Monthly Archives: May 2016

SIMPLY THE BEST???

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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…

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BLINDING PEAKS

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When asked where is ‘England’s Second City’, the responses are seldom uniform but to me, there is no doubt, it’s Birmingham. It’s twice the size of Manchester so that’s that.

Musically, – putting the capital to one side – its reputation has suffered in comparison to the more obvious assets produced by Liverpool and Manchester and their respective scenes over the years and even Sheffield’s futurist electro-darkness garners more musical criticism than the pride of the Midlands.

And yet we have much to thank the sons of Brum for…

Heavy Metal really begins with Black Sabbath. Duran Duran emerged from the RumRunner Club and in nearby Coventry and Wolverhampton you can appreciate the origins of Slade, Led Zeppelin and the whole 2 Tone movement. Yet there never seems to be too much in praise of such a varied and interesting musical history.

However, undoubtedly two of Britain’s most inventive and enduring musicians emerged in the late 60s not just from the same city but from the same pub. Jeff Lynne has had something of a (thoroughly deserved) renaissance and reports of his latest touring success emphasise his genuine surprise and delight that his audience cared so much for his work.

Equally talented and really the instigator of it all is the equally towering (but less feted) talent of Roy Wood, who at one stage at the turn of the 70s was operating under the monickers of The Move, the Electric Light Orchestra and his own name (and indeed would shortly add Wizzard to this list).

Both are regularly represented as quite shy, sincere and enormously talented men by those who know them and yet never feature in the  lists of great British songwriters.

There was however, a brief moment when these two colossal talents came together and created something quite extraordinary.

The Move are sometimes forgotten for their contribution to the late 60s pop scene but if one band took up the mantle that the Beatles had created for dynamic exciting three minute classics it was them. “Flowers In The Rain” was famously the first ever record played on Radio 1 and still the thunder burst at the start precedes the most incredibly dramatic record, whilst “Blackberry Way” with its James Bond-like string progression is like a dark response to “Penny Lane”. “Fire Brigade”, “I Can Hear The Grass Grow” and “Night Of Fear” all were great examples of what would later be called power-pop and come from a time when a band would etch their all into three minutes of vinyl every time.

They had soaring harmonies, wrote little symphonies and looked like a pop group should look – cool, fashionable and slightly threatening.

Meanwhile, across Birmingham, Jeff Lynne had a band called Idle Race who are regularly touted as one of the great bands of the sixties that should have but weren’t – although they were much loved by critics they never received commercial success. Again, however, you can hear a psychedelic, paisley swirl that shows their shared influences from the more outlandish and experimental pop of the time.

Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne had been in and out of the same bands for several years until Roy found success with The Move and at various stages he had invited Jeff to join the band until in around 1970 he did. The Move were still a successful chart band and selling well – the rest of Idle race would go on to become The Steve Gibbons Band. Interestingly, the demo for The Move’s biggest previous hit, “Blackberry Way” had been produced in Jeff Lynne’s living room.

There was obviously a huge mutual admiration between the pair and although The Move had continued success, the format seemed to constrain them both and so was assembled The Electric Light Orchestra, which was originally just intended to be a side-project of The Move but eventually brought the end to that band.

Many fans of “Out Of The Blue” and “Discovery” will remember seeing the original ELO album as a reduced price release from MFP and purchased it thinking they would hear the origins of “Wild West Hero” or “Shine A Little Love”. They would be sorely mistaken.

A fantastic fact about this album is that in America it was known as “No Answer”. This came about because when the US label wanted to release it they asked their secretarial staff to ring the British office and ask for the title.

There was nobody picking up in the UK office and so the response was left on the responsible executive’s desk.

The first album was always intended to be an experiment and so, as with some good experiments, some things work and some do not. There are times when it is almost as if the phrase “baroque and roll” was thrown around and they came up with the music to match the pun, because not all of this album makes easy listening.

