Monthly Archives: July 2016

COULD’VE BEEN A CONTENDER

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Sometimes, I fall in love with a band ahead of their popular success and there’s always a  part of me that’s just a little resentful that everybody else catches on. They’re no longer my  own secret.

More interesting are the bands I fall in love with that don’t catch on; that the rest of the record buying public chooses to ignore my obvious good taste and pick something else off the shelf.

Each decade creates one for me – the 80s saw Blue Rondo A La Turk never move from being clubland darlings. There lack of success is often attributed to the unlucky break of a technicians strike on the week they were due to be on Top Of The Pops. Their classic “Me & Mr Sanchez” was however Brazilian TV’s theme for World Cup coverage in the summer of 1982 and, as if that was not enough of a claim to fame, they were also the headliners for the Smiths first ever live performance.

In the 00s, there was a band called Golden Silvers who had emerged out of club nights around London with an odd pop/dance sound that should have set the airwaves alight but despite critical support and winning best new act at Glastonbury, never got out of the blocks. “True Romance (True No.9 Blues)” reached the heady heights of #142. They had terrific rhythms welded to very knowing, clever lyrics  and, with luck, could have been the faces of 2009.

Both Blue Rondo and Golden Silvers were not short of an on-the-ground fanbase (Golden Silvers hosted “Bronze Club” and Blue Rondo were the face of the Blitz and The Wag Club) and seemed to have plenty of record company marketing backing, at least initially.

But no massive hits.

Of course, in the 90s, some of the most interesting action occurred around Britpop which nowadays seems to bring constant referrals to the Blur/Oasis showdown of 1995 and little else, except the odd glimpse of Jarvis Cocker or Brett Anderson. The fact is, there were bands teeming out of everywhere – some of them not actually real bands like Menswear – and getting hits. The Bluetones, Shed 7, Divine Comedy, Cast, Sleeper, Elastica and on and on and on.

It was a broad church but a real shot in the arm for the whole industry and fans alike.

So if everyone could get a moment in the sun, why couldn’t My Life Story?

They did get some success but some of you will never have heard of their “The Golden Mile” album – it just scraped into the Top 40 as did four of their singles – and yet I bet the tunes seem strangely familiar. They were popular with the press and the radio stations but never really broke through and were soon moved on from their label – to be replaced by the apparently easier to deal with Divine Comedy in what the record company saw as a like for like exchange.

From the first blast of tympani and strings for “12 Reasons Why I Love Her” you realise you are in for a rollercoaster of a musical journey that is lavish, extravagent and filled with real genuine earworms – although I swear the string riff is nicked from the Fun Boy Three’s wonderful “Tunnel Of Love”.

Yet the record buying public seemed to prefer things like Babylon Zoo.

Why? Why? Why?

I couldn’t have given you one reason let alone 12.

They thundered out of the speakers as if Morrissey was backed by a fully-fledged chamber orchestra. There were the wordplay themes that were often the mark of Britpop heavies like Pulp and Oasis, with puns and lyrical curveballs aplenty and all delivered with Jake Shillingford’s exuberant and melodramatic torch flamboyance. Mark Almond would be proud.

“Sparkle” for instance has all the drive and action of a Bond theme – although for completists, the original on the previous album is slightly better – but really shows off everything that the singer and his orchestra can throw at us.

“I Dive” has strong reminiscences of contemporary Oasis but there is also humour in their work with “Strumpet” treading into similar Carry On fnarr-fnarr territory as Blur’s “Stereotypes”.

“Cinzano Drip-fed, Leopardskin Bedspread, Housewife Superstar, Feather Boa Constrictor”.

Opening lines like these don’t come along very often and it certainly paints a picture of your song’s main protagonist.

“Suited And Booted” still feels like a paean to that particular buzz of London in 1997 – all Groucho Club and Met Bar – where fashion was king and “Cool Britannia” was the rather embarrassing headline.

