Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Kate BUSH: Never For Ever


(#237: 20 September 1980, 1 week)

Track listing: Babooshka/Delius/Blow Away/All We Ever Look For/Egypt/The Wedding List/Violin/The Infant Kiss/Night Scented Stock/Army Dreamers/Breathing

Looking at the words of “Blow Away” – “With all of his licks and his R&B” – I’m reminded that once there was something called the KT Bush Band, which played various pubs in the waiting south-eastern space between Welling and Lewisham throughout the mid-seventies, with the teenage Kate belting out “Knock On Wood,” “In The Midnight Hour” and suchlike. Then I hear the nearly unbearable high note that she sustains over the second half of the second chorus of “Blow Away,” or her growls and screeches on “The Wedding List” and “Violin,” and remember that the Wilson Pickett thing was still within her, only to be brought out when enraged beyond articulation.

There was something called the KT Bush Band, pub rockers their type were once termed, and they would play the Rose of Lee around the same time that the Lewisham group Japan were moving into adulthood and still wanted to be the New York Dolls. But then there was art, and dance which looked like karate moves, and the things she heard and kept in her mind from her early youth which were not Stax or Motown. But there was still the KT Bush Band; two members, bassist Del Palmer and guitarist Brian Bath, stayed with her music when she moved beyond “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” (although, looking at that song title, I wonder if she ever really did), there to remember and help propel her into a future. Her future or the British music industry’s future?

Because while she was still seeing and hearing things – Ken Russell’s Song Of Summer, Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (from the song “The Infant’s Kiss” I’m guessing that she saw the movie before she read the Henry James) – it has to be remembered that, prior to around 1985, Kate Bush was not exactly hip, in the same way that late sixties/early seventies Scott Walker was not quite viewed as a way forward. A moderately intriguing side road or layby, maybe, but not the road to tomorrow.

She was, I recall, always on Nationwide, BBC1’s teatime news magazine, perpetually being followed around by Sue Lawley – recording her new album, rehearsing for her tour – and at the British Rock and Pop Awards (the not remotely cool ancestor to the Brits) she was held up as being an example of what might save the music business, for those alienated enough still to remember the Beatles.

She was perhaps, if you weren’t in sympathy with her – if you heard the hits and watched Pamela Stephenson send her up on Not The Nine O’Clock News but hadn’t listened to the rest of her music – a bit naff. Interviews were rare and she had the piss taken out of her for ceaselessly vacillating between the two expressions “Wow!” and “Amazing!” when she did them (when Julian Cope turned up not long afterwards with his “Waaaugh, Corrie, immense!” spiel, this was of course automatically accepted as gospel). She even released a single called “Wow” which, if you actually listen to it, is like “Hello Hurray” as restyled by the Mackenzie/Rankine Associates – melancholy, scared and resonant.

Worse than that, EMI initially thought to market her to the “cor blimey/wouldn’t kick her out of bed” (im)mature lads brigade with “saucy” press shots, exposed breasts and so forth. This after they had released “Wuthering Heights” as a single only after a tearful, enraged Kate insisted that they couldn’t go with “James And The Cold Gun.” The debut album The Kick Inside - an NME number one in early 1978 - talked as frankly about what it was like to be a young woman as anything in British pop had done; it is the secret prog flipside of the Slits’ Cut. She was rushed into making a follow-up album, Lionheart, which isn’t at all bad, but she resolved shortly thereafter that things had to be done her way completely or not at all.

This young person, barely into her twenties, more or less the same age as Gary Numan, telegraphing to her listeners that this is not what it sounds like.

A young person whose maternal family was Irish and who was raised as a Catholic.

A person who listens to those Pink Floyd records, and above all Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, just as the younger Diana has a poster of Prince Charles on her wall.

A musician who comes out, whether she knows it or not, of that miraculous late sixties/early seventies congruence between different, parallel streams of British music, where folk-rock bled into prog-rock leaked into free jazz…

(if the viol scrapings of various members of the Skeaping family at the climax of “The Infant’s Kiss” sound spookily familiar, listen to the opening section of side three of 1978’s Frames: Music For An Imaginary Film by Keith Tippett’s 22-piece big band Ark – one of the string players in that line-up is Roderick Skeaping – whose slow, patient build-up and final eruption sound like Delius being resuscitated by the approaching ghost of Mingus.)

…and whose first album debuts with, of all things, “The Saxophone Song,” in which tenorist Alan Skidmore is nearly as unhinged as he is on the Walker Brothers’ “Fat Mama Kick,” recorded at pretty much the same time.

…and who absorbs all of this art into her head and mind and heart and feels that it can only come out one way; the cover of her third album was controversial at the time, with an illustrated (by Nick Price) Kate, hands clapsed to the back of her head as though sleepwalking, giving birth to hordes of animals. The analogy is uncomplicated – these songs are her babies – but the reverse cover, featuring an airborne Kate as a bat in the encroaching dusk, suggests more than just the routine succession of darkness (if song titles like “Night Scented Stock” don’t make it abundantly clear, this is definitely a record to be listened to at night, or on a dark winter’s afternoon).

But then the whole of Never For Ever is essentially about life and death; how we allow ourselves to die and how we might treat ourselves better to live. What goes and who doesn’t.

The music is rich and full; the only person who stops this album from being the first one in this tale to be wholly written, performed and produced by a woman is co-producer Jon Kelly; he was Kate’s engineer on Lionheart and clearly taught her a lot about how to work the studio – he works very hard indeed to bring out as good a sonic picture as possible, so that, although nearly thirty-three years old, the album does not sound remotely dated, even if it is unquestionably of its time. The Fairlight CMI sampler, to which Kate was introduced when she guested on the third Peter Gabriel album, was programmed here to excellent effect by John L Walters and Richard James Burgess from the adventurous electro-jazz group Landscape; when listening to songs like “Army Dreamers,” it is important to recall that in 1980 this was a new sound.

But if casual listeners or Bush followers had delved beneath the record’s winsome 1971 surface (or so it was largely perceived at the time) they would not have found a cycle of songs to reassure and comfort Nationwide viewers. Everything here is about death and birth, in that order, bearing a darkness that is frequently and I think deliberately oppressive. Some of it goes, lyrically and emotionally, beyond anything ever previously attempted in “pop” or “rock.” What would the average Daily Mirror-reading suburbanite have made of tribute songs to Sid Vicious (“Blow Away”) or punk thrashes which reference the Banshees and “Johnny” (Rotten?) (“Violin”)?

And is the album all just one – menstrual – song cycle about the one family?

Furthermore, what relation does it bear to previous number one albums?

Consider how, on Gabriel’s “Intruder,” the protagonist stops to smell the woman’s clothes and perfumes.

And then how, on “Babooshka” (a top five single; was anybody really listening to it?), a woman disguises herself, sends her husband “scented letters.”

Could the intruder be the husband himself, creeping out of the communal bed to remind himself of how he thinks his wife once was?

Because although he doesn’t know who’s sending these scented letters, we are told that he receives them with “a strange delight.”

Hold on a minute…haven’t we been here before?

“Better men than I/Have tried your strange delight/Is there no strange delight?”

He falls for her again, like he had done once before, and they meet up in a restaurant, and he recognises something in her but isn’t quite sure what. The song doesn’t give us an ending but the endless chinking and breaking of wine glasses at the end suggest that it may not last.

If Gabriel finds that the only solution to his internal crisis is to face out into the world, Bush seems to want to withdraw “the world” from her viewpoint altogether.

Back into the womb or the tomb – so hard is it sometimes to differentiate the two, as she points out on “All We Ever Look For”; parents who just want their children to be their replicas, and so set them off on a lifelong quest for something – anything, God, drugs, “a big hug” – to reproduce that original feeling, that not-remotely-strange delight. A wilful stepsister to Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song,” it likewise detours into a strange, quietly meditative section with the sound of doors opening and shutting, footsteps, birdsong, motorway traffic; its conclusion appears to be that the cycle won’t quite repeat itself – we’ll never be exactly like our parents (“But we never do score”) – but we’re doomed to keep on searching for…well, “IT.” Our elusive dreams.

“Delius” is about death, too; the last days of the composer (and Eric Fenby is acknowledged; “In B, Fenby”) contemplated over a purring drum machine and a semi-abstract musical background with booming bass voices alternating with Bush’s high waves. Somewhere between McCartney’s “Summer’s Day Song” and John Martyn’s “Small Hours” – if it sometimes resembles one of those amiably discursive inter-song links on Saint Etienne records (e.g. “Wilson”) then Bush’s “Ooh, he’s a moody Old Man” has a touch of the Sarah Cracknells about it.

(Was Ken Russell the only influence, however? In 1979 Vibing Up The Senile Man, the “challenging” second album by Alternative TV, was released to general ridicule, and predictably now sounds uncannily prophetic; the original record ends with a drunken freeform singalong: “Vis-sssss-iting DE-lius was a MAD aff-AIR!”)

Whereas “Blow Away” is about Bill Duffield, the lighting man on Kate’s 1979 tour who accidentally fell to his death while preparing the stage at Poole Arts Centre (given the Thomas Hardy/Dorset setting, one might be forgiven for seeing Hardy’s “President of the Immortals” silently at work in the background of this song), following which Kate resolved never to tour again (and she has kept to this resolution ever since). Never For Ever? – no, EMI, I am not going to keep playing your game. No, happy Surbiton lawn-sprinklers, I am not here to say what you’d like.

In the music she thinks of where the music goes after it’s gone into the air. If you were Eric Dolphy you’d say it went everywhere, but Kate is not so sure. “One of the band told me last night,” she sings, “that music is all he’s got in his life.” Slight but immense pause. “So where does it go?” What happens to a life when the music’s gone? Does it simply end?

The thought here is that it doesn’t, that people can have a near-death experience and glimpse the afterlife but come back, and anyway it’s all metaphorical – it’s the ghosts, the spirits, of Bolan and Moon and Buddy Holly that continue to inspire the musician. She gets points for remembering Minnie Riperton, for acknowledging one of her indirect ancestors Sandy Denny, and…the unusually emphasised “Vicious, Vicious”…

…coming from a partly Irish background, I’m sure Kate would have understood “Death Disco” in an instant; Lydon simultaneously holding a wake and a jig of life…

…but what does this have to do with a woman “testing” her husband?

(The heartbreak implicit in Pauline Yates’ smiling face near the end of the first series of The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin, when she realises who Martin the dentist really is but knows enough never to say anything…)

(does anybody else realise that Perrin is just the slapstick flipside to The Prisoner? “You resign, you disappear, you return”…”I feel like a new man!”…”Die, ‘SIX,’ DIE!”)

And then “Egypt.” At first glance this is just another piece of exotica, not really connected to anything else on the album, but that line:

“I cannot stop to comfort them/I’m busy chasing up my demons.”

Or, as Peter Gabriel put it: “I don’t know how to stop.”

…and then her vocal becomes tortured, harsh, disturbing as the song gets nearer its end. “Oh, I’m in LOVE with Egypt!,” sung as though she is being held prisoner in Egypt.

The record is all about Kate Bush’s demons really.

