Monday, 30 November 2020

SIMPLY RED: Stars

 


(#437: 12 October 1991, 2 weeks; 2 November 1991, 1 week; 4 January 1992, 5 weeks; 22 February 1992, 3 weeks; 9 May 1992, 1 week)

 

Track listing: Something Got Me Started/Stars/Thrill Me/Your Mirror/She’s Got It Bad/For Your Babies/Model/How Could I Fail/Freedom/Wonderland

 

I’ve been tough on Simply Red before, largely because I felt that as an unapologetic Mancunian love man, Mick Hucknall was underselling and underestimating himself. In the longer term, however, we underestimate Mr Hucknall and his band at our peril. Stars went twelve times platinum in the UK and was our largest-selling album of both 1991 and 1992. How did he, and they, do it?

 

Much of the reason why Stars works is because, I think, Hucknall had matured and learned the value of restraint. Moreover, he is, at various points along the record, looking back on his former life and the life that he was then currently living, and sounding rather disillusioned with what he sees and feels - there are, for instance, theories about whom the subject of “Model” is - but there is a generous sense of weariness in both Hucknall’s writing and singing.

 

The stylistic pulling-back is balanced by a growth in emotional scope. Indeed, the album’s opening two songs, and probably its two most famous ones, see Hucknall forsaking his previous ways to some extent, apologising and seeking redemption. The conference between early eighties Britfunk and late eighties “soulcialism” is well negotiated on “Something Got Me Started” (for instance, the call and response vocals of Hucknall and keyboardist Fritz McIntyre), and “Stars,” with its possible pro-European Union subtext, is skilfully-handled and seductive pop (in places it makes me think of "Rosanna" by Toto).

 

The band’s palate has also expanded. The dissolute backing harmonies on “Thrill Me” are icily aqueous in ways which recall A.R. Kane and the song’s music is all the more effective for not emphasising its Barry Whitean ways (it could even be said to be approaching the outer suburbs of side two of Stone Gon’). The repeated turnarounds of “Your Mirror” are handled with Brechtian mastery.

 

Otherwise Simply Red explore this new-found, post-Diamond Life landscape with intriguing enthusiasm. “She’s Got It Bad” and “How Could I Fail” tell us that they have the funk without needing to underline it – the latter’s outraged opening line of “How could I fall for someone so superficial?” is worthy of that other thoughtful Mancunian singer, Martin Fry, while Hucknall’s elastic stretching-out of the word “permanently” into six syllables on the former is relevant to the song’s subject matter and shows him navigating the melody with an assured mastery highly reminiscent of yet another Mancunian musician, Art Themen. “Model” is elegant, if poisonous, lovers rock. Moreover, this music demonstrates how well, at this stage, Simply Red blend and function as a band (full credit to McIntyre, Tim Kellett on keyboards and occasional bass, guitarist Heitor Teixeira Pereira, saxophonist Ian Kirkham, drummer Gota Yashiki and guest bassist Shaun Ward).

 

“For Your Babies” is the justly-celebrated nineties equivalent of “The Greatest Love Of All” – Mick believes that children are the future, and I would have loved to hear Kevin Rowland tackling the song – and works because of its unexpectedly feminine gentleness. If, on the very few occasions on this album when he lets his voice rip, Hucknall reminds me of nobody less than Noddy Holder (this is a good thing; think of “How Does It Feel?” and how much Holder sounds like what Hucknall will eventually sound like), on “For Your Babies” he comes across as the higher-pitched, but no less gentle or reassuring, Jim Reeves for his times – and this song spoke to, and for, an awful lot of frightened people.

 

Hucknall saves the politics until the album’s end – logically, since the rest of the record is designed to lead up to those politics. “Freedom” is a generalised but despairing plea for deliverance, and the forceful presence of Rowetta Idah on backing vocals reminds us that Stars is as much a Manchester record of the early nineties as was Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches. The record closes with “Wonderland,” its lead vocal shared between McIntyre and Hucknall, and a pretty unadorned damning of Thatcher and everything she permitted and indeed wanted to come about – and so much of those latter two songs applies to our despoiled times, too; “The end of an era/My future no clearer,” “How long we gonna last?/How long everybody has to ask?” Stars, from its title and cover and onto the music, is fundamentally a socialist record. Hucknall even appeared, via video link, at that fateful immediate pre-election Labour rally in Sheffield, on April Fool’s Day 1992, paraphrasing “Something Got Me Started” – more taxes? I’ll give it all up for you.