“The Battle Of Marston Moor” is a particularly awkward piece – produced by Roy Wood almost entirely. Bev Bevan, the drummer from The Move, who joined the band also, so disliked the piece he refused to play on it. “Manhattan Rumble” is marginally more accessible whilst the instrumental “First Biz” starts to show some pop sensibilities.

However, there are times when the Beatles influence becomes ever more apparent and Roy’s “Look At Me Now” seems to come straight from the second side of Revolver with its plaintive vocal and driving strings. There was a definite production intention to boost up the string sounds on this album as they become the engine of the whole project.

Roy Wood would also write a lost classic in “Whisper In The Night” which is a beautiful song that perhaps needed the slightly richer and more rounded voice of his old bandmate, Carl Wayne, from The Move for it to become as highly regarded as it should have been.

Meanwhile, Jeff’s Beatles fetish seems to be far more with the more erratic Magrical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine soundtrack period. This was always seen as one of the more outlandish and undisciplined sections of the Fab Four’s recording history which was then halted inits tracks as the band went off to India and started writing simpler songs on acoustic guitars without the layers of studio experimentation. That said, this is the period that gave us “I Am The Walrus”, “Hey Bulldog” and “Blue Jay Way” which hinted at the string-driven sound this new band was craving.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on ELO’s first single, “10538 Overture” which aside from being most recognizable when compared to the later history of the band, I believe is one of the best songs they ever recorded. Originally a mooted Move B-side that was changed one night when the technically adept Wood – he could regularly just pick up an instrument and understand how to play it – decided to add endless cello overdubs to the bassline.

It is the story of an escaped prisoner and exudes drama and suspense from its very opening. It is a Dumas novel set to a thumping string rhythm. This is the point when the two legends – whom the band could ultimately never contain together – create the perfect musical storm. Truly triumphant.

Jeff Lynne would also predict some of his later work with “Mr Radio” whose whole premise and tonality seems to reflect his 2012 album, “Long Wave”. This long-awaited return to recording was the story of his love affair with listening to songs on the wireless as a young boy. So hot was the concept of ELO at its inception that the biggest pop star of the time, Marc Bolan, would join them on several sessions.

The album itself is a real curate’s egg and yet it says so much about the previous and future careers of the two unsung legends. Firstly, despite people who will argue to the contrary, “10538 Overture” proves that they were amongst the very best singles writers in the country. The Move, ELO, Wizzard and Roy Wood himself all produced superbly crafted and highly regarded long-players but they were capable of packing so much into their single releases that they inevitably overshadowed the full album contents. It would certainly be the case in later ELO work where standout tracks would dominate all the other work.

Roy Wood would leave ELO before the release of the second album after they had toured Italy and there was an argument over sound levels between the strings and the usual rock elements. Jeff Lynne would reboot the Electric Light Orchestra making their intentions very clear indeed with the juxtaposition of their version of “Roll Over Beethoven” – you really knew what you were going to get from now on.

However, what seems clear in listening again to this strange album is that both realized what they wanted to do. Roy Wood found that he loved the experimentation of production and would go and live out his next full-blown fantasy, creating a Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” at the height of Glam-Rock with Wizzard.

Jeff on the other hand seemed to have found the sound he’d been searching for a heavier kind of rock that utilized strings for its power base. His own Magical Mystery Tour – an approach that never let him down and allowed him to loop in themes and master-concepts all through his career; producing a series of mini-masterpieces, from “Showdown” to “Mr Blue Sky” via “Livin’ Thing”. The list goes on.

So there you have it…

A strange but inventive (if not always successfully) album which brought together two of the finest songsmiths the nation has produced. Their relationship was never really going to last once they were working together as equals as the curiosity of both would lead them to consistently search out new ways to demonstrate their art.

Hence, this is a project and of that there is no doubt. But it is full of English eccentricity and  pioneering spirit. It is neither’s best work but has the odd moment when it is as good as anything they may have produced.