“The Wedding List” is aptly demonic. I don’t know whether the song was more than obliquely inspired by the Truffaut film, since the latter’s plot is entirely different; the bridegroom is not shot on his wedding day in a crime of passion, but killed accidentally by some guys horsing about with a rifle in an opposite tower. Jeanne Moreau’s widow systematically and pitilessly hunts them down and disposes of them, even unto prison. It’s not a terribly successful film – it’s another of Truffaut’s periodic attempts to do a Hitchcock, and Moreau is clearly out of her acting comfort zone for much of the time – but Kate’s song makes do with more than a McGuffin. She ambiguously tracks down her husband’s assassin and goes into some detail about how she’s going to kill him. But it really, and uncomfortably, is unclear whether there even is another assassin present, since the final verse (not printed in the lyric sheet) details how she then commits suicide, and inside her is found an unborn baby (“Was it Rudi’s?”). The verses are fast and intent, the choruses slow and funereal. Bush’s vocal becomes half-deranged; given the song’s subject matter and the time of its release, it is disturbing how much Bush sounds like Yoko Ono.

“Violin” is as “punk rock” as Kate ever got; she loves the instrument and tries to imitate its vast swoops and sweeps (“Filling me up WIIIITTTTTHHHH…”). Again there is Yoko-type screaming and a general feeling of early Roxy Music.

But what if that music is all you’ve got?

Why not let the child live?

Or does the child of “Babooshka” grow up and become confused, and then angry?

Is the widow of “The Wedding List” the “new” wife from “Babooshka,” and was one version of her husband battling another?

But what is the alternative?

Bring the child into the world, watch him grow (and for lyrical and continuity-related reasons the protagonist of two of the next three songs is male) and then see what happens.

But “The Infant’s Kiss” goes beyond all that.

I think Kate knew The Innocents. It isn’t The Turn Of The Screw but very little is. Deborah Kerr’s governess – a Cubist inversion of her character in The King And I - is plainly scared by her charge and equally plainly is sexually frustrated. So she sees the children, indeed sees into them and sees the spirits of the bad grown-ups who’d been there before.

It’s nearly the same with Bush’s protagonist. She tucks the child into bed, says goodnight…and then the song becomes truly frightening, because although nothing as such happens in the song, everything is going on in her mind, and, as I suggested above, it’s something that goes beyond and indeed turns around all the previous maleness in this tale, with those “young girls,” and “only seventeens,” and “back to schools.” Nobody went as far as this, and I doubt whether a song like this would even happen now. It is almost as if Bush is turning “rock music” on its head and pointing a mirror back at it.

And the difference is that here, like Morrison’s distraught driver in “Cyprus Avenue,” she holds back. She knows she can never have him – the implications she puts into the line “I want to smack but I hold back” are truly scary – knows in herself that what she is feeling is very, very wrong, and retreats (“I must stay and find a way to stop before it gets too much”).

(from earlier in 1980, already a ghost: “Gotta find some therapy/This treatment takes too long.” Two years before The Dreaming)

The song also has what is probably the most reluctant Picardy third I’ve heard in any piece of music.

A brief, multitracked, wordless vocal chorus; “Night Scented Stock,” which could have been named “Her Prayer”…

…and then the Joyce Grenfell on Factory electro-waltz of “Army Dreamers” where the infant of “The Infant’s Kiss” grows up, is sent off to war – perhaps to Northern Ireland (drummer Stuart Elliott here plays the bodhran) – and comes back in a box. The male/female call-and-response from “Delius” returns, more insistently, as Bush spells out the reasons why he couldn’t not be blown up (“What could he do? Should have been a rock star,” “But he didn’t have the money for a guitar” – a reason, pace “Blow Away,” why music can matter). The loss is profound, although the depth of the singer’s grief is buried within her ironically jaunty high-pitched delivery. What’s the point, the song appears to ask; we’re all going to die anyway.

(A lifetime later, a not dissimilar female musician, who would have been about eleven when Never For Ever was released, sang the following:

“Later in the dark
I thought I heard Louis’ voice
Calling for his Mother, then me,
But I couldn’t get to him.”
[PJ Harvey, “The Colour Of The Earth,” from Let England Swing, a record which goes some way towards answering some of the questions Bush asked three decades before.)

On which subject…

The last word – virtually – comes from the unborn child itself.

There has been a nuclear war, the cavortings of the “Babooshka” couple(s), like those of Tristan and Isolde on the Rhine, have somehow led to Gotterdammerung – one scarcely notices that for the most part “Breathing” and “Babooshka” follow the same chord sequence, are at times practically the same tune, and I am sure that was not accidental – and at last we get to hear from the child herself. She is in her mother’s womb; she may or may not be born but all she knows is that she is breathing in particles of fallout radiation (“Chips of Plutonium are twinkling in every lung,” Bush almost weeps) as well as her mother’s nicotine. Whatever state her mother is in, the foetus itself is suffering.

(Compare the opening “Outside gets inside, through her skin” with the paraphrasing of Ponting’s “The Sleeping Bag” on Ute Lemper’s “Scope J,” written by…Scott Walker. Although in that middle section Lemper sounds far more like Carla Bley than Kate Bush, I should say it is not my intention to place Walker at the crossroads of all of this music, however tempting that prospect might be; it just seems that somehow, he is there, even in 1980, a full year before Cope more or less brings his name back to the world – when I played Cope’s Fire Escape In The Sky compilation in my first year at university, I lost count of the number of times my fellow students made comments in the line of: “I thought Scott Walker was dead” – when he is entirely out of public view and his back catalogue can be purchased from most second-hand record shops and you’d still have change out of a fiver.)

The child wants to live but knows it will most probably never get the chance – and this, remember, is 1980, when the prospect of there being a 1981 was far from certain. “I love my beloved/All and everywhere” she sings, as though prematurely saying farewell (all the love she’ll never have or know; see the heartrending collage of telephone call signoffs on The Dreaming).

And then, following a long, indistinct, sampled speech about the effects of The Bomb, rather than looking out onto the world, as Gabriel has to do, the world looks in at her.

“What are we going to do?/We are all going to die!” they sing, as if readying themselves for meeting the ghosts of “Blow Away,” sounding as though they are taking the world down with them. Bush screams, whispers – “Ooh, please let me breathe,” “Quick, breathe in deep” – and, finally, as she herself succumbs, finds the key: “Ooh, life is…breathing.”

(N.B.: don’t underestimate those “Ooh”s; they are sometimes important, as they let things sink in.)

(Another album from towards the end of 1980; the second Specials album, in which Jerry Dammers wrongfoots his fans and explores Muzak. The record is uneven but when it works, its impact is enormous: the climactic “International Jet Set” closes with a ‘plane heading towards crash landing, passengers (including the Go-Go’s) screaming that they’re all going to die, what are they going to do, and a taped announcement implying that there is no pilot on board.)

And that is it; in nearly a quarter of a century, a woman has her full say on Then Play Long. It was a long time coming but if you’re dealing with life and death, these things can’t be rushed. As a collection of songs, Never For Ever does anything but reassure; the mood is generally foreboding, and in the context of a number one album I might risk moderate blasphemy and say that I think that even as a gesture, or statement of intent, this album is far “braver” than moving yourself entirely out of the system and putting in your music as an uncensored stream of mind flotilla – expression becoming interchangeable with thought. The Wire’s collection of Walker essays No Regrets finally fails for me because it propels itself towards the misleading assumption that Tilt and The Drift constitute the apex of his work; Ian Penman’s “A Dandy In Aspic” contribution, in marked contrast, does succeed for me because it has the informed temerity to suggest that the Philips work of the late sixties and early seventies might actually still be Walker’s artistic apex, and that he benefited from the tension of showbiz and needing to sell records. As startling and original as Walker’s later work is, I am not sure that he has not simply been walking away from something – I don’t know what, or who, or why – since about 1977.

But Bush has stayed within the system, miraculously twisted it towards meeting her own terms, and negotiated a rare kind of compromise; she keeps selling, but continues to do exactly as she likes. We will meet her again in five years or so from now, when the rest of the world catches up with her breath.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Gary NUMAN: Telekon


(#236: 13 September 1980, 1 week)

Track listing: This Wreckage/The Aircrash Bureau/Telekon/Remind Me To Smile/Sleep By Windows/I’m An Agent/I Dream Of Wires/Remember I Was Vapour/Please Push No More/The Joy Circuit

We haven’t had too many examples so far of “It’s Tough At The Top”-type albums, the self-pitying ones where highly moneyed superstars whine about how rich and famous they are and what a drag it is being a loved, acclaimed pop or rock star. Perhaps somewhere at the core of chart compilation is a safety valve that stops such records from getting right to the top.

With Gary Numan, however, there’s always something else, something deeper, or more painful, that stops him from veering onto the self-pitying superstar course. So, just as Telekon is the third part of his “Machine” trilogy of albums, I think it’s also the most convincing. Consider: on Replicas he fantasises about a violent dystopia that might be the near future or the present tense viewed through an opaque glass. On The Pleasure Principle he seemed to be getting more accustomed to being a machine. But on Telekon, the mirror cracks and he decides that being a machine isn’t as great a future as he once thought it was. Songs like “Sleep By Windows” and “Remember I Was Vapour” are directly aimed at his fans, or devotees at any rate, and throughout the record there is the gruelling feeling that this idea of stardom wasn’t really what he signed up for, that he maybe feels emptier than he did when he was thrashing out punk guitar with Tubeway Army and earning only a crust. Daft Punk released an album called Human After All, and while it is not a very good album, its title could be equally applicable to Telekon.

As with other recent entries, there is an uncompromising savagery to this music which puts it far beyond 2013’s idea of mainstream, and its achievement in getting to number one is at the very least admirable. I have to warn you that we are now firmly entering “my time” as far as this tale is concerned and so there may be an unnecessary residual bias on my part towards these records. But it also has to be recognised that this 1980 run of albums is extraordinary to the point of staggering; qualitatively, it’s one of the finest sustained sequences in all of Then Play Long (and is by no means over yet) and maybe the best of its decade (those anticipating unalloyed brilliance through 1981 and 1982 may, I fear, be disappointed; 1981 is one of the downright weirdest years that we’ll do).

And, set against the varying degrees of darkness that its peer albums offer, Telekon really sets new standards for bleakness. The stark sleeve design – red ink on black backgrounds, white dry ice and an airbrushed, vaguely threatening “weapon” which turned out to be a tube from Numan’s mother’s Hoover – is heartbreaking in how much of the “future” it still entails. I think “heartbreaking” is an apt adjective to use here, since the songs are almost all about disappointment and alienation, moving away from who, or what, the singer might once have been.

There are no halfway houses with Telekon; neither of Numan’s mid-1980 singles, “We Are Glass” or “I Die: You Die,” is included – “We Are Glass” pops up on the CD version in between “Sleep By Windows” and “I’m An Agent” and sounds awkwardly out of place, whereas “I Die: You Die” works much better as a bonus track afterthought – and although the music is texturally thicker and fuller than on The Pleasure Principle, with guitars returning to some form of prominence (particularly noticeable on the crunch of “I’m An Agent”), the gloom is also enlarged, and a sort of sustained poignancy is achieved by the use of the ARP Pro-Soloist analogue synthesiser, which provides the “weeping” vibrato that crops up regularly through each track (and is logically reminiscent of Joe Meek).

