Monthly Archives: April 2016

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

IMPORT EXPORT

51z8TPXXdGL

One of the joys of ‘Top Of The Pops’ was that it simply didn’t discriminate. Punk, Ska, Disco, Novelty,  Metal and even FA Cup winners would appear. The show simply reflected the unusually varied taste of the UK record-buying public. Around the turn of the 80s was undoubtedly one of the most mixed with the 2-Tone explosion, Brit-Funk, the New Romantics, Disco medleys and even Captain Sensible from The Damned with a cover of “Happy Talk” from 50s musical “South Pacific”.

Quite extraordinary.

I have been enjoying viewing some of these episodes recently on BBC iPlayer and watching Motorhead follow Spandau Ballet who in turn have Siouxsie & The Banshees, Kim Wilde and Stars on 45 in quick succession. Sleepless nights in Tokyo don’t have to be spent gazing wistfully from a whisky bar like Bill Murray in “Lost In Translation”.

However, there is a musical movement that is never covered or mentioned but seems to constantly have a place in virtually every episode and in truth has much to answer for. The Great British public of the time seemed to have an obsession with a rock ‘n’ roll revival.

Sounds cool doesn’t it?

Except it gave us “Do the Hucklebuck” by Coast To Coast, “Rama Lama Ding Dong” by Rocky Sharpe & The Replays and several singles by Darts – all decent enough disposable pop but really just pre-teen pop primer material. It also left us with over half a decade of Shakin’ Stevens and no matter how I try, I can never find anyone willing to own up for taking part of the responsibility for this musical injustice.

However, there was a strand of this revival that was a lot more genuine and rootsier. Matchbox possessed genuine rockabilly credentials, despite coming from deepest Middlesex, having toured with Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry. They created an authentic sound and certainly looked like a bunch of old rockers even then but then rather blotted their copybook with an awful version of “Over The Rainbow” that was so obviously targeted at the Christmas number one slot that no subsequently accurate Buddy Holly tribute could compensate.

I blame Shaky for their demise as well – thinking it was what rockers needed to do to succeed.

However, much of the rockabilly interest had come out of the post-punk world. The Clash after all, had adapted much of the look and never failed to show their appreciation of the style – “Brand New Cadillac” was a powerful cover of original British rocker Vince Taylor’s belting original. There were, to my recollection more Teds than Punks in circulation at the turn of the decade.

Thus was born, a genuine British cool rockabilly band, The Polecats, who had all the attitude of punk but ears of 50s Memphis – it’s best demonstrated in two fantastic covers of Bowie’s “John I’m Only Dancing” and T-Rex’s “Jeepster” which remain faithful yet inventive at the same time (Bowie himself approved). Interestingly, their then teenage guitarist, Boz Boorer would go on to join Morrissey’s band and act as Musical Director, giving a rockabilly sensibility to several of Moz’s albums – especially “Your Arsenal”.

But the most interesting and successful story has to be that of The Stray Cats.

First of all, they were American and therefore, the real deal. They oozed authenticity with their tattoos, quiffs and Gretsch guitars but allied it to a very punk attitude. They even sounded right – Brian Setzer (couldn’t be more New York) but add Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom and you knew you were going to get exactly what it said on the tin.

They had formed in New York and were well known on the club circuit for their high-octane brand of rock ‘n’ roll that managed to sound surprisingly current.

And this is where it gets interesting; because in order to make their breakthrough they headed not to Memphis or Nashville but instead across the Atlantic to London where they came to the attention of Dave Edmunds, a passionate aficionado of rock ‘n’ roll and then a big name, himself. He had come from that other musical strain that had influenced this revival – pub-rock –  as a solo artist and with his collective, Rockpile. He had long history of involvement with authentic rock n roll having recorded “I Hear You Knocking” and then turned into a sometime producer.

The result was explosive.

The lead single “Runaway Boys” might be hugely familiar but it has all the sass of a Clash single. You can hear the rebellion pressed into the vinyl in a far more convincing way than some of their seemingly more credible contemporaries. There’s an electrifying guitar solo and all backed by the stripped down rhythm section. It was no pastiche but a thunderous piece of genuine rockabilly.

The theme would be picked up in the next single, the equally dynamic “Rock This Town” another tale of youthful revolt though more hedonistic than its threatening predecessor.

However, rockabilly has traditionally been very much a 45s driven genre, classic albums are few and far between and, in truth, the first Stray Cats album suffers a little from that. Whilst “Jeannie, Jeannie, Jeannie” is a faithful Eddie Cochrane tribute, “Fishnet Stockings” and “My One Desire” simply have less bite than the more famous numbers – still at least it’s not Shaky.