The run of singles with their arch lyrics and frenetic strings were something of a trademark for the My Life Story but may have caused them to be pigeon-holed. Certainly, Shillingford was keen for the much slower and more moving “You Can’t Uneat The Apple” to be released as a single in an effort to get the band reappraised but instead a poor version of The Stranglers’ “Duchess” which was recorded as a joke – and sounded it too – and its comparative failure simply accelerated the demise for the band with the label.

This for me is a tragedy, as they could create unbelievable and memorable pop-songs like “The King Of Kissingdom” perhaps the catchiest of all of their songs, though written paradoxically about a drug dealer in the heart of the swinging metropolis. Once this one get in your head there will be no escape but imagine if you will, one of the other great beneficiaries of Britpop, Robbie Williams, getting involved in this kind of crackling lyrical fusillade (or indeed any of Jake Shillingford’s work) and think how big a hit that would have been. You are really only a short step to “Tripping” or “Candy”.

I have been thoroughly enjoying revisiting “The Golden Mile” and have had it playing constantly and yet, I think its strength and delight for me now, is the origin of its comparative failure in 1997. Throughout this review, it’s been benchmarked against everything else of the time – the bounciness of Blur, the acerbity of Pulp, the lyrical twists of Robbie Williams…. and Morrissey and Oasis and and and…

The fact is that the album and their style was too closely reminiscent of other contemporaries – not any one singularly but like a blended mix of 1996 era Britpop. It sounds great now when the airwaves are not full of the sound and you want something different but at the time, perhaps it was just trying too hard to be one of the gang.  You can sense the elevator sell – “they’re lyrically a southern Pulp, with the bounce of “Great Escape” Blur and Suede’s melodramatic swagger but with a voice like Scott Walker- all set to strings”. Simply too many references, I would hazard and therefore, potentially just a pastiche.

In so doing, they perhaps failed to define clearly their own unique sound and image – it’s unfair but probably not entirely inaccurate. “The Golden Mile” faithfully records the feel of the time, its characters and its attitudes. It’s brash, upbeat and pushy (as good pop should always be) and makes a very nice change from another lonely female acoustic version of an old classic.

In fact, My Life Story were headed for being in the forefront of Britpop but their label (Mother Tongue) collapsed and they had to wait to be signed by Parlophone  and so instead joined the comet’s tail of this scene. It’s all about luck.

We should regret that this group weren’t more successful than they were at the time but be thankful that we can listen to them now as they are a far more lasting artefact of the time and a 1000 times more fun than “Be Here Now”, “This Is Hardcore” or “Blur”. 

It is about luck and Jake Shillingford deserves some – paging Robbie Williams.

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BURNT HUMBER

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Dance / Disco was not really a genre that used to lend itself to albums. By and large, it’s always been a singles format, or indeed an extended singles format. This was a world of largely million-selling one-off hits performed by faceless artists with a belting groove and catchy (often chant-like) melodies designed for filling floors in dance clubs.

Their mission was simple; to shake bootys, groove thangs and moneymakers, in no particular order..

George McCrae made “Rock Your Baby” while waiting for his wife to turn up at a studio and Lipps Inc were a bunch of session musicians messing about in a studio who then produced the unstoppable  “Funky Town”.

The emphasis of this changed really with Michael Jackson’s timeless “Off The Wall” an album that spawned five hit singles and created the image of an entirely new kind of pop star from a genre that had not really produced them before.

However, while buying up several of the reissued disco albums that were released in the mid to late seventies (thanks go to the BBR label), it seemed to me that this mega-album owed its success to some very obvious antecedents that came from some very unlikely places.

Cleethorpes on the Humber was just one.

The seventies was a decade which was bookended by two exhilarating movements in British music – the sparkle of Glam Rock and, at the end of the decade, the bite and bravado of New Wave and Punk. In the middle of the decade, apart from the domination of the rock behemoths in the album charts, there was no real indication that this was the land that had spawned the Beatles and the Stones ten years earlier or that the Clash and XTC were just around the corner.