Hence songs like “This Wreckage” – a strange and backfiring choice for third single - sound both fuller and emptier, Numan’s voice wreathed in greater echoic resonance but virtually empty of any feeling (“Wipe off my face/Erase me…/It’s all just show”) with endlessly wandering and vacillating whole tone chord changes. There is a vastness of nothing about these songs; I am reminded of when I first listened to them, on a train rushing down from Glasgow, through a darkened, storm-tossed, uncaring post-industrial North towards the oasis of Oxford, just a couple of months after the album came out; in between these two cities it felt as though Britain were collapsing, and this was the collapse’s non-erasable soundtrack. The chorus is Japanese for “leave you soon,” sung wistfully over triplicate descending raindrops. You’d never think there was a future beyond this song.

Nor does the rest of Telekon offer much in the way of a future, at least not intentionally – note how this is the third album in this 1980 sequence to feature the head of its artist on the cover, looking somewhat startled and afraid. But where Peter Gabriel solved his dilemma by turning himself, or his self, towards the wider world, Numan seems keener to shut out any notions of “the wider world.” “The Aircraft Bureau,” for instance, focuses on a ghost D-day pilot, warning anyone thinking about getting on his ‘plane to take care they don’t end up like him. Musically, gentle piano filigrees play against fulsome Minimoog and Polymoog melancholy; Simple Minds “et al” are credited with the handclaps towards song’s end (who would have thought Simple Minds, of all groups, would make such a discreet, sideways entrance into this tale?). As with a lot of Numan’s other work of the period, the singer himself is hardly present, instead giving prominence to a bright, Japanese electro melody played by synths and strings (violin and viola are used with greater architectural grace and logic than on The Pleasure Principle).

The title track, presumably inspired in part by Aladdin Sane – both concept and song - is so fearlessly avant-garde that one seriously, albeit briefly, wonders what went wrong with consumers of music after 1980; the exclamation “This was a number one album??” makes yet another appearance. The music is stealthy, wary, the lyrics random (“My dog went AWOL, I blame you all”) but uncomfortable (“It’s hard to breathe, it’s hard to breathe”). Chris Payne’s piano seems to fight against the rest of the song; atonal, sparse, out of tempo or key, as though Misha Mengelberg had dropped into a Yellow Magic Orchestra session. The effect is most disturbing.

Numan fans say that he was daft not to release “Remind Me To Smile” as a single; it’s the catchiest song on the record, with especially adventurous bass playing from Paul Gardiner, but there’s an element, perhaps of distrust, which prevents it from being a singalong. Numan’s barked “We must laugh” sounds like “We are glass,” and the call-and-response tug-of-war with the backing vocalists (the rest of his band) becomes stranger and more claustrophobic as the song proceeds. “Sleep By Windows,” however, ticks along malevolently (particularly on the part of Ced Sharpley’s quietly threatening percussion) and here Numan sounds as though he wants to block everybody, and everything, out of his life; the fans who camp outside his house or his dressing room, whom he will never let in (“Do you cry?/Do you dream?/Do you…did you?” – although he eventually did marry a fan). The risk is of course that he closes down the whole world as a result.

Side two begins with the very rocky (not rockist) “I’m An Agent,” the closest the record comes to 1980 Ultravox. Then comes the great whale of melancholia: “I Dream Of Wires,” covered later that year by Robert Palmer, which may well be about the good, vanished times when nobody knew who Numan was but he was happy (“New ways, new ways…/I dream of wires, the old days”) but also carries an element of apocalypse aftermath; there are several occasions on this side when Numan sounds like the last man alive, and on “Wires” he addresses this explicitly. “The last electrician alive” he sings, or intones, and this is not the album’s only reference to the Walker Brothers song (on “This Wreckage”: “My mirrors tarnished with ‘no-help’“). Yet, singing it, he hardly seems bothered, as if dozing off for an afternoon nap; the song fades out with a dolorous whistle superimposed on a post-Low funk rhythm track. “Remember I Was Vapour” is what BS Johnson might have called (if he’d had the sense to live to hear it) Numan’s “You’re Only Human Like The Rest Of Them” song, but again looks towards a post-human future, where nothing is left but receptors and signifiers (and doesn’t Numan sound curiously cheerful chanting out his “Remember I had reasons” lines?).

“Please Push No More,” which I remember carried quite a sizeable resonance as a performance piece, sounds, however, like the last song ever recorded. Over nothing much beyond Denis Haines’ piano, Gardiner’s quiet bass and Numan’s own delicate Minimoog, the singer once more muses on the album’s themes of faces, glass and identity; he is shutting out his audience as gently and irreversibly as the Roger Waters of 1980, putting the last brick in that wall (from “Sleep By Windows”: “I could talk about my programme/Where everything is white”). “I Was Only Joking,” to put it mildly, isn’t even on the same continent (literally). Nor does the closing “The Joy Circuit” give much, if any relief; Numan sings about reasons, pain, crying and dying as though this is all that life, and perhaps fame, have left him with. As the track reaches its climax, Payne’s violin and Rrussell Bell’s viola turn manic and hyperactive, cruising an asteroid hoedown like Fairport Convention on a spaceship. The music, and its artist, fade into silence.

And it’s possible that the silence, the loneness (as opposed to solitude), is all that the Gary Numan of 1980 wanted. In this instance, the bonus tracks on the CD edition are instructive. The original concept for the album was a man who could move any object just by thinking about it but who, intoxicated by his power, eventually destroys both the world and himself. But Numan seems to have reshaped that notion into a more person-specific idea of wanting to be left alone; and so the CD trails off with three instrumentals, the last being a moderately respectful reading of the first of Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies”; placid (but not unthreatening) electronics, a plaintive piano, no vocals, no need to explain or apologise for one’s self.

Before this decade is out, another Then Play Long entry will come along with a similar theme, including a track entitled “Leave Me Alone.” At the other end of this decade, the twenty-three-year-old Trent Reznor will listen doggedly to Telekon every day while putting together Pretty Hate Machine. In the next decade, another exhausted superstar will scream with dissatisfaction at fame, recognition and compromise – and he, who presumably would have heard Telekon in his youth, will, like the performer of “Leave Me Alone” but unlike Numan, not survive. This record foresees all of this, and comes with its own inbuilt warnings. Is this really what he wanted when he looked down at the park, and didn’t yet realise that he was gazing into a mirror?

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

AC/DC: Back In Black


(#235: 9 August 1980, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Hell’s Bells/Shoot To Thrill/What Do You Do For Money Honey/Given The Dog A Bone/Let Me Put My Love Into You/Back In Black/You Shook Me All Night Long/Have A Drink On Me/Shake A Leg/Rock ‘N’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution

It is the early spring of 1980. The four surviving members of AC/DC are waiting, rather impatiently, for Brian Johnson to show up for the audition they invited him to attend. Other highly able and experienced singers have been shortlisted for the job of replacing Bon Scott; one of them was Noddy Holder. But Johnson was an idol of Scott, who recalled seeing him, as frontman of the group Geordie, climaxing a gig by rolling about on the floor, screaming and screeching, and at the end of the performance being carted off in a wheelchair. Talk about Little Richard – although it transpired that Johnson was being carted off to hospital to treat an attack of acute appendicitis, hence his rolling around and screaming. So Johnson became the first name on AC/DC’s list.

Where is he, though? He was supposed to be here an hour ago. “Oh, HIM,” said someone else. “He’s downstairs playing pool with the roadies.” The group shrugged their shoulders and thought: oh well, at least he plays pool, and moreover he gets on with the roadies – always a good sign.

Eventually Johnson was brought upstairs to meet the musicians; he was visibly upset about Scott’s death, as upset as the rest of them were – there had been some question about whether AC/DC should carry on at all, but they agreed, goaded by the encouragement of Scott’s parents, that he would have wanted them to continue. But he was here – what you do fancy doing? “How about ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’?” Johnson suggested, “I do that on stage with Geordie.” Fair enough, and they launched into the song, realising that this guy with the flat cap was actually bloody good. Encouraged, Johnson then suggested doing “Nutbush City Limits.” Fine, the band thought – it’s a pretty straightforward rock number, we can handle that. Johnson then proceeded to bawl out the song, at times singing an octave higher than even Tina Turner managed. The startled group realised that this guy was a completely fucking awesome singer – not only did he completely fit in with what the group was doing, but he was also making them sound bigger and livelier than they’d ever done before - and they allowed themselves a smile; the first time they’d smiled since Scott died. He was in.

There was some initial disquiet amongst hard-bitten fans and parts of the music press; the guy out of Geordie??!!? You may remember that Johnson first turned up on Pure Gold On EMI singing lead on Geordie’s 1973 top ten hit “All Because Of You” sounding and looking pretty much the same as he did seven years later. But Geordie never really followed through their initial success and so by the turn of the decade were primarily a gigging concern; it is said that at the time he was called to the audition, Johnson was still living at home with his mother.

But it really doesn’t take much more than a cursory listen to Back In Black to realise that Johnson was completely the man for the job; and I find the above story extremely moving. Listening to the album, it still sounds like the new beginning it was surely meant to symbolise – the band wanted a completely black cover, but Atlantic demurred, asking for at least a grey outline of their logo so as not to confuse purchasers – and a chance to start over again when all seemed finished. I don’t need to emphasise the personal angle I have on this – read The Church Of Me to find out how I did it – but I naturally have greater empathy towards art, and people, who come out of a tunnel of darkness, even if they have to carve their way back into the light. I suspect even the embryonic New Order, up in Manchester, must have taken note of how AC/DC managed it.

I’m not sure, however, that even AC/DC thought that Back In Black would become the milestone record it did become, a record outsold in the States by just five others (even though it never made number one on Billboard). The only album by a rock band to sell more copies worldwide is Dark Side Of The Moon. In other words, the album became a titanic totem to those adolescents who had missed the sixties and seventies and wanted to rock in the present tense.

Back In Black is maybe the most straightforward album to appear in this tale so far; it knows exactly what it wants to achieve, does what it says on the tin, etc. Yet half of its ten songs refer, either directly or obliquely, to its deceased dedicatee. On “Shake A Leg,” for instance, a song about the kind of pissed-off teenage delinquent who would help form the record’s core audience over more than one generation, note should be made of the emphasis Johnson gives in each chorus to the words “Wake the dead.”

This is most evident on the opening “Hell’s Bells,” which, although it is really about a rather terrified Johnson on a dodgy flight with the rest of the group to Compass Point Studios in Nassau, where they had to deal with tropical storms, near-hurricane winds and so forth (hence the references to “rolling thunder, pouring rain,” hurricanes and lightning), also works as a threnody, beginning with the solemn tolling of a single bell, soon joined by the group, deploying an uncharacteristically slow but hard tempo reminiscent of Crazy Horse; you half expect Neil Young, rather than Johnson, to come in. The song is clearly a sequel to “Highway To Hell” but Johnson seems to be exulting in the world’s apparently imminent demise (he roars “Satan get ya!” with untrammelled delight).