But the album does have several more interesting songs to analyze. The first can only be termed Republican Punk which is “Storm The Embassy” a very new wave-like piece of political polemic urging the breaking of the then current siege of the US embassy in Teheran. Listening now it seems eerily reminiscent of some present-day exhortations emanating from the American political stage. In 1981, this seemed in keeping with the rebel nature of the band but raised very few eyebrows – I suspect this now would have caused their record label to take on more than just a little added security.

During this period, having seen the release of “Quadrophenia”, we also witnessed the Mod revival, as the seaside towns of Britain were once more invaded by scooter-riding hordes of Secret Affair fans. Doubtless watching from their new digs in England, Setzer and the band wrote what is almost certainly the only anthem for the Mods’ sworn enemies, the Rockers, with “Rumble In Brighton” – a surefire leather-clad call to arms for the less publicized opponents in the Bank Holiday skirmishes.

A peculiarly English obsession documented by a very American band – curiouser and curiouser.

Despite some of the rockabilly tracks not really cutting through, there are some interesting stylistic tryouts such as “Ubangi Stomp” an old 50s classic which is laden with a jittering nuttiness that carries something of a ska lilt. “Wild Saxophone” on the other hand has all the big band, jump-blues energy that would mark the rebirth of Setzer’s career with the Brian Setzer Orchestra in the mid-90s – it’s pure Louis Prima.

Indeed, Setzer would often return to his Stray Cats material and repurpose it for his big band sound to great effect – “Rock This Town” being a particular beneficiary. In his career, he would often switch between swing band leader and rockabilly rebel and I am still none the wiser as to which he enjoyed the most. They are related but very very different as one depends on a full lavish sound and the other is pared back to the basics.

Of course, he has also tried this trick with the third of the album’s big singles the eponymous “Stray Cat Strut” but really it loses the sleazy subtlety of the original. This is a fantastic sounding 45 that lopes along with an undisguised swagger peppered with razor-sharp guitar licks – he would prove to be a real guitar great as the years rolled by, much admired by his contemporaries as a pure and intuitive player.

It may well be a pop song but this is what good pop should be memorable, different and fun.

The problem as I said earlier is that great rock and roll in all its early forms be it doo wop, boogie-woogie, jump blues or rockabilly was always at its best in short slugs that were no more than two and a half minutes long. To be this authentic over a full album is a rare feat from the Stray Cats and worth reinvestigating accordingly – certainly none of the other quick burst luminaries of the movement managed it.

Sadly, their appeal didn’t last to a second album which followed quickly but bombed even more quickly. The material likewise, (perhaps from record company pressure) was not as robust and lacked the energy of the original debut.

But all was not lost, because their label put together the best of the two albums and released a new record as “Built For Speed” in America and nearly two years after success in the UK, this most American of bands with the most of American of sounds was brought full circle and imported as a big hit back to the States on the back of the MTV invasion.

Of course, it’s not Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis but the first Stray Cats album is faithful to the sound and intention of all the originals and should be enjoyed for that. They burned bright and briefly but then that’s what  the great early stars of rock and roll were supposed to do.

tumblr_mp87oshL5B1s7unf4o1_1280

OH YOU PRETTY THINGS!

R-725165-1154220479.jpeg

The entire conclave of cinema fans seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief when Leonardo Di Caprio finally won an Oscar for Best Actor this year in “The Revenant”; not my favourite of his nominated roles but for sheer persistence and consistency, nobody could seriously begrudge his success.

Like another fine actor, Johnny Depp, he seems to suffer from not being taken entirely seriously as an actor and my theory is simply that he is just too good-looking.  Age him as J.Edgar Hoover, make him an unlikeable racist bigot in “Django Unchained” or plain demented in “Shutter Island”, but the eyes still twinkle and the cheekbones still jut. All his acting range and character effort goes out the window.

You can even stick him in an Iron Mask…

So in the pop world – and on a smaller scale admittedly – we have the Leonardo Di Caprio of pop, Nick Heyward both as a solo artist but particularly in the company of his original band, Haircut 100.

Now we just think of these smiling teenpop sensations causing pandemonium as they appeared on the covers of every magazine (reinforcing just how important that medium still was then) as well as numerous TV shows. Had they perhaps been put together from an American project  or even from the estates of West London, we might give them far more credibility than a bunch of photogenic school leavers from Beckenham, dressed as trawlermen.

haircut_100_smash_hits_2667   $(KGrHqMOKpgFGNJftEE7BRkPH(Q5Eg~~60_35  Haircut 100 cover no24 web  s-l300  sfx09_card_front  $T2eC16ZHJIkE9qU3k6w-BR,pljj5WQ~~60_35

Yet “Pelican West” manages to combine the funk sensibilities of Chic with the spiky stabs of The Clash  to create a sound that is anything but Kentish.

