Wednesday 31 July 2013

Paul McCARTNEY: Tug Of War

(#264: 8 May 1982, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Tug Of War/Take It Away/Somebody Who Cares/What’s That You’re Doing?/Here Today/Ballroom Dancing/The Pound Is Sinking/Wanderlust/Get It/Be What You See (link)/Dress Me Up As A Robber/Ebony And Ivory

“Don’t make records when you’re gutted,” said, I think, David Stubbs in Melody Maker of Ian McCulloch’s Candleland. While I wouldn’t recommend that as a maxim for absolutely every artist, it is perhaps reasonable to say that musicians who have suffered a terrible personal loss and are in the grieving process shouldn’t make records until they are ready to do so. But McCartney has time and time again thrown himself into hard work as a means of coping; and so it was that some seventeen months after Lennon’s death – no time at all, really – he had two albums ready to go. The music for the second would form the bulk of 1983’s non-chart topping Pipes Of Peace; the other was this one.

Tug Of War had begun life in October 1980 with the intention of being a Wings album. But while Denny Laine is present on most of it, and Linda’s backing vocals are rarely far from the listener’s ears, it became clear, even with George Martin back in the producer’s chair, that the old ways weren’t really working, and on 9 December, when McCartney heard about Lennon’s shooting, it was agreed to down tools for the time being. In fact he had stayed at AIR Studios all of that day, chiefly to avoid having to think about Lennon at home, but when faced with a persistent group of press reporters when leaving the studio that evening, a clearly cheesed-off McCartney remarked that Lennon’s death was “a drag.” This was swiftly transformed into a picture of the callous, heartless ex-Beatle who didn’t care about what had happened to his former best friend. What McCartney had meant was that having to deal with press reporters non-stop was a drag, but the underplaying was rejected; then as now, the world wanted the monkey faces, not realising that some people, including McCartney, didn’t do them, had their own ways of dealing with the unimaginable (indeed, towards the end of “Dress Me Up Like A Robber” – had he heard Adam and the Ants? – he owns up: “And what’s the point of changing/When I’m happy as I am?”).

Sessions resumed in February 1981, and people like Eric Stewart, then still half of 10cc, whom McCartney had known since his days in the Mindbenders, drifted into McCartney’s repertory orbit. A further two months of recording proved fruitful – a process probably halted by Laine’s announcement in April that he was leaving Wings – and McCartney, with Martin, spent the rest of the year quietly mixing the songs they had, redoing or rewriting parts where needed.

When released, the album received a warm and, I would say, generous critical reception – there was still a lot of residual sympathy for McCartney, as well as the agitated questions: “What does he have to say about John? What will he say?” Both the album and the single of “Ebony And Ivory” quickly became transatlantic number ones.

Listening to the record again over thirty-one years later, however, leads one to wonder just exactly how messed up and lost McCartney was when he made it. I do not doubt that his love for Lennon was genuine and heartfelt, that Lennon’s death was the equivalent of his left arm being severed, that his crescendo towards the word “tears” in “Here Today” comes from the deepest part of him. But so much of Tug Of War is sufficiently unfocused and diffuse to imply that its maker was simply throwing down songs without giving much, or any, consideration to how they would come across in the context of an album. It barely hangs together as a coherent record; when “Ebony And Ivory” arrives to close the proceedings, it jars quite severely with what has gone before it. Meanwhile he tries his hand at many things, none of them conclusive or particularly impressive, and all of which combine to form a picture of an artist in dire need of direction.

To his credit, he seems to have been at least partly aware of this dilemma; the title track, the most imposing song as such on the record, is probably in the first instance a reflection on his relationship with Lennon, in a wider context a meditation on him against the world. The production and arrangement here are also the record’s most sophisticated; both Martin’s strings and the Dollar-like backing vocals (“Push-ING!/And pull-ING!”) point towards ABC, but the overriding influence (as with one other song on the record) appears to be that of Abba. McCartney sings the lead vocal in a way which implies that he knows fully that if the other side stops pushing, he will pull at nothing, and fall back on the ground.

“Take It Away” is one of the record’s more successful songs, or arrangements anyway (joint arranging credits on the album are given to McCartney and Martin); the drums of Steve Gadd and Ringo do a very nice line in contrapuntal shuffling, and the closing 45 seconds or so are sublime: the muiltilayered ethereality of the vocal harmonies are directly reminiscent of “I’m Not In Love” (unsurprisingly, as one of the voices belongs to Eric Stewart), whereas a rumbling upward piano swoop introduces the best horn lines on a McCartney record since “Got To Get You Into My Life”; the song springs immediately to life, and the frustratingly brief horn climax makes the listener crave for a much longer fadeout (the horns are not credited, which led to a rumour that they were indeed the Earth, Wind and Fire horn section, unnamed for contractual reasons – and especially since EWF had already recorded their superb cover of “Got To Get You Into My Life” – but there is no factual basis for this).