The group were right, though; Johnson makes AC/DC sound bigger (as does producer Mutt Lange, who realises very early on that with a group this tight – Cliff Williams’ bass is absolutely at one with the Young brothers’ twin guitars all the way through the record – all he needs to do is make sure it’s recorded right and that it’s mixed up loud enough to sound good on car stereos). Where Scott’s lower register bluesy raunch puts one in mind of a superior bar band, Johnson’s squeal – he starts where the likes of Ian Gillan leave off, and stays there; truly in his mastery of the sustained false upper register he is rock’s Gato Barbieri – seems to avail the group to the world, a voice that turns songs into anthems, will make them come across at stadium level (I wonder how many post-1980 people eagerly lapped up Back In Black thinking that it was AC/DC’s first album?). How does he succeed where Holder’s Slade failed (in the USA, at least)? He’s more direct – paradoxically, his voice is pitched so high that his words come out more clearly – while the band, although natural swingers (check the lovely breakdown and build-up in the last third of “Shoot To Thrill” for proof of their swing), are rhythmically much more direct. And there’s no evidence of a tongue in anybody’s cheek.

No, when they do songs like “Given The Dog A Bone” (I know some sources give the title as “Giving” or “Givin’,” but that’s what it says on the original issue, on both sleeve and label) and “Let Me Put My Love Into You,” they mean it (even if “it” invariably turns out to be the one thing), they give us lyrics which at times make Sid the Sexist sound like Gloria Steinem but which are so comically overdrawn that they are impossible to take seriously; Angus Young’s schoolboy gear is the clue – AC/DC are, essentially, thirteen years old, designed primarily to appeal to disgruntled young teenage males who maybe don’t yet have any idea of what the opposite sex are like. The point where kids just want to tell their parents to go screw themselves but have no notion of what that might involve.

But, dammit, they can rock. The penthouse hooker scenario of “What Do You Do For Money Honey” knocks Rod Stewart back into the dog kennel; “Let Me Put My Love Into You” shows that Stones who might be boss. Everything is pared down, economical, with neat, abrupt endings to songs; only the first two tracks exceed five minutes. Angus and Malcolm Young have the greatest symbiotic understanding of any lead guitar pairing this side of the Stones; it doesn’t matter who’s soloing, they are not exhibitionists, they feed off each other and enhance the whole.

But side two is where The Hits are. I can’t even begin to think of the nascent hip hop generations inspired to rustle up their own dope beats because of the monolithic title track; how long had it been since Zeppelin sounded this alive? Charged with writing a tribute lyric to Bon which avoided the mawkish and sentimental, Johnson came up with something Scott would have been proud to sing, defiant and relevant (“I got nine lives, cat’s eyes,” “Getting loose from the noose,” “Forget the hearse, ‘cause I’ll never die”). The central riff is brilliant and the triple across-the-beat elisions are more than worthy of Zep.

“You Shook Me All Night Long” sees Johnson getting more than satisfied; I just recall how any dancefloor would be flooded, mainly by women, when this song came on, whether student disco or office party – the song is not just first-class rock, but damn near perfect pop, with everybody working and striving to make the song strut and resonate. “Have A Drink On Me” was controversial at the time, and not considered in the best of taste, but it’s clear that Johnson’s attitude to alcohol-induced oblivion is ambiguous; on one hand he is clearly enjoying how the pub or club is making him feel, while on the other he is mindful of what happened to Scott after a similar night at the Music Machine club, so his drunken euphoria is guarded (“Forget about the cheque, we’ll get Hell to pay”).

“Shake A Leg” is flawless hard rock for a generation missing Aerosmith and how things used to be; I incidentally note (although it was Lena who actually noted it) that the protagonists of this song and “What Do You Do For Money Honey” could be interchangeable, thinking of a young girl growing up at the time, not far from where Johnson came, who might have started as the subject of “Shake A Leg” but eventually came to be regarded by some as the subject of “Money Honey,” and whose favourite group was…AC/DC. But if you were a pissed-off kid in 1980 whose parents and teachers just dragged you down with their endless cajoling and admonitions, wouldn’t you want to lock yourself in your bedroom and play this record very loudly indeed?

The record ends with the poignant “Rock ‘N’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” which was popular enough to become a Top 20 single in the UK. Poignant not just because Johnson gives the finger to middle men and fence-sitters, but also because the song – played mid-tempo, with drummer Phil Rudd doing his best Bonham epic soundscaping (and how ironic that Bonham probably lived just long enough to hear Back In Black) – is a reclamation of something that seemed, in 1980, to have become forgotten; the power of rock ‘n’ roll, the spirit of Chuck Berry that powers all of these songs. And, of course, the memory of Bon Scott, which I feel is being heavily called upon here – Johnson sings, more than once, “We’re just talking about the future/Forget about the past,” while being careful to take with him the elements of the past that are worth preserving. “It’ll always be with us,” he says, “It’s never gonna die,” and he does so with such unapologetic fervour that you’re not quite sure whether he’s singing about rock ‘n’ roll, or Bon Scott, or both. What he is saying, though, and what the record says as a whole, is that nothing ever finishes, or at least shouldn’t be cut off before it is allowed to finish. “Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t gonna die…/Rock ‘n’ rolling will survive”; they saw an end, but also a way out, and a way out that also proved to be a point of entrance for so many people – it’s impossible to count (Frank Black? Bob Mould? Rick Rubin? KRS-One? INXS, another Australian-based rock band but containing no less than three brothers?) but the total number of people inspired by this record to get a guitar and embrace rock music over the ensuing decades probably runs into millions.

“Rock ‘n’ roll, rock ‘n’ roll,” muses/proclaims Johnson, right at the end of the record, “Is just rock ‘n’ roll.” And that’s what makes it – and Back In Black - rock ‘n’ roll; the best straight-down-the-line rock record in this tale since Led Zeppelin II, worthy of placing beside the first Elvis album and Never Mind The Bollocks. It is one of the best reasons for not committing suicide, or curtailing a blog, that I know.

Next: Wiry vapours.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

DEEP PURPLE: Deepest Purple


(#234: 2 August 1980, 1 week)

Track listing: Black Night/Speed King/Fireball/Hush/Strange Kind Of Woman/Child In Time/When A Blind Man Cries/Woman From Tokyo/Highway Star/Space Truckin’/Burn/Stormbringer/Soldier Of Fortune/Demon’s Eye/You Keep On Moving/Smoke On The Water

Subtitled The Very Best Of Deep Purple, the above track listing refers to 2010’s 30th Anniversary Edition, which preserves the original album’s running order but incorporates four extra tracks (these being “Hush,” “When A Blind Man Cries,” “Soldier Of Fortune” and “You Keep On Moving”) as well as a bonus DVD featuring much rare concert and television footage (“Speed King” is taken from a 1970 episode of The Vicky Leandros Show) and linking commentary from the late Jon Lord, and a cheery but informative sleevenote from Geoff Barton, of Sounds and Kerrang! fame. I have a lot of time for Mr Barton; he is the kind of music writer of which we could do with more these days – completely knowledgeable and totally authoritative within his specialist field; as persuasive as Dave McCullough, Garry Bushell or John Gill could be back in 1980, I always turned to Barton for guidance on things to do with heavy metal, and indeed Barton was almost wholly responsible for introducing, publicising and perhaps even naming that movement which was to be known as the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) which was in ascendance in mid-1980 and whose many practitioners must have regarded Deepest Purple as a sort of Bible; even though there is nothing on the record newer than 1975, the music still offers pointers to where rock could go.

I make no apologies for basing this piece on the expanded edition (as I have occasionally done with previous entries, for instance Hollywood musical soundtracks) since the CD/DVD package knocks the original, scratchy 12-track album out of the ballpark; while some 62 minutes of music were packed and compressed onto the original record, the extra 17 minutes of music here fill in some important gaps in the group’s history, the sound quality is naturally far better and overall, if you needed just one record to tell you what was so great about Deep Purple, this is the one, featuring practically everything they did that was interesting (and a few other things besides).

What maybe needs to be emphasised is the importance of the album as palpable physical package. Online ordering is in part a red herring; a CD obtained from Amazon is no less cherishable than one discovered in the average record shop racks. But, to take the theme of the previous entry a little further, I fear that the convenience of instant downloads – the minimal physical effort needed to obtain something that is (a) non-tangible and (b) not, strictly speaking, your property (unlike actual records and CDs, you are in truth renting these songs out from their providers) – is leading to a corresponding decline in the amount of emotional involvement devoted to listening to music. The less effort you have to make to find and get something, the less urgency you feel to lose yourself in the song’s fibres, to make your own sense out of a song. Or so it would seem.

Back to Deepest Purple, however, which in all probability is the best Purple record, almost filler-free and telling an easily traceable story through four different line-ups (as opposed to the two represented on the original release, whose catalogue number – Harvest EMTV 25 – tells us that this is another Golden Greats album in disguise). “Hush” remarkably didn’t make the original cut, nor (until 1988) did it chart at all in the UK, but was huge in the States, and it’s easy to see why; the Joe South song lends itself naturally to what I will call the group’s post-Nuggets approach - this is post-Mod garage rock (if that’s not a contradiction) with Lord’s organ and Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar already straining at pop’s leash, perhaps a little too much to take for a 1968 Britain accustomed to the more easily digestible likes of the Paper Dolls and Solomon King. Or possibly it’s down to Rod Evans’ lead vocal; though perfectly serviceable, Evans lacks a certain degree of individuality, and it was little surprise when, shortly afterwards, he and bassist Nick Simper were replaced by Ian Gillan and Roger Glover.

Thus began Purple’s golden age, and it’s good to see Deep Purple In Rock, about which I would not otherwise have written, represented here (although both “Black Night” and “Speed King” appear to be the single A and B-side edits). “Black Night” is still a mindblowing thing to have climbed to #2, even in 1970; Blackmore’s two extravagant solos taking James Burton out into Andromeda, while “Speed King” in both construction and delivery is a scratch-mix of rock ‘n’ roll history, with its quotes from Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Johnny Horton and others, but Gillan squeals and roars the samples out with such carefree aplomb that you are carried along until the climactic post-Sonny Sharrock freakout ending.

“Child In Time,” represented here in its full ten-and-a-quarter minute form, however, is the business. Based in some part on It’s A Beautiful Day’s “Bombay Calling,” it’s an extended lament for Vietnam which sets up the standard rock passage from meditative quiescence to tortured elegy. In its procedurals, you can see how Blackmore and Gillan in particular are intent on gradually dragging the group, and perhaps even rock, away from the sixties and into the seventies. The song begins as though it were still 1969; heavily echoed Flamingo Club organ, the hint of a slow bossa nova tempo, the aroma of the Age of Aquarius, and then Gillan makes his sombre low entry, steadily rising, register by emotional register, via some tremulous “ooh ooh”s which make me think of early Bowie, finally climaxing with a series of terrible, extended shrieks which go beyond even the realm of Kate Bush or Diamanda Galas; there is a staccato Bolero sequence, and then Blackmore and Ian Paice double the tempo to rock out, in a passage which really couldn’t have been imagined in 1969. Just as Blackmore’s solo peaks, the music suddenly falls back into the beginning of the cycle, which encircles once again, reaching the same awful climax but somehow also reaching beyond, to a horror past the comprehension of Arthur Brown (whose Crazy World prefigures “Child In Time” to no small degree, and whose vocal style is definitely redolent in Gillan’s work). Everything works up to a psyched-out coda, Gillan screaming a dozen daggers as the band, now led by Lord, finish on a DEMONIC chord which rattles in one’s mind long after the song has ended.