The charts were frothy and very unchallenging. The one notable exception was soul/disco which, although imported from the US in the main with some European crossover, had implanted itself into the hearts of the dancing British public in a way that would endure with far greater resonance than amongst their American counterparts.

Homegrown Disco often came from bands on the club circuit – Tina Charles and The Dooleys – and was a very very pale imitation of the real thing but Britain did produce one bona fide global disco smash – Heatwave’s “Boogie Nights”.

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Strictly speaking, they weren’t entirely British but were an American soul band based in Germany (as was Donna Summer), centered on the Wilder Brothers as vocalists but with a backing band from Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Jamaica and the UK. Amongst this number was keyboard player and arranger, Rod Temperton who had moved to Germany, having previously worked for a fish factory in Grimsby – he’s the one at the side who looks like he works in a Grimsby fish factory but wearing some of Earth Wind And Fire’s cast-offs instead of overalls. His discomfort is palpable.

Having begun touring away from the military bases, they moved to the UK and were signed eventually by GTO records and with their afore-mentioned second single, penned by Temperton, created a deserved but unlikely worldwide smash.

Their second album, “Central Heating” is, to my mind one of the quintessential disco albums and is owed an enormous debt by “Off The Wall”. It is smooth, resolutely upbeat and never loses its pop sensibility. It also manages to showcase the band’s variety which within such a seemingly narrowly defined genre is a rare treat.

“The Star Of A Story” has a meandering silkiness that feels as if it could have emerged from one of Stevie Wonder’s mid 70s classics, although perhaps a little syrupy for my liking. “Happiness Togetherness” manages to keep the right side of romantic and also seems to have a Stylistics mood to it. Meanwhile “Put The Word Out”, “Send Out For Sunshine” and the title track “Central Heating” are absolutely kick-ass groovers.

But the real highlight is of course, the fantastic “The Groove Line”, an impeccable song that would not have been lost on “Off The Wall” or better still Michael’s album with his brothers at the time, “Destiny”. It is a thumping floor-filler that is often forgotten in comparison to its transatlantic counterparts but has all the joyous authenticity you could ever want from a disco classic.

It is another interesting point to notice that at the same time as this album was released Kool & The Gang changed their stylings from the excellent but haphazard jazz-funk of “Hollywood Swinging'” and brought in a pop styled lead singer in Jams “JT” Taylor and would the following year embark on a hugely successful dance-pop career. The line from “Central Heating” to “Ladies Night” is an easy one to follow.

And that’s aside from also initiating the great lost genre of Brit-funk which is a subject for a later date.

The debts to Heatwave just keep accumulating.

By now, Rod Temperton had put his not entirely unsurprising awkwardness on stage to one side and concentrated on simply being a writer for the band and was responsible for the majority of the album, which apart from “The Groove Line” had one other astonishingly accomplished and timeless track in “Mind Blowing Decisions”, as sinewy summery a piece of super smooth soul as you could ever find. It simply gets better every time I hear it with its layered texture, reggae-ish slink and surprisingly well-chosen and non-stereotypical lyrics and sentiments.

If it’s a hot day today, try not to enjoy every single minute of this.

It’s a song that seems to have heavily influenced Quincy Jones “Off The Wall” production with its textured, mellow vibe – its audio footprint can be heard in that album’s “Girlfriend” and even Thriller’s “Human Nature”. There is a gentle ease in the atmosphere of the record that it is small wonder Quincy invited Rod Temperton to contribute to his protege’s breakthrough work.

But here’s the thing, it wasn’t written by Temperton but actually by singer, Johnny Wilder Jr, so although the arrangement owed much to the man from Humberside, the production puts forward another unlikely hero.

One Barry Green…

From Middlesex.

Or as you might remember him Barry Blue.