And yet the listener is left to consider how much care, devotion and attention has been given to what is essentially a throwaway song about being on the road and playing on stage. “Some important impresario” (in the video, played by a mute John Hurt) may indeed be in attendance, but in both song and video, nothing comes of this.

“Somebody Who Cares” is a pleasant enough standard issue McCartney ballad, though Adrian Brett’s pan pipes raise the question of whether its composer is trying to raise the spectre of “The Fool On The Hill.” With “What’s That You’re Doing?,” the album abruptly turns into a Stevie Wonder record (and Wonder was the song’s principal composer); an energetic, low-calorie variant on “Superstition” which rolls along harmlessly but pointlessly for six-and-a-half minutes (when “She Loves You” references are called up, as they are here, it’s a sure sign that McCartney is in trouble).

And then he says what he has to say about John.

It is extremely difficult to be even minimally objective about “Here Today”; buried at the end of side one, coming in at less than two-and-a-half minutes in length, it was quite consciously the first McCartney song since “Yesterday” to make use of a string quartet – first violinist Jack Rothstein had previously worked with the Beatles (he crops up in the string sections of “Within You, Without You” and “I Am The Walrus”) – and there is the clear urge to converse with a ghost, taking down the fourth wall for Lennon’s benefit. He wonders aloud what John would think of this song, concludes that he’d probably laugh at it, and thinks about the times they thought they knew – but the balance of “Didn’t understand a thing” and “Never understood a thing” makes you wonder how much they really had in common in the first place. Twice he says “I love you” – something he never seems to have said to Lennon while he was alive – and then reaches the most peculiar of conclusions: “For you were in my song.”

I am not sure what the real Lennon would have made of his ending up as a walk-on player in somebody else’s song, and in spite of the knowledge that McCartney palpably means what he’s singing – even if he doesn’t understand it fully – this air of presupposition may help explain why “Here Today” – though still regularly performed by McCartney on stage – has never become a standard, inspired a thousand cover versions, is scarcely ever heard, and why it doesn’t move me nearly as much as “Walking On Thin Ice” or Roxy Music’s version of “Jealous Guy” or – perhaps best and most shattering of all – Teena Marie’s “Revolution.” It seems too wary, in the sense that it feels like McCartney doing something because somebody told him that it would be a good thing to do and that he ought to do it. Whereas I sense that in his gut McCartney views his own hard work and perseverance as tribute enough; and there is, in any case, a far superior Lennon tribute elsewhere on the record.

But most of side two dribbles away into random whimsy. “Ballroom Dancing” is about twice as long as it needs to be, and although it jauntily anticipates – though does not surpass – the Kinks’ “Come Dancing” from one year later, the aimless jazz-funk noodling which fills up the song’s centre dissipates any good humour. Similarly, is “The Pound Is Sinking” a sort of rebuke to Thatcher, or, given McCartney’s aggressive lead guitar, his attempt to be Paul Weller? The central lyrical premise is so thinly articulated, however (e.g. the hideous “posh” talkover three verses in), that it hardly matters. “Wanderlust,” also clearly influenced by Abba, appears to be McCartney’s attempt at a Eurovision entry with its sombre classical brass band and attempted singalong chorus.

The record’s best track, however, and I think its most heartfelt, is “Get It,” an easy-going rockabilly/Tennessee Three hook-up with special guest and personal Beatle idol Carl Perkins. For once McCartney sounds as though he’s having fun – and not in inverted commas – as he and Perkins chew the fat, and its simple yet appealing roll is far more tangible a tribute to the fundamental good nature of the original Lennon/McCartney relationship than the maudlin and in part, I suspect, forced “Here Today”; when the two men conclude the song sniggering like schoolboys smoking at the back of the playground (given the song’s general air of fourth form lyrical punnery), we are instantly taken back to fifties Toxteth.