 

By the time the album returned for a final week at the top a month later, the Conservatives had been voted back in power, probably due in part to many of the people who had happily purchased Stars and perhaps didn’t bother attending to its lyrical content too closely. To them, it simply (!) sounded pleasant and reassuring, the latest, gentlest manifestation of Hucknall as, well, that exotic Other (not a new concept in British pop at all), a knowing spirit with a dextrous larynx who appeared to promise so much more to the new Housewives of Valium Court than the mediocre middle managers, the Neils and Adrians with whom they had ultimately ended up. Nor did the record go down well with the “alternative” (to what?) music press, whose constituent nonentities, anxious to cater to their student base of readers, sneered at it (yet, on a Mancunian level, were quick to praise Kill Uncle or Your Arsenal). Neither body of people appeared to be listening. But Stars has endured, and its success was richly deserved – a bravely exploratory record from a man unafraid to admit to distal emotions such as uncertainty and changes of mind and heart.

Friday, 27 November 2020

Bryan ADAMS: Waking Up The Neighbours

 


(#436: 5 October 1991, 1 week)

 

Track listing: Is Your Mama Gonna Miss Ya?/Hey Honey – I’m Packin’ You In/Can’t Stop This Thing We Started/Thought I’d Died And Gone To Heaven/Not Guilty/Vanishing/House Arrest/Do I Have To Say The Words?/There Will Never Be Another Tonight/All I Want Is You/Depend On Me/Everything I Do (I Do It For You)/If You Wanna Leave Me (Can I Come Too?)/Touch The Hand/Don’t Drop That Bomb On Me

 

Rock as Beverly Moss would have understood it.

 

"You know we're just using you so we can get to the Bryan Adams audience! Let's see a bunch of pogoing and gobbing. No, come on, gob!"

(Kurt Cobain to the audience in the Kilburn National Ballroom, one of whom was this writer, on Thursday 5 December 1991)

 

This album entered the chart in the same week, at a modest number thirty-six:



It was a big week for album releases, the last week of September. Screamadelica not unreasonably got most of the attention, not least from myself, but there were also albums by the Pixies and the Cult – Trompe Le Monde and Ceremony respectively – both of which were solid enough but a little disappointing. I bought Nevermind at the same sitting because I’d liked Bleach and it had received really good reviews. I took it home, listened to and enjoyed it, then filed it away (because listening to it was taking up valuable Screamadelica time!).

 

Then a curious thing gradually happened. I found myself voluntarily reaching for the record again and again, and kept playing it until I gradually concluded that this was something more than others had pretended it to be. I realised that first and foremost it was a terrific pop album, in the way that A Hard Day’s Night and The Lexicon Of Love had been terrific pop albums. Hit after damaged hit – and perhaps it was the slo-mo meteorite which wiped out all of the predominant rock dinosaurs. Three years previously, I’d loved Surfer Rosa as much as anyone – it remains obvious that Kim was that band’s real genius - but this was Surfer Rosa gone supernova pop, as in the Pixies being heard over the supermarket tannoy, on breakfast radio, on television watched crossly by your parents. Or so it would seem was going to be the case. I knew the Killdozer album Twelve Point Buck so was aware of how much Butch Vig was going to bring to that particular table.

 

Yet there seemed so much more going on than just – just? – twelve amazing songs, many of which are damn-you loud, although the two quiet ones are the scariest. Then “Smells Like Teen Spirit” filtered through, mainly because of its video, and a couple of months later everybody knew, or were afraid to know, who Nirvana were, even the oldsters who thought that they had changed a lot from the days of “Rainbow Chaser.”

 

They appeared, unforgettably, on Top Of The Pops and The Word. I saw them in Kilburn about three weeks before Christmas, when Cobain dedicated the evening to Captain America and Shonen Knife and the band exploded like no band I had seen since Joy Division at the Glasgow Apollo a dozen years earlier. Eventually the word was out – those moshing kids on TV gave the game away – that this was something new, for so many people, for so many messed-up young people, alienated by gloss and pomposity. The dividing window was opened. This, without any prepared fanfare whatsoever, was what people imagined punk rock had been like.

 

Of course there had been Hüsker Dü, and Sonic Youth, and the Butthole Surfers, and Beat Happening, and all of those other important American bands who maybe arrived half a decade too early to conquer the world, but as far as messed-up young Aberdeen, Washington State resident Kurt Cobain was concerned, they arrived right on time. I do not intend to enter into an extended discussion of Nevermind here – there is Wikipedia, there are biographies – or any presumed meaning or background to what these songs say, or how, or why, they say it. It’s rather important that I write this quickly as opposed to sitting on it and allowing it to stew, mainly because it doesn’t actually matter exactly what Kurt is mumbling or drawling, or the details of his affair with Tobi Vail, or whatever (nevermind?) – what matters is that he and the band are saying something rather than nothing, that this is not the efficient, professional, polite mutation of “rock” which in the early nineties was mostly listened to and liked by kids’ parents (who just don’t understand – don’t you understand?). What matters is that these songs, one by rapid one, hit the listener like bullets of liquorice kisses, recapture the dizzying elation of being in love and living something called life (and if you think Nevermind isn’t on the side of life you are not listening to it).