We are lucky to have them both and it would be only right that whilst we toast the return of Jeff that we don’t forget Roy Wood. Both men hid their natural insecurities of performing behind either dark glasses or outlandish costumes, this should never be allowed to undermine the sensitivity of their writing and immense scope of their respective musical visions.

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GOLDEN YEAR

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As a rule, my Mum doesn’t tell jokes so when she drops in a funny one-liner they can tend to stop you in your tracks. I always remember when I was telling her about some friends of mine who had six children and she just chipped in rather drily and without missing a beat, that they really needed to think about getting a television set.

Our telephone conversation ended as i couldn’t speak from laughing so hard.

It was just so unexpected.

The same applies when she throws in a piece of pop trivia.

She’ll deny she has ropey music taste but one Barry Manilow record is one Barry Manilow record too many in my book and I can guarantee that I was the first person to bring a Rolling Stones album into the house. However, I have gained a rather perverse love and affection for Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass as a generational hand-me-down and simple refuse to be scorned for it.

That said, when I was just discovering music and trying to find interesting items in the parental record collection, there were one or two which would undoubtedly redeem several shelves of Ray Conniff LPs – a 45 of the unparalleled “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye, and the first Greatest Hits by The Beach Boys.

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This last one together with my father’s  Shadows album were regularly sneaked into my own collection as I explored sounds that could begin my pop education, which at the time was largely ELO and some Alvin Stardust singles.

So one day we were listening again to the Beach Boys record and I point out that my favourite is this song, “Good Vibrations”. Without even taking her eyes off the newspaper she proceeds to tell me that this was a very famous record because it had taken over six months to make.

Six months!

Why? How?

On this she was less forthcoming, but as with the ‘television set’ gag it has stayed with me for a long time. Of course, this story is now well documented – both in documentary form as part of the excellent “The Wrecking Crew” documentary and also lovingly enacted during the course of the equally enjoyable “Love And Mercy”.

The record’s place in history needs no real encouragement from me – it regularly features in the Top 10 singles of all time and famously for Mojo Magazine in the late 90s was seen as the best single of all time.

Derek Taylor, the band’s publicist, called it (rightly) a “pocket symphony”. There is just so much going on it’s three and a half minutes; different sections, key changes, exceptional harmonies as well as Mike Love’s baritone chorus. Of course, the whole piece is set off by the incredible opening note from Carl Wilson, which to this day has the capacity to transport you to another place.

And then there’s the instrumentation itself.

While the rest of the band were touring, Brian Wilson worked in studios all over LA for 6 months with the famous session musicians “The Wrecking Crew” trying to bring to life this other worldly sound that existed in his head. Famously, these sessions were in response to the Beatles “Rubber Soul” which had so opened his mind and ears to new sonic possibilities. However, we hear all sorts of regular instruments producing different sounds – there’s pizzicato bass lines, metal keys on piano strings, tight percussive jazz-like snaps played on bongos, duelling piccolos and a pounding rhythm on cellos that Jeff Lynne would be most proud of – perhaps why in these early days of my pop exploration it’s why I enjoyed the record so much.

Oh and to top it off… the electro-theremin, an extraordinarily temperamental and difficult instrument played by its inventor, Paul Tanner.

Undoubtedly, in return, the following year’s “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” from the Fab Four picked up many of its experimental themes and George Martin readily admitted this.

It remains an unsurpassed legacy.

Shakespeare wrote of Cleopatra that “Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety” – and whilst I understand it probably sounds terribly pretentious, that is “Good Vibrations”. Its entire construction (“the pocket symphony”), its incredibly diverse instrumentation and striking harmonies ensure that there is always something new to catch you.

Obviously, this whole recording was put together around the time of the “Pet Sounds” sessions and that is an album that needs little introduction or comment but it and this truly unique stand-alone single were produced in the late-spring of 1966 and so too, half a century ago,  in a city along way away from the sunny shores of California was I.

A slightly longer gestation period, none of Cleopatra’s infinite variety and as temperamental as an electro-theremin – sorry Mum for all that.