That’s right, writer and performer of late-Glam fame, “Dancin’ On A Saturday Night” Barry Blue.

The truth is he had been a reluctant pop star whose his dress sense was questionable at best (he may have had too much say in the band’s wardrobe too as they seemed to have a penchant for all things shiny too), but understood all about melodies, hooks and stomping rhythms. Mercifully, he had put aside the bouzouki solo breaks but he really could fill a three minute record with textures and hooks that allied a genuine passion for dance floor drive but with the exuberance of any great pop single – and say what you like, that was a great pop single.

Rod Temperton’s global success is of course well documented as he wrote hits for all kinds of performers but I do enjoy the thought of disco classics “Off The Wall”  and “Celebration” having their origins not just in his work but also in the production stylings of British glam rock and two separate gentlemen with very dubious fashion sense.

Well it’s a theory…

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ZEITGEIST

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Thursday was always a big day for a pop aficionado in the Eighties because not only was there the “must-see” Top Of The Pops which often gave you your first glimpse of an artist you might have only heard on Radio One until then, but also, and equally importantly, that week’s Record Mirror was available at the newsagents.

You cannot under-estimate the importance of the music press if you were living outside the heaving metropolis of shimmering (or so it seemed) London. It was here and in the other venerable publications of the time, NME, Melody Maker and The Face that we heard of these mystical venues such as The Blitz and The Wag Club, The Camden Palace and The Electric Ballroom, filled with beautiful scene-makers and New Romantics – you didn’t get many of them walking through the centre of Durham to my recollection.

The music press was really our connection to where the action was; it was our beacon and taste-maker. The world out there seemed unshockable.

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The darlings of all of this attention were undoubtedly Spandau Ballet, who had launched as one of the pioneers of the New Romantic movement  with the sonorous “Journeys To Glory”. It had all the right sounding synthesiser beats, allied with catchier hooks than many of their contemporaries. However, it did also possess that rather grandiose Teutonic feel so favoured by those who claimed Kraftwerk as an influence. Singles like “The Freeze”, “Musclebound” and the still powerful debut “To Cut A Long Story Short” all possess that style of remote tension both musically and lyrically.

Of course, this version of Spandau Ballet – all kilts and frills – is the image that immediately springs to mind when recalling the band.

Or, of course, it’s the balladeering and besuited housewives favourites, tanned and conspicuously successful that emerged with the immense success of “True”.

But there is another more interesting period that comes in between both of these eras marked by the album called “Diamond” which very nearly sank the band forever but, for many is their real highpoint – at least in parts.

Originally, released in March 1982, “Diamond was a peculiar release in that we had first heard output from it in July of the previous year with “Chant No.1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On)” and the music scene was whirling on at such a pace that by the time the album was released, they had two further singles that had failed to really trouble record buyers and the album release looked like ‘last-chance saloon’ for the band after only two albums and a huge amount of hype – not least from themselves.

The album finds the band very much at a crossroads. The final three tracks, “Pharaoh”, “Innocence And Science” and the epic “Missionary” all seem to use the previous album as their style guide. There’s lots of mood and atmosphere set to almost military rhythms and they obviously have half an ear to the success of contemporaries, Ultravox and so creation end-sequence that is part-Balearic (esp. the under-rated “Pharaoh” – much admired now by the band, themselves) and part-overblown experimenting but all really delightfully and rather pretentiously obscure, as New Romanticism so often was won’t to be.

The third single and second flop, “She Loved Like Diamond” has all the hallmarks of the easier stylistic leanings that would come with the “True” album and especially “Gold”; thereby also establishing that Gary Kemp had some kind of lyrical jewellery fetish. The song fails because Tony Hadley’s voice and Gary Kemp’s melody do not quite have the strength that the follow-up would bring and also sounds far too mainstream on this most contemporary of recordings.