Heyward himself, was also a really interesting lyricist fusing an almost T-Rex surrealism with McCartney like pop novelty. Exhibit A: “Lemon Fire Brigade”. These were not however some kind of hallucinatory visions but a rather a much more idyllic and poetic stream of consciousness.

“Favourite Shirts” is honestly all about wearing your favourite shirt and how good it feels when you want to go a-courting.

Meanwhile, this is a hard latin-style  production that owes much to “Le Beat Route” jazz-funk sound which so dominated Spandau Ballet’s part-brilliant part-nonsense second album “Diamond” (“Chant No 1” /  “Paint Me Down”)from the same year. The pop sensibility can’t be questioned but there is a much harder funk edge to tracks like “Kingsize (My Little Steam Whistle)” than you might immediately recall.

Perhaps the biggest influence – and this should get the purists suitably riled – were Orange Juice darlings of Postcard records and led by the now (rightly) beatified Edwin Collins, who had produced a slew of skittering indie-pop/funk records complete with equally unusual lyrical themes and art school vocabulary usage – “Surprise Me Again” is a perfect example. How they must have looked on at the Haircuts’ success and waited for the knock on the door from an adoring public; that would come a year later but prove to be equally (and undeservedly) ephemeral.

The key difference is that Orange Juice are still cited as an influence worth citing – Nick Heyward’s cheekbones and success seemed to have ensured that Haircut 100 are not.

Heyward’s later work – especially the excellent “From Monday To Sunday” “Tangled” and “The Apple Bed” (released on Creation in the mid-90s) – was all geared to him being taken more seriously as a songwriter and performer. Of course, he never lapsed to the melancholy but still produced excellent if over-looked pop.

And yet “Pelican West” is eccentric and mainstream all at once and were it a bunch of New Yorkers, this would undoubtedly sit happily on the then flourishing Ze Records for all its naive and esoteric qualities allied with genuine Latin rhythms. Moments such as the fabulous “Love’s Got Me In Triangles” are pure Chic groove (available in an extended version for the first time) whereas “Marine Boy” sounds like an English summer afternoon, laced with dream-like whimsy. The rapping may sound a little awkward but it’s never self-conscious and just adds to the idiosyncratic nature of this very off-beat record.

Add to this three of the finest debut pop singles you could find in “Favourite Shirts”, “Love Plus One” and “Fantastic Day” and it’s small wonder that the world was at Haircut 100’s feet. But the tension soon began to show “Nobody’s Fool” the fourth single – added to the remaster – already shows a world -weariness the like of which the entirety of “Pelican West” could not produce a single milligram – so relentlessly bright is it.

The strain showed in the relationship within the band and Nick had a nervous breakdown as the pressure of such sudden fame hit a twenty year old with a legendary case of awkward shyness, so that amidst suspicions and counter-suspicions and at the very height of their powers he left the band and began an excellent but patchily successful solo career. The rest of the band amidst a series of recriminations gamely battled on but without sales and went their separate ways.

It seemed they were never happier than when they were a gang of young lads in cable knit sweaters. I suspect we, as their listeners weren’t either.

This is a fine album filled with fine musicianship – Blair Cunningham who would join the Pretenders and Paul McCartney later is a swinging drummer and Phil Smith brings a string of memorable saxophone melodies (most famously on a soprano sax for “Love Plus One”), whilst Les Nemes has inherited some really funky basslines. This is topped off by Graham Jones’s wonderfully choppy guitar work that spits rhythm all over the vinyl.

And then there’s the cheekbones and croon of Nick Heyward himself – sometimes he dices with being  too cute but manages to stay just the right side (“Snow Girl”) but other times has the classic eccentric New Wave sharpness of an Andy Partridge (“Calling Captain Autumn”). Were he not the perfect face for Look-In and Flexipop maybe the split in the band may never have happened. Were he not so obviously the driving force of the look of the band and its visual design maybe there would not have become such an unbridgeable schism.

Likewise, the legacy of this utterly delightful upbeat album would be taken more seriously. They may have been the subject of a cartoon but they had anything but a two dimensional sound. It’s unusually surreal and unexpectedly groovy and now it has been so lovingly remastered might just be the surprise hit of your summer all over again.

Bring on the trumpet brigade!

images