Then the work about which I have already written; two tracks from Fireball and the non-album single “Strange Kind Of Woman.” There is definitely a trace of proto-Van Halen about the group at this point, not least the vocal resemblance between Gillan and David Lee Roth, but also with the decidedly non-apologetic way in which the group goes about its business, even – in “Strange Kind Of Woman” – incorporating a slow, drugged-out, drifting middle section heralded by Gillan’s oddly poignant whisper of “Oh my soul, I love you.” “Demon’s Eye,” meanwhile, might almost be Muse (complete with “Uprising” schaffel synth bass riff) but owes its power chiefly to Gillan’s remarkable performance; with Gillan, it’s all in the intonation (“You KNOW you’re insane!,” the way he can onomatopoeically represent things slipping and sliding in his brain).

The three tracks from Machine Head you also likewise know about from what I previously had to say about them, to which I should add that “Highway Star” in its general structure put both Lena and me in mind of Sonic Youth (Lena thinks “Kool Thing” and I sense “Silver Rocket”; the mid-song guitar roll-and-tumble is very Thurston Moore). 1973’s Who Do We Think We Are, the final album from the Mk II Purple line-up (which peaked only at #4), confirmed that the meter was running on the formula but still provides one last classic in the very silly but highly enjoyable “Woman From Tokyo” wherein Gillan has great fun with his corny lines (“She turns me on like a fire”) and deliberately excessive stylings (his “I just don’t be-LONG!” howl morphs into an upward “Rocket Man”-style whammy bar whoosh). Mention should also be made of the overlooked “When A Blind Man Cries,” the non-album B-side to the relative flop single “Never Before” (here represented only on the DVD), a moody downtempo blues-folk lament that finds Gillan at rock bottom (“I’m not expecting people anymore”) although his good humour shines through even when he is at his supposedly most desperate: “Am I dead or drunk, I really don’t know” and the priceless “I had a friend once, in a room.” Of course you did, Ian.

When Gillan and Glover quit they took a lot of the band’s humour with them, and it’s telling that on the original album the David Coverdale/Glenn Hughes/Blackmore Mk III Purple is represented on only two of twelve tracks. It’s not difficult to see why; “Burn” and “Stormbringer” were the title tracks of successive albums, and while Ted Nugent appears to have listened intently to the former before coming up with “Cat Scratch Fever,” there is something missing. This is not to say that new singer Coverdale and singer/bassist Hughes are technically inadequate musicians – in fact, quite the reverse – but there’s a certain gruff, unarguable maleness in their joint approach that wasn’t always evident in the androgynous work of Gillan. Lord’s classical quotes on “Burn” are on the verge of turning passé, while Blackmore simply sounds disinterested. “Stormbringer” dispenses with the wry intensity that made “Smoke On The Water” stand out in favour of a heaving, humourless approach to a dodgy flight. “Ride the rainbow, rock the sky…time to die”??? Guys, it’s a thunderstorm. Coverdale, if anything, sounds like Tom Jones here; Blackmore clearly looking for a way out. “Soldier Of Fortune,” meanwhile, is a dreary ballad which Coverdale sings as though already shaping up for “Here I Go Again.”

Indeed, Blackmore quit after Stormbringer, and the doomed Tommy Bolin briefly took over on guitar; 1975’s Come Taste The Band, a record with a terrible cover which barely scraped into our Top 20, was not represented at all on the original Deepest Purple, and here only by the 45 version of “You Keep On Moving,” jointly sung by Coverdale and Hughes and coming across like…Sammy Hagar’s Van Halen, a joyless, dull affair which Bolin does nothing to distinguish with his very workaday guitar. We could be listening to anybody…and Lord and Paice, the only two originals left standing, presumably wonder whether this is what they had signed up for. All the more relief, then, as the record goes back out on a high; the group’s most famous song saved for last and sounding as good as it did last time I wrote about it. Programme out the later stuff, and concentrate on the Gillan-Blackmore-Lord-Glover-Paice model of Purple. Serious, and crucially also decidedly non-serious, rock indeed, and enough to fuel up the NWOBHM generation, of whom we will hear more in good time.

Next: Hard Rockin’ Shit (Part 2 of 2).

Friday, 18 January 2013

QUEEN: The Game


(#233: 19 July 1980, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Play The Game/Dragon Attack/Another One Bites The Dust/Need Your Loving Tonight/Crazy Little Thing Called Love/Rock It (prime jive)/Don’t Try Suicide/Sail Away Sweet Sister/Coming Soon/Save Me

My HMV story, or one of many; I bought this album, on vinyl, from the old HMV shop in Union Street, Glasgow, at the time of its release (£3.79, readers). I think I was particularly attracted to it because it had a silver cover which made it look like an ECM release (see Michael Mantler’s Movies and Tin Can Alley by Jack de Johnette’s Special Edition, released either side of this record, for two examples) and so there was a sense of occasion – and it is that sense, and any particular feeling of occasion, which I fear will now be lost forever.

The Union Street HMV was pretty authoritative and, at the time, unchallenged – there had been a Virgin store in Argyle Street in the early seventies but it closed down and a new Megastore, situated just three doors down from HMV in Union Street, and across the road from what was then Bruce’s Record Shop (therefore it was not so much gunfighter time, but more like a Mexican standoff), did not open until the very late autumn of 1980. The pop and rock section downstairs was as populous and noisy as you’d expect, but going upstairs was like visiting the Mitchell Library; the jazz and classical sections on the first floor were strictly Pindrop City – austere, hushed and faintly academic, but the stock they had was…well, fairly adequate for 1980 Glasgow, given the general limited availability or near-complete unavailability of most of the key jazz records at the time (I quickly learned that I needed places like Mole Jazz and Honest Jon’s for mail order purposes; in the cases of labels like Incus or Ogun, I would more often than not order directly from the labels [and, in some cases, the artists] themselves).

It was part of my Saturday thrill, however. Freed from the demands of school, I looked forward to my Glasgow record-shopping Saturdays like you wouldn’t believe. I took everything in, of which HMV was just one (albeit very important) part. As the bus sped into town, past the old Parkhead Forge with the HOME RULE and accompanying thistle graffiti which stayed there for years, I was filled with excitement because more often than not I didn’t know what I would find, whether I would find anything and what I might come home with. Somehow I was always surprised, in the good sense. It was the effort and anticipation, and, if I was lucky, the joy of finding something (or something else that I hadn’t at all anticipated), that made my youthful Saturdays worthwhile. The knowledge that one had made the effort to go and find music.

That is what is going to be lost. I’m not going to bang any drum for misplaced nostalgia; nothing was going to stop the pre-recorded music industry being bled dry by downloads. I have no particular flag to wave about the merits of vinyl versus cassette versus CD except that I enjoy having CDs; they are far easier to stack and shelve than old records, much easier to handle, play and listen to, and don’t give out what my late first wife once referred to as “the smell of digestive biscuits.” But, as I say, I’m not entering into any argument about the relative values of different reproductive formats.

But it was the physical and mental thrill of going out, looking for music and finding music that made it all worthwhile. Nowadays you don’t have to do any work, or even leave the house, to get new music; click a button, enter the appropriate financial reference number and there you are. No effort needed – you don’t risk wearing out your shoes or catching a cold traipsing around a dozen or more record shops - and I suspect most people today would cackle at the notion that effort to find music was ever required. But it was a major reason why I decided to move to London, and the phenomenal shrinkage in number and quality of London record shops in general is something to lament. It sort of makes me wonder why I ever bothered moving there. Things like that which mean little to the downloaders of today but everything to older folk like me.

Enough of the angst, however; I’m here to talk about Queen, and their big modern entry into a new decade which got them not only a US number one album but also two number one singles over there (“Another One Bites The Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”). Given the group managed to score two number ones off the same album with songs done in completely different styles, you might think that American audiences had a right to be suspicious.

As ever, though, any suspicion was cancelled out by the dawning realisation: “oh, they’re English,” but an Englishness with which Americans could identify. None of your Noddy Holder/Bryan Ferry all-very-well-but-what-is-he-SAYING linguistic confusions. No, you could put on “Dragon Attack” or “Need Your Loving Tonight” and drive down the sunlit freeway to first-rate FM rock catchy enough also to qualify as pop.

This tale hasn’t seen Queen since the beginning of 1977, and the two albums released in between A Day At The Races and this one (1977’s News Of The World and 1978’s Jazz, not counting the Queen Live Killers concert double) showed them making much effort to get out of the Seventies Glam-Prog straitjacket. The Game, however, was the nearest they came to getting the formula bottled.

In contrast to all of their previous records, which proudly carried the banner “No Synthesisers!,” the group, in conjunction with co-producer and engineer Reinhold Mack, were finally persuaded to use the Oberheim OB-X device; like ELO’s Discovery, recorded in the same Munich studios about a year earlier, the record bubbles with delight at what can be done with this new toy. “Play The Game” opens the album with defiant backward hisses of synthesiser, all cascading down to jumpcut into a standard Freddie Mercury piano ballad but continuing to fly and ping and explode all over the song like uncontrolled fireworks. The song itself seems undecided about whether it wants to be Sparks or Radiohead (to which latter “Play The Game” looks forward pretty definitively).

Likewise, the silver cover depicted four men who, if they hadn’t quite heard of the Ramones, were clearly keen to be considered as Modern, in their cropped haircuts and leather stares. The pictures found inside the sleeve, though, tell a different story; Mercury now has a moustache, and looks reflective, like 1980’s Young Asian Businessman Of The Year. Deacon with haircut, white shirt and black tie looks like Jon Moss auditioning for Ultravox. Meanwhile, Roger Taylor with his hennaed hair, pancake make-up and Mad Max gear and stare, looks like he wants to be in another band with a drummer named Roger Taylor. Only May looks like you would expect, i.e. the overgrown Class Swot, with anorak, badges, a startling pullover and a nerdy grin – his anorak collar is so big it’s difficult to work out where it stops and his hair begins.

“Dragon Attack” begins with an uncharacteristic Robert Plant/Jeff Buckley gurgle from Mercury, but soon settles into what Patrick Bateman would call smashing rock, with an ironically descending “Yeah, yeah, yeah”) and a chance for everybody to solo (“Get down!” giggles Mercury, eagerly and unironically, at Taylor’s beats). Overall the song plays like a hipper Aersomith (by 1980 standards, when the men from Boston were in a bit of a doldrums) with, even at this early stage, indications of the shady path which would eventually lead to “Walk This Way.” Even Adam Ant must have heard this, and nodded.

“Another One Bites The Dust” is their big Chic tribute (Bernard Edwards attributed the song’s origins to the group, Deacon in particular, hanging out at Chic’s studios and learning) which almost entirely relies on the rhythm section to carry the song forward and whose sound effects are generated not by synthesisers but tape delay and the judicious use of the Eventide Harmonizer (Mack was instrumental in the group’s move forward, having introduced them on this album to the wonders of the drop-in recording technique). Over this pointillistic soundtrack, Mercury alternately enthuses (“Hey HEY!,” “Shoot UP!”) and howls, since lyrically it is not a very upbeat song (“You TOOK me for everyTHING that I HAD and KICKEDMEOUTONMYOWN!”). The crucial factor, however, is May’s delicious Nile Rodgers funk fills, which he keeps to a teasing minimum (no more than four bars at any one time, and no more than three times in total). Michael Jackson suggested to the group that it might do well as a single.