 

Dave Marsh concluded that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was its generation’s “Louie, Louie” – what’s he saying, and why should anyone care; the fact that to The Kids this is NEW, as the Kingsmen were once new to the people of Marsh’s generation. It is not meant to be “appreciated.” It is meant as an unintended and finally unassuming calling card, calling out the rest of pop and rock for not paying attention, or paying it in the wrong direction. The rest of Then Play Long from hereonin, as Lena suggested to me last night, will now be fairly definitively divided between people who heard this record, and those who did not, or chose not to do so. It formed an accidental dividing line. Get off the ‘bus, or preferably back on it.

 

My conclusion is that Kurt’s use of breath control and manipulation of vowels to convey vulnerable uncertainty reminds me very strongly of Johnny Mathis.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

GUNS N’ ROSES: Use Your Illusion II

 


Track listing: Civil War/14 Years/Yesterdays/Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door/Get In The Ring/Shotgun Blues/Breakdown/Pretty Tied Up (The Perils Of Rock N’ Roll Decadence)/Locomotive (Complicity)/So Fine/Estranged/You Could Be Mine/Don’t Cry (Alt. Lyrics)/My World

 

“When the world's got you by the fucking throat

Who'd you want in your corner? Axl Rose!

No one understands me, or even comes close

Who've I got in my corner? Axl Rose!”

(Art Brut, “Axl Rose,” from their 2011 album Brilliant Tragic)

 

Rock ‘n’ roll. What to do with it, eh? Well, here were some suggestions as to what could be done with, or for, or to it; an epic which the music had rarely seen, and even that was only half the story. There was, of course, a Use Your Illusion I, which wasn’t quite as popular as its companion volume, and since I am not being paid to spend two-and-a-half hours of my life analysing both, I will deal with the key songs there, as well as those from Appetite For Destruction and elsewhere, when I get to entry #715 (it seems so far away in the distance, that number, doesn’t it?).

 

My feeling is that Illusion II was simultaneously the profounder and the shallower of the pair, and overall the more striking album. Had anybody attempted the simultaneous release of two long-form albums (not counting live efforts such as Gary Numan’s Living Ornaments)? The only precedent of which I can think is Marching Song by the Mike Westbrook Concert Band, which Deram crossly released in 1969 as two separate volumes (because Decca “didn’t do” jazz double albums; nevertheless, all subsequent UK CD reissues of the work have incorporated both volumes as a whole). This is not as farfetched a comparison as it might seem, since Marching Song and Illusion share a common factor – both were engineered by Bill Price (who was brought in, probably on account of his work on a previous number one album, after Bob Clearmountain was fired after he was found to be plotting to replace Matt Sorum’s drumming with samples). There is an emotional directness with both pairs of albums which is rather uncommon.

 

But Use Your Illusion was an intrinsically uncommon event. It did not receive the best of reviews at the time. Mary Anne Hobbs at the NME was obliged to listen to the whole thing overnight and then write it up, and her review was understandably bad-tempered. There was general talk of pretension and indulgence from a media which preferred their rock to be a matey, face-licking cup of tea (Kingmaker, the Wonder Stuff). Yet for most people, rock IS about indulgence and pretension (how else do, or can, you sum up Ziggy Stardust?), not about buttoned-up behavioural centrism. It should be colourful and vulgar, reckless and unapologetic.

 

This is a characteristically long-winded way of getting to the point, namely that Use Your Illusion II is one of the very best rock ‘n’ roll albums I have ever heard. Yes, GN’R are unabashed romantics, set against the sober classicism of Metallica. Colour versus monochrome, and both have their places. But listening to these nearly seventy-six minutes of music, one realises how the band in general and Axl Rose in particular spoke to otherwise alienated people.