The final single is seen as the one that rescued the band and came about because the record company were fearing the loss of their investment and brought in Trevor Horn to remix the desperately ungrammatical “Instinction”. He brought them their first Top 10 single for over a year and probably saved the band an early release from their contract – though this is open to debate, Record Mirror certainly hinted at it.

He took the album version and simply tightened the single release of “Instinction”  to emphasise its hugely memorable melody line and make an excellent pop single that hinted at the kind of power-pop they would create soon enough with “Communication” and “Lifeline” on the later album and through onto the “Parade” LP afterwards – it really set the blueprint for the kind of performance the band would produce for the rest of their career but with still a touch of the mystic oddness that came from the rest of the album.

However, the duration of the releases from “Diamond” is important because the earlier releases are very much the sound of 1981 Soho clubland – part-Latin, part-funk, part-pop and much-loved by the music press. This was the world that was the habitat of The Face and the gossip column of the Record Mirror. This was sharp-suited, supercool and dance-driven and conjured up a world that really existed for only the very shortest of times.

One of my very favourite (but forgotten) bands, Blue Rondo A La Turk, seemed to be the very essence of this whole scene but through a series of bad luck situations, they never gained the attention they so thoroughly deserved. However, this scene did not burn brightly without at least one song leaving an indelible mark on the collective pop consciousness and, for me it is Spandau Ballet’s finest song – “Chant No.1”.

It is a record that sounds dangerous even now with a sense of brooding excitement and over-heating claustrophobia. They borrowed the horn section of jazz-funk band Beggar & Co who had just had their own exceptional hit “Somebody Help Me Out”, to create gripping stabs of brass that just served to turn the attack up on the unexpectedly tight groove. This was the celebration of that world that seemed so far away – Le Beat Route et al, where the promo was shot – and is still one of the decade’s defining 45s.

As an aside, Beggar and Co would return the favour for their exposure by releasing their follow-up single with the subtitle “Mule (Chant No.2)” – sadly it was not terribly successful.

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The unheralded “Coffee Club” also delightfully hijacks the Latin sound so deftly exorcised by their Blue Rondo contemporaries whilst the second flop single “Paint Me Down” really has stood the test of time and perhaps only really suffered chart-wise from not being quite as good as the immaculate “Chant No.1”. It still has the scent of clubland all over it and is deserving of reconsideration especially in its extended version.

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The world of music moved very quickly on the early eighties and in under three years Spandau Ballet would move from the New Romantic jerkiness  of “To Cut A Long Story Short” to the radio-friendly blue-eyed soul of “True” and then by and large, stick to that theme for the rest of their career (either side of the notorious court case). I know there will always be accusations of Spandau being preening clothes-horses, however, there was a time when they were the faithful recorders of the “Scene” – the very hippest of the very hottest.

“Diamond” is an odd collection because I can think of few albums that can so clearly delineate a band’s past, present and future. It may be the simple length of its gestation that makes it so uneven and hence the least successful. But it deserves full marks for experimentation and bringing a faraway world so brilliantly into the lives of those who felt they had no chance of ever witnessing it.

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BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

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It must be amongst the most unsettling of feelings… spending your life wanting to be a pop star and then you actually become one. None of the rehearsals or sleeping in the back of a van or trying desperately to get a deal can prepare you for what it would actually be like to see your record flying up the charts.

Many wish for it but few attain it.

Roddy Frame managed it when he was just nineteen years old. But his band was no TV-vote conglomerate or bunch of choreographed clothes-horses but instigators of one of the great debut albums “High Land And Hard Rain” in 1983. Their jangling guitars and beautifully constructed melodies were obviously influenced by the Byrds and “Rubber Soul” at a time when synthesizers and sequencers were the thing but this emerging indie-pop sound was a refreshing blast of proper musicianship and skilled songwriting.

It was counter-cultural and raw without being overly threatening. A bloodless revolution.