But that is as good as it gets. A brief Vocoder interlude reminds us of McCartney II – for all its experimental, lo-fi nature, a far more assured and coherent record than Tug Of War – and a McCartney choir states, “The one you wanted to be/Is now the one you see.” Lennon called back down to earth? Overexposure to the Moody Blues’ Long Distance Voyager? Who knows, and indeed, who cares? In the meantime, “Dress Me Up As A Robber” sees McCartney having a go at Britfunk – did he hear The Jam’s “Precious” in rehearsals at AIR? Was he now content to follow where once people saw him to have led? – but while the use of Spanish guitar against rhythm does pave the way for the work of George Michael, the funk is at best half-felt, and the song splutters out into nothingness at 2:42, before it’s had a chance to get started.

And then it’s Paul and Stevie again, and the song about black and white people living together in a piano, or something like that – it was based on a quip by Spike Milligan; what do you expect? – bringing new meaning to the overwhelmingly sad negativity of the term “well-meaning.” To me it sounds as simplistically optimistic as The Gift at its worst, a banally simple answer to a grossly complex question; for a far less cuddly but infinitely more relevant take on the same subject in the same year, see “How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise?” by Brother D and the Collective Effort. Liberal muzak with sentiments with which no one could disagree; was it the Falklands effect again? It is fair to say that this song was the bend in the river for Stevie Wonder’s career, which after 1982 was never quite what it had been prior to 1982 (and “What’s That You’re Doing?” is but amiable coasting, coming nowhere near the seemingly offhand genius of Wonder’s own songs from that year, such as “That Girl” or “Do I Do”).

But Paul was back; he had made it through some kind of rain and was ready for more. Or at least that’s the impression he was eager to give. Look at the cover picture, however, and feel ready to doubt; hunched up in a booth, headphones clamped firmly into place with hands, the singer’s nearly forty-year-old face looking to its right with some dismay and dread; there he sees the red of blood, and he hardly notices the blue in the air cancelling out the blood on his left. I am not sure that he was yet up to the “bargaining” stage of the Köbler-Ross mourning process.

The record was one of the first to be mixed entirely digitally. The supporting cast also included Stanley Clarke, Andy Mackay, Dave Mattacks, Come Dancing commentator Peter Marshall, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, Jack Brymer (sounding rather uncomfortable) and Martin himself on intermittent electric piano. The album went platinum in the States, but only gold in Britain.

Saturday 27 July 2013

Barry MANILOW: Barry Live In Britain

(#263: 1 May 1982, 1 week)

Track listing: It’s A Miracle-London/The Old Songs Medley (The Old Songs-I Don’t Wanna Walk Without You-Let’s Hang On)/Even Now/Stay (featuring Kevin Disimone and James Jolis)/Beautiful Music (I Made It Through The Rain-Beautiful Music End)/Bermuda Triangle/Break Down The Door-Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed/Copacabana (At The Copa)/Could It Be Magic-Mandy/London-We’ll Meet Again/One Voice/It’s A Miracle

I would imagine that nearly all of the eight thousand or so people who came to see Barry Manilow at the Royal Albert Hall on 11 and/or 12 January 1982 believed that they were partaking in a miracle, and this record of these performances gives me little cause to doubt them.  Why should there be such a difference between Manilow and Streisand, both good Jewish kids born in forties Brooklyn? Perhaps it is down to the simple difference or contrast between ambition encouraging art and ambition getting in art’s way.  Listening to Streisand singing anything, except Broadway songs, with total technical mastery and a near-total absence of emotional involvement, the listener is never allowed to forget that Streisand is an actress first and singer second, whereas the only time Manilow has ventured into acting seems to have been the TV musical version of Copacabana (later a stage musical), in which he gave himself the lead role of Tony, although he only really has to play himself.

Moreover, Streisand almost demands that her audience worship her, gaze upon her and revere her but damn you, don’t even think of ever touching her. In contrast, Manilow is defined by the bond he has with his audience, which is umbilical to the point of symbiosis. Streisand sings to people; Manilow sings for and with his people. In that manner he can be compared with Springsteen; both performers make a point of listening and responding to their audiences, reacting with lightning speed to alterations in mood or tone, always looking out for requests, suggestions and, if they’re lucky, entreaties of love. Both performers do their thing in the knowledge that without their audience they would have nothing to do, and maybe nothing to live for.

But perhaps the apter comparison as far as Manilow goes is with that other Jewish kid from forties Brooklyn, Neil Diamond; very different approaches to their art, but both have the knack of making thousands of people feel like one person. Streisand’s voice may fill a room, but Diamond and Manilow know how to work the room. Many fans have commented on Manilow’s knack of seeming able to focus on one person out of several thousand in the auditorium and make them feel as though they are singing to them, only to them. It is a knack which is rarer than you would imagine.