But thanks for introducing me to the LP.

Coincidentally, Brian Wilson developed the central premise of “Good Vibrations” after his own mother also passed on a piece of trivia; this time, that dogs reacted to the natural vibrations (vibes) passed on by humans. They could respond positively or negatively because they could pick up on the invisible force emanating from each individual. And so with the help of Mike Love, was born a true classic – to bring even a decimal of a single percentage point of joy that this record has managed in the last fifty years then my time has not been entirely wasted.

The concept of giving off “Good Vibrations” is not a bad code to live by and (though there are occasions when I certainly feel like crawling off to bed for days on end like Brian Wilson) I certainly intend to keep doing so for a few more rounds yet.

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BRAVE CHOICES

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Somewhere along the way, music has rather lost its sense that it could change the world. There seems an incredible sense of fatigue from charity ensembles either in the recording studio or in large scale gatherings (like Live Aid or even Woodstock). Protest of one sort or another seems not to feature as much of a spur to hitmakers in a way that geo-political situations or philosophical extremism have in the past.

And yet now we could probably do with the world rallying together in an attempt to alleviate some of the madness into the chasm of which we seem daily now to stare.

Which is why I was so impressed with the action a couple of weeks ago of Bruce Springsteen to cancel his concert in North Carolina in protest against the State’s legislation and position on the rights of the LGBT communities. In his statement, he wrote,

“Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards”.

It seems strange on first glance that it should be this embodiment of the American Everyman who takes this stance. The beer-drinking, sports-loving, hot-rod riding Bruce that should be the one taking the stance (the fact that Bryan Adams followed suit a few days later says all you need to know about the comparative stature of Bruce and Bryan Adams).

Yet we should never forget that Bruce has had a long history of speaking out on causes both at home and abroad. He was a key part of the Human Rights Tour of the late 80s, the Artists Against Apartheid, No Nukes and a series of local New Jersey initiatives as that state’s favorite son. Of course, he has been a great supporter of the Democratic cause and opened up Obama’s inauguration with “The Rising”.

Certainly, his particular support of this community can probably be traced back to his startling but enormously effective contribution of the title track for “Philadelphia” – the piercingly emotional “Streets Of Philadelphia”, a song with an astonishing power to move even without its accompanying movie narrative..

Living proof that blue collar does not necessarily hide a red neck. In this increasingly hostile world, we need the likes of Springsteen to see how backward some of us are looking.

As ever, Springsteen is a man who is capable of making big and brave decisions about his career which led me to go back and revisit my favorite of all his albums – the sometimes over-looked (including in his live set) – 1987’s “Tunnel Of Love” album.

The irony of this record is that one of the most important tracks on it was “Cautious Man” – the tale of Bill Horton, a man who finds love late in life and fears his commitment – because this was a magnificently brave recording.

In 1985, Springsteen was on top of the world; “Born In The USA” had sold by the truckload, his concerts had sold out everywhere and he had finally achieved the kind of audience attention his career had always threatened but now unleashed from the confines of just North America. “BROOOOCE” was the cry echoing around stadia all over the world as he and the E Street Band were the #1 attraction.

So with all of this success around, what does he do?

He withdraws into his home recording studio and makes an album largely on his own which ditches most of his band and many of the conventional themes with which he had been largely concerned.

For many who had been introduced to this now-major artist through his cavorting on stage with a teenage Courtney Cox in “Dancing In The Dark”, this must have come across as virtually unrecognizable. Instead “Tunnel Of Love” is an intensely individual record, with Bruce playing many of the instruments on his own.

Curiously, slightly earlier, though released later, one of my other favorite writers (and labelmate of Springsteen) Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout (a man who can do very little wrong in my eyes) had written “Cars And Girls” which was an uncharacteristically savage attack on Springsteen’s so-called lyrical obsessions – “Brucie dreams life’s a highway, too many roads go past my way”. It’s an unfair observation even before this album – “Born In The USA” had been a bitter commentary on the world for war veterans turned into some form of gung-ho anthem, the opposite of its intention – but made even more so when looked at with the contemporary release of “Tunnel Of Love”.