“Need Your Loving Tonight” sets the scene for Bryan Adams (as much as it is simultaneously reminiscent of Dave Edmunds) in terms of bright, sunny, nothing-can-stop-us-now highway AoR, so life-affirming that one overlooks the fact that Mercury is yet again singing about a love affair gone wrong and his consequent desperation. And, with great Dave Edmunds-related irony, the group’s great leap forward was occasioned by an Elvis rockabilly tribute. Deliciously silly, with Mercury mooning, teasing and moaning over his own beginner’s acoustic guitar (by his own admission, he couldn’t play the guitar for nuts) and the “Ready, Freddie!” call-and-responses, May does his Scotty Moore/Carl Perkins best but can’t avoid being “Brian May.” Nor would anyone necessarily want him to do so. You could say that they were determined to show those Showaddywaddy who’s boss.

If side one has most of the hits, side two is necessarily mainly B-side material; the group constantly trying out different tactics. Of these songs, Taylor’s “Rock It” (with Freddie singing the doowop ballad intro – “It GAATS DAAHN to my SOUL!” - followed by Roger when the song speeds up) is the most successful, speeding along like a lither Led Zeppelin, with even a spot of jerky New Wave organ to help things along (much of The Game makes one wonder how a surviving Zeppelin might have seen in the eighties).

Mercury’s “Don’t Try Suicide” is, however, beyond daft. Part “Three Cool Cats”/West Side Story finger-snapping stuff, part 1975 Abba chorus, part inordinate rocking out, I do not think that any of Queen had Ian Curtis remotely in mind when they did this song, but “Dress Rehearsal Rag” it is not, even though it shares the same mordantly mocking sense of humour (“Nobody’s WORTH it!,” “Nobody CARES!,” “Just gonna HATE it!,” “NOBODY! GIVES! A! DAMN!”). “Sail Away Sweet Sister,” written and sung by May and dedicated “To the sister I never had,” is a doubtless heartfelt emotional song performed with conviction and truthfulness by its author which nonetheless makes me think it is still 1971 and move the needle along to the next track (of the four members of Queen as they stood in 1980, May feels and looks like the one who really would have preferred it still to have been ten years ago).

“Coming Soon,” another Taylor composition, is like a Cutting Crew or Wang Chung demo, very eighties and sequenced, although detoured by a strange final synth/vocal choir harmony at its very end. The record finishes with “Save Me,” written by May but sung by Mercury – and in contrast to the sentiments articulated at the beginning of the album (“Play the game of love,” “Open up your mind”), the singer now finds it was all lies, and is naked, alone and…you guessed it…”far from home,” that place that number one albums just can’t seem to shake off.

Overall, then, The Game is a half-excellent album and half unfinished sketches; I think their next album, the Flash Gordon soundtrack, is a more consistently entertaining record, but sadly we don’t get to it here. However, it again suggests that by and large Queen are a great singles group who don’t always transpose their greatness onto their albums. Nonetheless, they want to move on, and for at least half the time here, they sound as though they are going somewhere and taking their listeners with them. Not staying in an unattainable past, but facing the future while taking care not to discard what was hitherto of value. HMV should have taken note.

Next: Hard Rockin’ Shit (Part 1 of 2).

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The ROLLING STONES: Emotional Rescue


(#232: 5 July 1980, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Dance (Pt. 1)/Summer Romance/Send It To Me/Let Me Go/Indian Girl/Where The Boys Go/Down In The Hole/Emotional Rescue/She’s So Cold/All About You

The last word on Some Girls is “Shattered” and the last palpable words sung on that song are “does it matter?” The overwhelming feeling one gets from the follow-up is that nothing matters at all…except love, as the last words on the record make very clear. In that sense, Emotional Rescue has more in common with Flesh And Blood than just Jerry Hall; but remember that one of the main reasons she left Ferry for Jagger was that Mick was more fun to be with. Wandering through Flesh And Blood, it’s easy to see what she meant; Ferry seems to be perpetually strolling underneath a cloud of permanent grey.

Still, I’m not sure Emotional Rescue is a return to the just-for-laffs edition of the Stones we last glimpsed on Goats Head Soup. Nobody is ever going to claim that it is a classic Stones album, but it’s a far more entertaining and enjoyable listen than some “classic” Stones records which spring to mind.

But then, the Stones in 1980 really had nothing to prove. They certainly did two years previously, when Some Girls was explicitly tailored as a Major Statement, that the group knew what time it was and were not yet ready to be thrown on the rusty old scrapheap of Classic Rock. So we get another “solid” Stones record, rather than its predecessor’s Declaration of Principles – except that its apparent solidity may be deceptive.

At its best, though, Emotional Rescue is a very funny and propulsive record. The opening “Dance (Pt. 1)” is a darn sight funkier than the 1980 Stones might have reasonably been expected to be; the Glimmer Twins indulging in some Richmond jive talk in the intro before the rest of the band sweeps in, Bill Wyman admirably forthright with his bass – clearly he had been paying attention to Bernard Edwards, and his creative bass work is a pleasure to hear throughout the record – while Jagger stumbles messily over some smudged observations on rich men and poor men, even though the line “Get up, get out, get into something new” could be neither louder nor clearer. He sounds like a more expensive James Chance, while the track fumbles about very entertainingly, like a KC and the Sunshine Band/Led Zeppelin mash-up. Max Romeo is just about audible on backing vocals.

“Summer Romance”’s college girl lyric might be considered trying it for a bunch of fellows approaching forty (or, in Wyman’s case, having long since passed forty) and haven’t we learned anything from the seventies, but the pretty fervent rocking going on, plus the presence of Ronnie Wood, suggest a Rod ‘n’ the Faces pisstake. “Send It To Me” finds the band wearing their reggae tennis shoes (Romeo does some additional percussion) with a very silly lyric about Jagger wanting money, or love, or possibly both; it namechecks the then-current Alien (so that the hard-of-keeping-up Mick knows what decade it is).

“Let Me Go” begins encouragingly with Jagger cheerfully asking, “Can’t you get it through your thick head?/This affair is finished – DEAD!” Still, he is, at this point, perfectly happy with Jerry – so whom is he singing about? From the second verse onwards, he sings the song in a puzzling Deep South drawl. Charlie Watts’ drumming here, however, is a model of subtlety. Whereas “Indian Girl” is just inexplicable, Jagger muttering about Castro and Angola (he’s been reading the news! He’ll show that MPLA who’s boss!) over Jack Nitzsche’s bizarre Mariachi trumpet chart and Wood’s even less logical pedal steel; still, one notes the increasing breathlessness and impatience of his “gettin’ harder…an’ HARDER!” refrain.

Over on side two, we get the ludicrous, perhaps deliberately so, “Where The Boys Go” where the Stones finally get to grips with this Punk Rock behemoth. Actually, as tends to be the case with even the weaker Stones records, the album is now sounding like the best record Primal Scream never made, and here comes Mickey Rotten (or possibly Kenneth Williams) with his sneery Cockernee drawl, with the overall feeling of the cast of Crackerjack tackling Sham 69’s “Hersham Boys.” The understated star, however, is, again, Charlie Watts, with a modification of his machine-gun snare from “Let Me Go.” The closing call-and-response boys-and-girls mass chanting might charitably be described as the Stones having just got around to hearing Slade.

“Down In A Hole,” however, is the Stones at their uncomfortably bluesy best, Sugar Blue’s grunge harmonica blending in well with Keith and Ronnie’s guitars, together offering the best harmolodic interplay this side of Ornette’s Prime Time, while Jagger gives a more sustained and coherent critique of the rich man/gutter two-sides-of-the-same-coin scenario (the lines “Your black market cigarettes/Your American nightclubs/Ah, they’ve got nowhere left” are worthy of Recent Songs-era Leonard Cohen).

Then it’s time for the hits, and what odd hits they are. The title track was issued concomitantly with the album as a single in Britain, and thus didn’t chart quite as well as it might otherwise have done (peaking at #9), but Jagger’s strained falsetto is quite unsettling and not remotely like the Bee Gees, although Wyman again pushes the beat forward with no small amount of vim. Disturbingly, though, in the instrumental break, from Jagger’s unsteady “crying” onwards, the track briefly sounds like 1980 Roxy Music – as though Bryan Ferry is trying to break through; note particularly Jagger’s chant of “Rain, rain, rain” – and Bobby Keys’ saxophone comes very close to Andy Mackay territory (or should that have been vice versa?). Once Jagger switches to basso profundo, however, the disco becomes dominated by ominous shadows, even if his “You will be MEINE” growls remind me unfeasibly of Dave Dee; see the horses’ hooves clip-clop percussion meant to articulate Jagger’s “fine Arab charger.”

“She’s So Cold,” however, finds Jagger at about his most tired and lost. He wants it, but she doesn’t, and like the protagonist of “Flesh And Blood,” one has to conclude that this is someone to be admired but not really known. He can’t get through to her (“When I touched her, my hand just FROZE”) and as the rock gets more frantic and demanding, he is reduced to primal screaming – what am I doing WRONG? How the hell can I get OUT of here?

It is therefore only fitting that Jagger thereupon disappears from the record almost entirely, leaving the last word – and the album’s best song – to Keith.

“All About You” is one of the Stones’ finest ballads; none of the midnight rambler in Studio 54 stuff in evidence on the title track, no fun or games at all really. Keys’ multitracked saxophones provide a bed of despair, and Keith, aptly, sings as though no man has ever been more exhausted. “So sick and tired” – he keeps intoning these words, playing with them, finally semi-roaring them out (as much as a hoarse voice can roar); he even paraphrases their big 1978 comeback hit (“I may miss you/But missing me just isn’t you”) and the group gently escalate to the point where Keith delivers the payoff:

“What should I do?
You want it, you get it…
…So how come I’m still in love with you?”

And before you say, yes, Al Green could have sung it, or presume that it’s about Keith’s break-up with Anita, then read what Keith himself has to say about the song in Life, where he makes it fairly clear that – in conjunction with his having survived the “Toronto years,” kicked heroin and met Patti Hansen – the song is not about his break-up with Anita, but about him and Mick; the warring couple who loathe mutually but deep down know that neither can live without the other. It is a surprisingly downbeat and elegiac ending to what might otherwise be construed by the unwary as a throwaway album, a cheery professional interlude between Some Girls and Tattoo You (although, unlike Goats Head Soup, the music here did not send me to the brink of slumber). Is it just THIS love that matters, rather than Mick’s daft ideas about love? Does Keith stare at Mick’s forays into disco and punk, and smile ruefully?

And, yet again, where the hell is this all leading?

Next: Synthesisers!!

Sunday, 13 January 2013

ROXY MUSIC: Flesh And Blood


(#231: 28 June 1980, 1 week; 23 August 1980, 3 weeks)

Track listing: The Midnight Hour/Oh Yeah/Same Old Scene/Flesh And Blood/My Only Love/Over You/Eight Miles High/Rain Rain Rain/No Strange Delight/Running Wild

“So this is hell
Not so hard to tell”
(Roxy Music, “No Strange Delight”)

“We knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber,
Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in”
(Joy Division, “Decades”)

At the time of Flesh And Blood’s first run at number one, it was still a few weeks before Joy Division’s Closer would be released, but it’s not just the involvement of Peter Saville in the cover design for both that suggests a kinship, and Closer and Ian Curtis are better written about in this context than that of the album that actually was at number one at the end of July. This as well as the high probability that Peter Gabriel banished cymbals from his third album because he wanted to achieve a Joy Division/Comsat Angels-type sound.