Of course, at the same time as all these bands broke through, major record labels became interested – and so Orange Juice go to Polydor and Prefab Sprout join CBS. Aztec Camera are taken in with open arms by WEA who see a wonderful new talent in the band and especially their charismatic and good-looking singer and songwriter, Roddy Frame.

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The only problem is that despite plenty of promotion and multi-format marketing, they still never really break through in terms of sales. They never lose the critics’ admiration nor their super-loyal fanbase but for WEA, their second album “Knife” though more rocky – thanks to production from Mark Knopfler and its Dylan influences – does not propel the band (or their investment) forward much further than their initial impact with “Oblivious”.

So in 1987, Frame sets off to America – undoubtedly with the intention of becoming “big” there – with his latest portfolio of songs and a new found interest in hip-hop and r’n’b from producers such as Jam and Lewis. Remember he’s still only 23 and like all of us at that age still exploring – he just happens to have two critically acclaimed albums under his belt.

Strangely, while the Americans were trying desperately to find a way to mimic their MTV-hogging British cousins, in Britain there appeared a movement to try and make everything as smooth as late 70s AOR from across the Atlantic. China Crisis began by using Steely Dan’s Walter Becker for their excellent “Flaunt The Imperfection” album but the effect was not of copying but of taking the somewhat quirky but nevertheless indefinable side of that band and ally it to the more experimental sonic leanings of their producer.

Now, I’m going to say it…

Roddy Frame took one of the most intense and most interesting portfolios of songs and just about wrecked it.

The choice of expert producers such as Tommy Lipuma and Russ Titelman, who had overseen the silky sounds of George Benson and Barbra Streisand together with long-time Steely Dan collaborator, Rob Mounsey, overlaid and weighed down and mismatched some of the most endearing lyrics it is possible to hear.

There’s brass sections and soulful backing vocalists, Synth basses and vocal sequencers. All manner of paraphernalia is wheeled out to make it sound as 1987 as possible and so make a bold attempt at shattering the subtlety and fragility that makes Aztec Camera (although then it was really only Roddy himself) such a national treasure.

Honestly, I loved this album at the time – not least because any Aztec Camera work was as rare as hen’s teeth – but now I would love to hear it all (with a couple of exceptions – of which more later) played in the more simple style that he now chooses these days. Hence, the clips largely post-date the album. It would be a very different and far more appreciated work.

Perhaps the best place to start is the first of the hits, “How Men Are” which is a remarkably sensitive and thoughtful song with nods to its soul ancestors with its P-E-R-S-P-E-C-T-I-V-E refrain giving the song an authenticity and depth not normally associated in an author so young. However, the syrupy production (doubtless borrowed from a sanitary protection commercial) renders the song less sincere and less enduring. But in a solo live context, all its heartfelt tenderness is on display, laid bare.

Actually, the first single and album opener, “Deep And Wide And Tall” would really give you every indication that all was well as it stylistically seemed to follow naturally from “Knife” and it’s terrific second single “Still On Fire” – like its predecessor “Deep And Wide And Tall” it had the misfortune to bypass the British record buying public entirely- and again on reissue – but it’s a shame as it is another beautiful pop song laden with melodies and sentiment and still had the very local feel of its precursors.

Of course, the follow-up single is the big one, the staple of every Tesco CD’s summer compilation (together with the Boo Radleys’ “Wake Up Boo”) “Somewhere In My Heart”. It’s a great pop song and actually a more natural successor to “Oblivious” than anything else. It has the same poppy drive and sticky chorus with hook piled on hook piled on hook. However, whilst this was handed over to Michael Jonzun, it still loses part of the obvious intelligence within its peppy production.

