was a hugely influential TV show which, whilst it greeted many of the world’s biggest stars, also supported and showcased a wonderful array of the music (from pop to rock to even indie) from the period. Many bands would choose to launch their new releases there and it was a much sought-after spot.

When the news of Terry’s passing came out, I immediately recalled my very favourite appearance on his show and it was “Slave To The Rhythm” by the beshrouded Grace Jones. Part-bonkers, part-cool but a wonderful use of the airtime to create a truly clever and memorable drama around the performance. Go with it – right through to the end… honestly, you’ll love her even more.

Here’s Grace!