 

It is true that much of Guns N’ Roses’ appeal lay in their daring to say the unsayable and yet also be able to empathise with their audience on a very deep level. This album is messy and rigorous, puerile and aged, monomaniacal and expansive. Its first song, “Civil War,” might be their best work; an extended political protest which sadly has not dated a jot in the nearly thirty years since it was conceived and recorded (“We got the wall in D.C. to remind us all”). It is also their last song to feature their original drummer, Steven Adler; dismissed from the band for his heroin habit (producer Mike Clink, with Price, had to piece together Adler’s drum track from some 25-30 separate takes, so untogether was the drummer). Nobody could listen to this and imagine Axl Rose was a far-Right douchebag. This is the band and singer’s declaration of principles which informs the rest of the record.

 

Illusion II is eminently listenable (even if much of its subject matter is to do with Izzy Stradlin’s messy love life of the time). “14 Years,” written and sung by Stradlin over a piano riff reminiscent of INXS’ “Mystify,” is remarkably febrile. “Yesterdays” is a snarl of a lighters-in-the-air power ballad which was probably even beyond Bon Jovi by this point; Rose makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with nostalgia (“I ain't got time to reminisce old novelties”). And it is played with a confidence and certainty which are frighteningly euphoric. They know that this is going to be a great record.

 

I love how “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is played as a bar band barnstormer, converting the original’s fatal resignation into life-affirming defiance. The anti-media songs “Get In The Ring” and “Shotgun Blues” are funny, infuriated and musically absolutely compelling (they seem to carry a lot more weight than similar efforts by the Pistols managed). On “Shotgun Blues” we are very firmly reminded, vocally, of Alice Cooper (who himself guests on Illusion I). Both songs bear an enormous power and remind even a sceptic such as myself how completely bloody great rock ‘n’ roll can be when it’s done with this level of chutzpah, guts and mischief.

 

“Breakdown” is a striking setpiece which methodically and expertly builds up over its seven or so minutes from an initial country ballad mood (complete with banjo plucking from Slash) towards purposive and demonstrative heavy rock with some powerful speech samples (“Let me hear it now”) and climaxing in Rose declaiming Cleavon Little’s key speech from Vanishing Point (“The last beautiful free soul on this planet”). It makes Primal Scream’s similar attempts at damaged rock balladry sound – well, half-baked.

 

Set against that, of course, are the playpen sexual politics of “Pretty Tied Up” (which does seem fully aware of its innate absurdity), although it rocks pretty powerfully (with a sitar, even!), culminating in a freeform pile-up of guitar effects. Whereas “Locomotive” is phenomenal because it seems, three years ahead of schedule, to predicate Oasis; Rose’s largely drawled vocal is pure Liam Gallagher (yes, I know that should read vice versa) and overall the track gives the pleasing impression that this is their attempt at baggy indie-dance; it certainly sends the likes of My Jealous God packing, and probably pissed off those other Roses from Manchester, at the time ensnared in legal wranglings and unable to record.

 

“So Fine,” written and sung (or wearily groaned) by Duff McKagan, is a very touching (and indeed stoned, to say the least) tribute to the then-recently departed Johnny Thunders (although Illusion II in general makes the New York Dolls sound mono in comparison) – the final quote on the sleeve was from Stiv Bators, who prematurely left this world in June 1990; the air was thick with rock ghosts. “Estranged” was obviously designed as the equivalent to its companion’s “November Rain” – the epic rock ballad – yet its geometry and use of distance are, as Lena pointed out, reminiscent of none less than late-eighties Simple Minds; there is a very similar elegance at work, and when the rock does finally break free at the song’s climax it provides a very satisfactory moment of emotional release and deliverance.

 

“You Could Be Mine,” music from Terminator II and acknowledgements to Bernie Taupin and Elton John (“We’ve seen that movie too”), is ridiculously phenomenal rock (musically if not lyrically) which makes most other contemporary rock – that word “most” is doing an awful lot of work here – sound as though it is merely playing, which was doubtless its, and the band’s, intention. One can tell from listening to all of this record how and why a group like the Manic Street Preachers chose to be so inspired by it. What is the point of rock if it isn’t to be big, not to mention bold?

 

“Don’t Cry” appears on both Illusions with the same chorus but different verse lyrics and subtly different musical structures. The words on the second version are bloodier and more forthright than those on the first, although its initial air of anthemic reassurance is stealthily detonated by the final, inhuman extended syllable which suggests the jaws of robot death closing in on existence. For a taste of the afterlife, there is a brief and hilarious (and scary) interlude (or coda) of industrial rap, misfired synapses and all. As a record it is immense and unchallengeable, or at least appeared so. But it turned out not to be even the best rock ‘n’ roll album released in the second half of its month, and its self-built tower was about, through no inherent fault of its own, to be unutterably demolished. Guns N’ Roses did not record meaningfully in this form again, and the world changed. Guess what it was about to do now. Uh?