Although the superior and more enigmatic “Deep And Wide And Tall” might have been a preferable legacy, it’s a great 45 even now and, while performing it across the pop shows of Europe, this must have been the moment when Roddy thought he’d cracked it at last as it went bounding towards the Top 5. Coincidentally, CBS had put Prefab Sprout through a similar spurt for sales and they were also celebrating their only Top 10 hit simultaneously with “The King Of Rock N Roll” (a moment in their history I find indescribable) from the equally over-elaborate hit-hunting “From Langley Park To Memphis”. For the record, their album comes off only marginally better than “Love” as “Hey Manhattan” et al still manage to carry some of McAloon’s more ironic touches without being lost in the production – not least because they had always been a band more interested in the experimentation of the studio. However,  the original version of “Cars And Girls” for instance from the shelved “Protest Songs” sessions three years earlier was much more interesting and timely.

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I suspect both look back as an experience worth having but not with the songs with which they would most like to be remembered – especially when I would consider them two of the country’s greatest (and obviously) unsung songwriters.

“One And One” is a truly unmentionable aberration with sequencing and a soul duet, it is a real kick in the goolies for those who had waited three and a half years for new Frame material. “Everybody Is A Number One” is just too nakedly attempting to be a hit (especially in its remixed form) that it likewise seems unrecognizable for a man who had given us such delicate pieces in the past. “More Than A Law” and “Paradise” whilst interesting and incisive songs, both suffer from their intent being swamped by over-production.

However, one song seems to have been tailor-made for the world it was being thrust into – the majestic “Working In A Goldmine” which has tempo-changes, mood-swings and a lyrical sentiment that seems designed to fit into this multi-layered production. It has a guitar solo worthy of any Larry Carlton classic for Steely Dan and seems to be the only song on the album to be really comfortable in its own skin.

Which leaves a final thought for the finest song on the album and maybe Frame’s finest song “Killermont Street”. It has all the quality of a fine fine folk song – it is obviously deeply personal and paints a vivid picture in the unlikely setting  of Glasgow’s bus station, of all places.

It is sparse and utterly lovely and might well be one of the greatest songs you’ve never really listened to properly before – Frame fans aside. We may never have been to Killermont Street but we all know somewhere like it. Not even the production of “Love” can kill this song but it is so much better in its unadulterated form.

As I read this all back I feel guilty.

Guilty that I have been so critical of such a fine selection of songs (largely) and of one of the artists I have so admired for so many years but like “From Langley Park To Memphis”, “Love” was turned too much into a product of its times and of its ultimate corporate lords and masters. Like many decisions I myself took in 1987 – especially in the fashion stakes-  it probably all seemed like a good idea at the time.

And I really did adore it back then but I didn’t realise that it represented such a pact with the devil. I hope you all still like it but at least now can spend the time to appreciate that buried underneath some fretless bass noodling are some truly exceptional songs and tunes.

It just should and could have been so much better and as such, be better remembered.

Because for the four or five classics on this album when heard pure and clear in his wonderful vocal style -which manages to sound proud and fragile in equal measure -you will be hard pressed to find many better.grey-aztec-camera-strap-1

HARD OR HEAVY

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Hard rock?

Heavy metal?

I never really knew the difference.

I never really needed to because I didn’t really like either. And I didn’t much care for the long-haired and greasy looking customers who did. Inevitably, they were former pop fans who then denounced everything after their Damascene conversion to double denim and leather around the age of fourteen. They took their hardness and their heaviness very very seriously. No little girls music for them. This was Friday night and Tommy Vance… headbanging (normally in a circle) to the one rock record allowed at the school disco. For myself, I thought it was always quite funny that this supposedly tough and rather threatening  group were always so good at embroidery as they were always sowing logos and patches onto their sleeveless denim jackets.

Neither the disco set nor the Durannies could (or needed to) do that…

Strangely though as I have got older I’ve found I have quite a liking for what might have been termed hard rock or heavy metal. It’s a broad church actually including ZZ Top, AC DC, Led Zeppelin and even back to Glam Rock such as Slade and Kiss.

Allegedly, the foundation of this style was set by the Kinks when Dave Davies slashed the speaker cones of his amp and created the raw fuzz sound of “You Really Got Me”. It’s also incidentally seen as the initiator of the Punk sound as well so that 45’s influence in the later world puts it rightly in every critic’s Top 100 and every incipient garage band’s repertoire.