Springsteen had produced darker material before – particularly “Nebraska” – and would again with “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” and “Devils And Dust” but in these the settings are almost like little dark movies filled with unfulfilled characters not the singer himself. This album is profoundly personal and so feels as if it comes from a very different place. Try “Walk Like A Man” which is a very poignant review of his relationship with his father.

Ironically, “Cars And Girls”, despite its original intention, is regularly featured on all manner of “Driving” or “Highway” compilations – again the antithesis of that particular author’s vision.

I remember at the time virtually every review of this album talked about how it was Springsteen coming to terms with his new-found married status – his wedding to Julianne Philips had taken place at the height of his success in 1985. They picked up on the edginess of commitment for a man married comparatively late at 37 (like I would know anything about that) but felt the closing track “Valentines Day” intimated at the artist’s certainty that all would work out in the end.

It all seemed very neat… but inaccurate.

Yet, their new marriage was dropping to pieces almost immediately and the fear that comes across in so many of the tracks, especially “Cautious Man”, as well as the sheer difficulty of the relationships, “One Step Up” for example, weigh heavily on him.

Every character he paints, like the afore-mentioned Bill Horton or Bobby in “Spare Parts” – a song that seems definitely to have been influenced by Steve Earle then doing good box office with “Copperhead Road” – seems to be permanently running scared. Of course this a theme that we’ve seen before in songs such as “Hungry Heart” but it has always felt as if it was one of his regular short stories or mini-screenplays.

But when you are faced with, for me still the highlight of the album, the excellent but strenuously sinister title track, “Tunnel Of Love”  our hero seems riddled with foreboding and uncertainty about the state of his relationships. The unusual instrumentation (he was largely playing everything himself, remember) seems to emphasize the awkwardness of the whole situation.

And then there are the painful themes of disappointment and recrimination that feel as if they have come from Springsteen on the most uncertain of all his journeys – this is his own crisis.

The misunderstanding that exists in his relationship is brought front and centre also on more than one occasion – “Two Faces” is the more obvious case but it is in the claustrophobia of “Brilliant Disguise” that is Springsteen at his finest. Here the instrumentation builds but feels permanently constricted and the intensity of the vocal grows and grows.

We are witnessing a man truly conflicted. And, incidentally as promo films go I think this one is nigh on perfect.

And this is not all that keeps him awake at night.

The acapella opening track, “Ain’t Got You”, now seems fairly innocuous and is performed more jokily in reply to the question of what it feels to be The Boss. However, for America’s hero of the working man to be talking about the problems of having “a house full of Rembrandt and priceless art” was a brave and potentially alienating move. His long-term collaborator Miami Steve Van Zandt certainly thought so and told him unequivocally.

Yet this was an honest attempt to voice the uncertainty he now felt as probably the most famous man on the planet at the time. His success seemed to sit uneasily with him and so brought the need to withdraw from his band, from his marriage and seeming  pre-ordained path to success> he seems genuinely to have been prepared to gamble on his audience too.

Mercifully, most of them and certainly the longer-term ones knew better.

What is it to be a boss?

If you want it to be your nickname you need to live up to it.

It’s not a popularity contest that’s for sure. There are inevitably difficult decisions to be made – sometimes at odds with conventional or popular opinion. You have to know yourself and your boundaries. You need to be prepared to take chances. It can be lonely and it can be hard. And often you simply have to do it yourself, to do it right.

This is a recording that is entirely individual, unexpected and personally courageous and has always been my favourite of his catalogue. I imagine it features less in his sets nowadays simply because unlike so many other classics, much of the work still has the power to rip the Band Aid off a wound.

No work more than “Tunnel Of Love” shows why The Boss is the Boss and why even now when music has perhaps lost its power to stun inertia into action, he still remains able to do so.

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