Listening to Closer, then as now, it is difficult to imagine that any music could follow it (although Stephen Morris gives us plenty of cymbals); had Joy Division not pushed what you could do with “rock” music to the limits of life itself? There’s no avoiding the terminal nature of the record; in “Isolation” and “24 Hours” – indeed, on pretty well all of the tracks – Curtis spells out his pain, why it exists and why he perhaps no longer felt like existing, and it is a tribute to the other three musicians, not only that they were able to develop rock, let alone post-punk, to the point that “The Eternal” and “Decades” sound as though being conceived and performed on a different planet, but also that, bereaved, they were able to carve out a future for both themselves and for pop music.

The week that Closer debuted on the album chart was also the week Peter Sellers died, when his heart gave up on him after decades of pummelling, and perhaps some of that sense of finality, the end approaching in an anonymous international hotel lobby, peering at terrible film scripts and feigning interest, seeps through to Flesh And Blood.

The album did not get a tremendous critical reception at the time; what was it with these cover versions – did Bryan Ferry not have enough new songs? Why this navel-gazing at a time of global crisis? But I don’t think either of these assumptions comes close to the deeply troubled heart of Flesh And Blood. A lot of the residual indifference stems from received critical thinking, which states that Roxy were an avant-circus of noise n’ roll until Eno left and the group became Ferry’s musical walk-in wardrobe. Well, the last time we were with Roxy Music it was 1973, and Ferry was floating on a boat in the middle of the ocean, lost and stranded but curiously happy about both.

I think the stock critical picture also undervalues all the records released in the interim; Country Life isn’t the bland-out disaster it’s conventionally painted as being, and Siren is substantially more than very good. Of Ferry’s solo releases, 1977’s In Your Mind tries its best to match the sceptical futurism of Bowie’s Low, and 1978’s The Bride Stripped Bare – clearly the first of two Jerry Hall break-up albums – is a craggy, funereal affair with strong performances (“Sign Of The Times,” “Carrickfergus”) even if Ferry sounds on occasion as though he would rather the audience of listeners weren’t there.

Roxy’s Manifesto (1979) was one hell of a comeback – in all senses - with a flawless first side and, in the title track, the best and most disturbing thing they ever recorded. The artful attack of “Dance Away” and “Angel Eyes,” however, seemed the best way for the group to proceed, towards a dignified quietude.

By the time of Flesh And Blood, original drummer Paul Thompson had left, meaning that Roxy was effectively reduced to Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay with various reliable hired hands. Indeed the guest players on the album, including Andy Newmark, Paul Carrack and Gary Tibbs (keep an eye on the latter; we’ll be meeting him again in a very different but related setting), are rather more than reliable – always there is the feeling of a coherent group playing.

The songs themselves, though, are not comforting. Why begin with an ambient lounge reading of “In The Midnight Hour” (author’s note: on the rear sleeve of the 1999 CD reissue the song is credited as “The Midnight Hour”; the “In” is added on the lyric sheet) complete with a doomy Ferry count-in (all the way to 8)? Memories of “A Day In The Life” and parallel count-ins (“Turn It On Again,” “Games Without Frontiers”) aside, one thinks of a boxing count-in when one is lying prostate on the floor, knocked out, or the count administered by doctors before the patient goes under anaesthetic; and actually it is a key song on this record – a song Ferry certainly would have belted out in his mid-sixties R&B club days.

But this “Midnight Hour” isn’t a String Of Hits-style bland update for a more neutered age. I think it serves as a framing device for the record itself, since if we assume – as from the overwhelming evidence of the accumulated song lyrics – that Flesh And Blood concerns itself, still, with the split from Jerry Hall, or Hall’s split from Ferry, then “Midnight Hour” acts as a prelude to Ferry’s internal nightmare; it is a memory of a time before he ever knew Hall, maybe a time when he wanted to be Mick Jagger, let alone Wilson Pickett. But Ferry also knows that it isn’t 1965 anymore, that the song has to be escorted into the “now,” even though everything about his reading is polished and smooth, unlikely to offend the most casual of listeners.

“Oh Yeah,” however, is a song Roy Orbison could have sung, in terms of subject matter, vocal range and performance. There Ferry is, perhaps in one of those black limousines, “driving alone to a movie show,” reminiscing about how once he was with someone, and they went to the drive-in together; the car and radio are now the same, but so is the music, with the band’s “rhyming guitars,” and although we never discover the identity of the song that moves him and drowns the sounds of his tears, we sense that he has really gone nowhere since their affair ended (“But where I am? Where can I go?”). Carrack’s synthesised string plucks suggest that Adam Faith is really not far away from the song’s picture or Ferry’s mind. The music goes back to a time maybe preceding the Beatles, but as with several other songs on the album, the song drifts, worked up by Mackay and Manzanera’s locking high-range saxophone and guitar lines, into static ambience, and takes a long, patient while to do so.

Even as the luxurious dungeon of Flesh And Blood was being built, however, Ferry knew exactly wht time it was. “Same Old Scene” is one of Roxy’s most perfect songs – quite an achievement for a band whose aesthetic centred on perfection – with every delayed synthesiser chord change and stuttering beat sounding completely interlocked and logically assembled. Did Ferry have the nascent New Romantic scene in mind, and was he already dubious about it (“Young loving may be/Oh so mean/Trying to revive/The same old scene,” although Ferry sings the word “revive” with enough ambiguity to make you wonder whether he is really singing “survive”)? But the song and performance are so strong that they almost obviate the need for New Romanticism in the first place; certainly neither Duran nor Spandau offered anything as saturninely dread-filled as Ferry’s numb “Nothing lasts forever.” Note also the reappearance of the drum machine pattern from “Games Without Frontier.”

But the title track suggests that this is the best album Duran Duran never made; the line “My friend’s flesh and blood” can properly be taken as a friendly dig at Gary Numan (as the accompanying musical arrangement underlines) but the emptiness is hollower; the idealised Other turns out to be ambitious and tricky – not the love Ferry desperately needs. Meanwhile, the music thrusts along like “Girls On Film” never quite did, complete with a good counterpoint between Ferry’s ominous bass synthesiser drones and an insistent, clamorous two-chord guitar riff (also played by Ferry). The song’s propulsion indeed is so reminiscent of “Nite Flights” that one wonders whether, if he hadn’t been so stubbornly uncompromising a perfectionist, Flesh And Blood is the record Scott Walker – only two years Ferry’s senior – might have ended up making in 1980.

Side one ends with the monumental “My Only Love,” whose melody revisits and reshapes that of “Same Old Scene” – yes, it’s all linked – and features a demurely wracked and very passionate Ferry lead vocal against the kind of exciting futurist musical backdrop that makes one impatient for it to be 1982 (note how Ferry’s piano suddenly and madly descends behind the final notes of Mackay’s sax solo). He meaningfully namechecks “Fool To Cry” in his lyric – there really is no doubt what and whom this record is about – and offers a bitter Nelson Eddy-cum-Perry Como ode to a life never to be regained, or even recaptured. Musically it is like “Save A Prayer” at double speed and with double purpose, with a high-pitched wordless vocal exit resembling an ambient Gregorian chant remix.

“Over You” finds Ferry admitting to pretending that he’ll keep his countenance and be strong, although the six syllables he takes to declaim the “ro” of “No more romance” suggest the precise opposite. Manzanera’s lead guitar is manifestly Byrdsy, and Ferry’s piano verges on the melodramatic – but there are unattributable falling and crashing noises throughout the instrumental break. Again, the instrumental components break up into their own atoms, before meaningfully segueing into “Eight Miles High” done in the style of Chris Rea circa “On The Beach.” And before you sneer, it weirdly works; as the song was written about London in the first place, it’s not a big stretch for Ferry to fit it into his own view of grey, rainy London with its black limousines and people standing alone. Manzanera doesn’t attempt to recreate McGuinn trying to recreate Coltrane, but there is an eerie snatch of reverb at song’s end which suggests that Ferry wants to be anywhere except on the ground, or even Earth – preferring to get high.

“Rain Rain Rain” magnifies some of these themes, as well as revisiting the protagonist of “Flesh And Blood” – she, whoever she is, remains unsure of what she wants and maybe who she is (“Lust For Life” gets the paraphrase here). Allan Schwartzberg’s drumming is extremely pronounced – one step aside from Phil Collins’ gated crashes – while Alan Spenner’s bass grumbles. Ferry gives an ironic whoop after the line “getting high” (what a contrast to somebody like Rod Stewart, whose extended lament on “I Was Only Joking” is undermined by his non-ironic “Whoo!” during the guitar solo – is he, you wonder, even listening to his own song?). There is an ambiguous, unprinted last lyric line: “You can live and love,” as the song abruptly cuts off, or should that be “leave”?

“No Strange Delight,” wherein Ferry’s projected Other finds herself in hell, driven there by her slavery to obsession, is an unsettling musical study where the singer wonders whether her “strange delight” which “better men than I” have tasted even exists. More lament than damnation, the music turns the ambient Roxy model inside out; as with Gabriel’s “I Don’t Remember,” guitar, oboe, bass, drums and keyboards become more and more tangled before the song culminates in a free-for-all pile-up.

The record ends with “Running Wild,” a revisit and remodel of “Oh Yeah,” where that elusively remembered melody is now, by Ferry’s admission, doing his head in, and he slowly regains consciousness (“Drifting out of time, now I’m in/Underneath you’ll find I’m just the same”) and realises that the game is up; the sixties are no more, and neither is his relationship with Jerry Hall, and so once again he finds himself in opulent isolation; he’s really drifting away, and knows it – a desert island in which there is a huge lake in the middle of which is another desert island.

Going slowly to nowhere; contrary to the last line of the album, he will fall in love again, on the last day of 1980 at that, but nonetheless the journey towards complete stasis and suspension will continue. It seems to be the case, though, that this whole sequence of records, by virtue of their “going nowhere,” are heading somewhere, toward some sort of settlement, or explosion. They are all linked in more than a superficial sense, and one would be justified in asking: where, and how, will this story culminate? In the meantime, however, the narrative continues, and it cannot be purely coincidental that the next album in the sequence is performed by a group whose singer is the man for whom Jerry Hall left Bryan Ferry. One wonders how his side of the story will be told.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Peter GABRIEL: Peter Gabriel


(#230: 14 June 1980, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Intruder/No Self-Control/Start/I Don’t Remember/Family Snapshot/And Through The Wire/Games Without Frontiers/Not One Of Us/Lead A Normal Life/Biko

One of my favourite albums is Exposure by Robert Fripp. Released in 1979 and featuring many of the musicians who appear on Peter Gabriel’s third album, including Gabriel himself, it works less as a coherent record and more as a flip-through magazine with articles, or songs, some of which you might like and others which you might not. In its own fairly determined manner, it sets the stage for interactive CDs and DVDs to come; the door which opens and closes the album functions more as a brand, or a tag, than an aesthetic device, although Gabriel would furiously subvert this concept at the end of his third record.