It is so seminal a track and so familiar that to try to take it anywhere seems impossible and yet this was how the world first heard of Van Halen. I am not normally a fan of remaking such well known records and trying to change them but there is something in this recording that actually helps to get to the definition of what hard rock is.

Nowadays, it is normally played with the preceding instrumental track of “Eruption” – Eddie Van Halen’s guitar gymnastic workout -tacked on as the introduction and in doing so, you understand the two pillars of this genre and indeed this band – Virtuosity and Volume.

It’s not perfect but it certainly sets the stall out for what’s to come and Van Halen were not a band that was backward in coming forward.

Unlike the previous heavier rock acts such as Led Zeppelin or Cream, Halen’s grounding seemed not to be in the Blues but – dare I say it – in Pop. It was just much much louder with Alex Van Halen’s thumping double bass drums and Michael Anthony’s thunderous bass propelling each of their songs to ever more impressive heights.

The band had initially been championed by Gene Simmons of Kiss who had produced their demos and they owe a lot to his band but they were able to surpass them easily. Their stage show had all the drama (if not the make-up) Detroit Rock City’s finest but they simply had better songs, better playing and a much much stronger vocalist.

Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing can soar and create intricate and quite beautiful shapes – remember he was brought in to lift Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” to a new plane – but it is when it is allied to the rasping blues scat of Dave Lee Roth that the band really takes off.

Because the audience who listened to bands like this were so off-putting, I never bothered but listen now to a song like “Jamie’s Crying” and it’s a pure pop record – there’s no darkness, nor devil worship, simply more decibels and no less enjoyable for that.

Likewise, whilst Metal academic analysts like to consider “Runnin’ With The Devil” as a successor to the demonic leanings of bands like Black Sabbath, it’s really just a metaphor for the youthful freedom of a traveling band. This time, a pulsing bass and the shriek of car horns lets an unstoppable riff that would blast through any radio.

But it’s still a pop record.

Not all of it comes off perfectly,  the closer “On Fire” is more  indicative of a band just finding their way and trying to be Led Zeppelin likewise “Atomic Punk” has its roots in Black Sabbath but “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” is another classic where Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat guitar – now residing in the Smithsonian Institute no less – lets rip once more. Ted Templeman’s production on the entire album remains so laser sharp that it really sets the template for all stadium rock and becomes very difficult to date as a consequence.

“Little Dreamer” on the other hand is a subtler song and reinforced  by an equally moderated but instantly recognizable vocal performance from Roth. He may have been all swagger, chest hair and highlights but he could sing brilliantly and was a showman from the premier division. The cover of “Ice Cream Man” would show his variety, his knowing sense of humor and ability to dabble in jazz phrasing quite easily, which was a theme he would revisit on “Diver Down” and in his solo work.

Do not under-estimate how successful Van Halen would prove to be. They are now the 20th best selling artist in the world and only AC/DC, Aerosmith & Metallica have sold more from their class. This debut album remains highly rated by critics and like “1984” would sell over 10 million copies. In fact, so successful was it that their follow-up Van Halen II was a virtual carbon copy.

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Sixties rebooted cover version… check (“You’re No Good”)

Virtuoso guitar instrumental show off… check (“Spanish Fly”)

Chorus heavy sing-a-long  Classic… check (“Dance The Night Away”)

Like AC/DC with Brian(Bon) and Angus, Van Halen was built on two astonishing on-stage larger than life personalities in Dave Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen both aiming for the spotlight. It was a hugely potent mix that moved from personality to ego and so inevitably would eventually very publicly combust as they both took their skills in different directions.

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That said, while that mix was brewing successfully, you were left with a sound that was nothing like as threatening as a lank-haired fourteen year old with a needle and thread but humorous, exciting and perfect power pop.

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