There’s something for everybody on Exposure; nerdy hyper-rock ‘n’ roll (“You Burn Me Up, I’m A Cigarette”), post-Philly balladry (“North Star,” beautifully sung by Daryl Hall over what sounds like a souped-up 1968 Fleetwood Mac, or a 1968 King Crimson, come to think of it), stalking electronica (the title track, its one-word lyric screeched terrifyingly, Yoko-style, by Terri Roche of the normally placid Roches folk-pop group), ambient Frippertronics and Enolectronica (“Urban Landscape”), psychotic post-“21st Century Schizoid Man” prog-punk freakouts, usually screamed or co-screamed by Peter Hammill, Gabriel’s entirely likely seventies prog-rock double – “Disengage” or the apocalyptic “You May Not Have Had Enough Of Me But I’ve Had Enough Of You,” his argumentative vocal clashing with that of Roche, with Joanna Walton’s post-Paul Haines lyrics-about-themselves, which ascends to such a gruesome climax that there is the sound effect of turntable arm being rudely lifted and scraped across the record.

There are semi-abstract cut-ups, and most of these selections are bracketed by comments from co-conspirator Brian Eno, maybe sitting in a restaurant, making his own assessment of the record as it proceeds (“That was an incredible little piece. Really, really impressed by it…BUT it just has none of the qualities of your work that I find interesting…a-BAN-don it!”). This all climaxes with the voice of the late J G Bennett, rising out of an Evening Star cloud, musing about the effects that the rising oceans and dissolving ozone layer are going to have on the world in perhaps fifty years’ time (more or less, the time in which we now find ourselves), which in turn leads into the patient piano of Peter Gabriel himself, singing his own “Here Comes The Flood” (which had already appeared, with a different arrangement, on his own debut album). If it now sounds as though he is closing down the planet, its peace was chilling at the time. There is the feeling throughout that Exposure might be the last album ever made.

As it happened, it was intended to be the third part of a trilogy, also taking in Peter Gabriel’s second album (all of his first four albums, in the UK at any rate, were eponymous; he compared the scenario to different editions of a magazine) and Daryl Hall’s Sacred Songs, but due to what Fripp calls the “delay by dinosaurs” of at least one of these records, the notion was abandoned. Still, Sacred Songs did eventually find a release, and it is an astonishing listen, perhaps the most musically extreme of the three albums; so it is possible to join some lines between them, with their recurring musical and lyrical themes.

But “the last album ever made” – I wonder how many albums at this time, 1979-80, were made with that scarily real thought in mind, that there might not be an “eighties”? Put in this perspective, the remarkable reinvigoration of various seventies-orientated musicians might be viewed as a last gasp, a final attempt to get “everything” into their latest record before they didn’t get a chance to make another one.

Hence, if McCartney II is disquieting in its own amiable, homemade way, then where does the third Peter Gabriel album come in? In fact it goes quite a distance beyond even the extremities of the McCartney record; was this, of all Peter Gabriel records, really a number one album? It has some of the least compromising music I’ve heard on any other number one album, before or since, and subverts most of what is “conventional” about the music, even though it goes some way towards inventing the standard eighties rock template.

More importantly, there is virtually nothing comforting or reassuring about the record. First track, “Intruder,” snaps into being with one of the most recognisable symbols of eighties rock, Phil Collins’ “gated” drums, but here put to much more disturbing use. Gabriel sings as though trying not to pull his own teeth out; he has broken into someone’s home, but admits that he is not doing it for reasons of poverty or desperation but because he enjoys breaking in, gets a kick out of the darkness and the suspense (“I like to feel the suspense when I’m certain you know I am there/I like you lying awake, your bated breath charging the air”), and perhaps gets turned on by other, more disturbing things as well (“I like the touch and the smell of the pretty dresses you wear”). Where Genesis would paint such protagonists as cutout comedy characters (“Keep It Dark”), the highly aggressive and discursive approach of Gabriel’s music suggests a far deeper and less pleasant intent; why is he “slipping the clippers through the telephone wires”? Is he a state official searching for something to plant or incriminate; or is the whole scenario a metaphor for how he plans to “leave [his] mark” on the placid planet of pop?

Building up from percussion upwards, which appears to underline the structure of nearly all the songs on this album – a singularly African approach, and the reason for this will eventually reveal itself – the song is a gnarled gargoyle of a “rock song” prototype. Guitars and drums are thrown around in the mix at will. A strident chant recalls “Holidays In The Sun” as much as it reflects 1980 South Africa. There is whistling, rattling bedsprings of percussion; the whole is like a brighter-minded Scott Walker (it is no surprise that both guitarist David Rhodes and bassist John Giblin would go on to form part of Walker’s latterday repertory company) and what “Intruder” does to the atoms of a “song” is firmly answered and developed, especially during the guitar/percussion-dominant Bish Bosch.

Was “No Self-Control” really a Top 40 single, its video on Top Of The Pops, with Gabriel idling with hands in pocket or prostate on his knees, knowing that where he is, maybe what he is doing, is fundamentally wrong and perhaps fatal, but “I don’t know how to stop” keeps hammering its way back in, through a rhythm track largely dependent on marimbas, and a lyrical outlook that is again very Walker in its images (“Lights go out, stars come down/Like a swarm of bees,” the latter line answered by Collins throwing his drumkit downstairs, through Frippertronic banisters from Fripp himself). The song is stopped for him before he tears his throat out. A woman exclaims, or echoes, in the middleground.

“Start” is a brief instrumental passage for synthesiser and tenor saxophone, the latter played by Dick Morrissey, getting ready to play the same role on Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, which quickly turns into the hysterical “I Don’t Remember”; so many times does Gabriel sound on this record as if he is turning upon himself that it’s easy to overlook that this might be Steve Biko in Police Room 619, begging to be left alone. The music attempts to initiate Eighties Rock but keeps getting diverted – among the conspirators are Dave Gregory, then of XTC, on lead guitar – and the resentment and desperation pile up relentlessly, the song itself ending as a cacophonous free-form trainwreck.

A number one album??

“Family Snapshot,” a scratch mix of Arthur Bremer’s An Assassin’s Diary (he was the failed assassin of Governor George Wallace in the 1972 Presidential campaign) and Dallas 1963, works like a Genesis A-B-A (call a cab) epic thrust back into the real world; both beginning and ending of song are quiet and contemplative, and the middle section is comparatively conventional art-rock; more than rooting through someone’s wardrobe, this describes not only the internal thrill felt by the would-be assassin but also tries to find a compassionate explanation for why he is the way he is (the title is a sort of pun). The police procedural of “I Don’t Remember” (“tell me the truth, you got nothing to fear”) filtered through parental disapproval or indifference (“Come back mum and dad”); Gabriel is searching for something, or someone, but as yet it’s not clear who. Still, it is important to note that the song’s theme will recur in a 1981 Then Play Long entry, and that the 1981 song in question will in great part be influenced by something that happens in the space between the two records.

“And Through The Wire” – lovers separated by the Berlin Wall? Another extended metaphor? – seems to offer its own modest proposal for Eighties Rock; both Rhodes and guest guitarist Paul Weller (WHAT? He was recording in the studio next door and Gabriel asked him to drop by and help out) are intent on carving paths between shiny yellow synthpop and what can (im)properly be described as punk rock, but the song’s overall momentum is one of stealth; there is a rhetorical tambourine (presumably played by drummer Jerry Marotta) and some of Gabriel’s most agonisingly tortured vocals; he is the Small Man in the Prog Box trying to rip the Box open. Marotta’s cowbell tick-tocks its way towards Armageddon.

On which subject, “Games Without Frontiers,” the album’s preceding Big Hit Single, redraws the imminent end of the world in terms of a crappily tacky seventies Euro-gameshow and is remarkable for the multiple activities going on within its fibres, particularly the many layers and juxtapositions of different types of percussion (including, with improbable logic, a basic drum machine), Seven Dwarfs whistling, not-quite-traceable noises from various keyboards and guitars (the song works because of its apparent absence of “centre”), and that woman again, the same one who was on “No Self-Control,” caressing in French. This woman has her own stories to tell, and although she will not appear on Then Play Long very often, when she does, she will make her presence firmly, and unforgettably, felt.

Although Fripp (with Rhodes) is the main guitarist on “Not One Of Us” rather than Weller, the song sounds like Peter Gabriel Does The Jam (“Us! You’re not one of US!” – completely Weller). Probably the record’s most straightforward rocker, it itself gives way to the not remotely straightforward “Lead A Normal Life,” a distortion of McCartney’s summer meditations (or perhaps a ray of early Genesis mimetic memory), with peaceful piano and marimba Muzak being counterpointed by aghast vocal warbles and howling, crying guitar lines, mixed far into the background; this piece points towards the nineties, let alone the eighties, given the preoccupations of another group, not necessarily fitter or happier, who would eventually record at Gabriel’s Bath studio.

Where is this all going, apart from the inside of Gabriel’s head?

To face the world, that’s where.

The final track on the album is bookended by samples of the South African song “Senzeni Na?,” which title, translated from Xhosa, means “What Have We Done?” (“Where Are We Now?” indeed). A song commonly sung at funerals and memorials, the opening sample is formally sung, the closing sample much looser and improvisatory…

…and it’s probably not just Robert Wyatt (who covered the song on his 1984 Works In Progress EP) who was prompted by the song to think of the Xhosa musician Mongezi Feza, a man whose lifespan was more or less concomitant with that of Steve Biko and whose demise, some whisper, was not dissimilar (though in truth was due to institutional ignorance, indifference and prejudice than actual violence). Pairing this with the prog/free jazz/New Thing milieu in which Gabriel’s Genesis initially flourished, it does make “Biko” sound much more of a statement of global intent; opening up the wound, exposing it to the world.

The song, as performed by its author (with, largely, Phil Collins on various drum programmes and African percussion instruments), is as patient with its architecture as its spirit is angry. Gabriel gradually builds up the scenario from Police Room 619 to the eyes of the world watching now, adding layers of instruments and voices with each cycle, each barline, and its buried euphoria, based as it is on unshakeable hope, systemically emerges into the open; this is a Pink Floyd determined to find a solution, perhaps – no, there’s no “perhaps” about it – also change things. If “Senzeni Na?,” according to its author, was to some extent inspired by “We Shall Overcome” – and remember how the latter closed Charlie Haden’s first Liberation Music Orchestra record a decade earlier, the melody performed by Roswell Rudd’s dignified but adamant trombone? – then it is no wonder that Joan Baez would go on to cover “Biko,” that this would not only be Gabriel’s key to the world but also the key that unlocked the floodgates of, for better or worse (I say better), eighties stadium global concern rock, not to mention “world music” (Gabriel initiated WOMAD and the Real World label) and, much more importantly, the initial key that would lead, a decade later, to Mandela being released and freedom finally coming (it’s impossible not to think that Jerry Dammers didn’t respond to this song on a pretty deep level in 1980, but we’ll be getting back to him eventually).

The Xhosa song returns, sounding like it could be sung forever, before Collins’ brutal electronic door slams on the song, and the record, but not on the hope, now available in full exposure. Of course – Gabriel struggles and stumbles throughout his third album because he’s afraid of being exposed, before he, shall we say, and not in that way, decides to expose his self, and make us realise that he was only singing about “himself” as a route to singing about everyone and everything else. A great, great record, and one which suddenly makes its predecessors seem very, very far away.

(And yes, we’ll be getting back to “Biko” at the other end of this decade, and John Giblin, and a group whom Gabriel invited to support him on his 1980 European tour, to help gain them more “exposure,” and yes, they had their own stories to tell about that later in 1980; they’ll get their place in the sun, right enough.)