In this sense, it is impossible to look at the cover of Barry Live In Britain and not find it filled with partially unspoken emotionalism. All these lights, candles, lighters, being patiently held up by primarily the female component of the audience – their even more patient husbands, partners or parents watching them from the side, besuited – contrasted with the pure whiteness of Manilow’s stage outfit and piano, suggest that Manilow is the opposite of Keith Jarrett. He wants to draw his audience into his music, not scare them away from it; not for nothing was a 1989 single entitled “Please Don’t Be Scared.” More than that, I believe that the cover picture is a depiction of mutual faith; the audience’s faith in the musician fuelling the musician’s own faith in the power of music which he then refracts back; the disparate dots of yellow filling a black hole, increasing in intensity until they converge upon a white light – do not mistake, or underestimate, this religious imagery.

Provided that they do not harm others, I am moved by demonstrations of faith, and even if Manilow’s approach to music is not compatible with yours, it still demands respect, or at least politely requests it. The inner gatefold sleeve has photographs of Manilow on stage and at large throughout Britain – with his trademark perm, and particularly when wearing blue suit and tie, Manilow resembles a benign version of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka (in contrast to the rather scary and devilish Wonka, Manilow is the good angel). Elsewhere, he is the good sport, sporting a kilt (in Edinburgh), or inspecting the Beefeaters at the Tower in outsized shades – the outdoor pictures subtly remind us of what a cold and unforgiving winter 1981/2 was – or singing along onstage with a disbelieving and clearly ecstatic female fan; he is the not quite ordinary guy, ready to be whatever you want him to be.

The hour or so of music on the album represents about half of what was performed at the Albert Hall concerts – a video was also available at the time, but this does not yet appear to have had a DVD upgrade – and the songs selected are less than predictable. Absent are such staples of Manilow’s stage act as “Can’t Smile Without You” – the one where he selects a random female audience member to come on stage with him and be sung to adoringly – and “I Write The Songs”; however, he did have a new studio album to promote (1981’s If I Should Love Again) and it may well be that Manilow felt that other less exposed songs demanded attention.

Also absent is most of Manilow’s stage patter; unlike Elvis, one could make a very feasible and entertaining album of Having Fun With Barry On Stage. Nonetheless, the record is so superbly sequenced and planned that anything else would really have been superfluous. From the opening vivacity of “It’s A Miracle” – a song from 1974 – it is clear that Manilow has his audience on his side from the first second. You can feel the roars and cheers as he bounds onstage like an eager Labrador puppy, beaming his greetings and settling down into superior post-Motown bubblegum. He wants this audience, and the audience in turn want him. After a chorus or two he segues into the song “London” and it is an immediate winner;  a sentimental musing set to a deceptively tricky post-Sondheim/Bacharach musical setting. He sings about walking by the Thames, reading The Times, drinking tea, shopping at Harrods, enjoying Saturday picnics; and his fans lap it up, especially when he considers (within the song) whether to stay in London. And no, this isn’t a set piece ready to change venues wherever he plays; there are no parallel songs called “Sydney,” “Tokyo” or “Bogota” (in fact the studio recording of “London” can be found near the end of 1980’s Barry album). You believe him.

And yet, as outgoing and welcoming as Manilow’s persona is, it has to be noted that many of his songs concern themselves with loss, loneliness and betrayal. But as many are about the heart of music itself. “The Old Songs,” then his most recent single, seems squarely in the tradition of sixties hits like “The Way It Used To Be” or “My Sentimental Friend”; there she is, the lost lover, and how to regain her but to remind her of how music used to sound, and how it could still sound.

Like the quarter-hour “Yesterday Once More” on the Carpenters’ Now And Then album, Manilow here uses “The Old Songs” as a framing device for going back into, and with any luck reclaiming, the past; but there is no desolate post-Watergate angst evident – no, he sees Jule Styne as part of the same story as Bob Crewe, and treats both “I Don’t Wanna Walk Without You” and “Let’s Hang On” – both desperate songs, in their own ways – with equal respect. With the former – significantly, a big song during World War II – the audience cheers as Barry gets up to some unspecified bits of stage business (“Is there nothing he won’t do?” he asks himself). In fact, Manilow has recently broadcast two series on Radio 2, entitled They Write The Songs, in which he takes a close look at selected writers of the Great American Songbook, ranging from Berlin and Gershwin to Holland-Dozier-Holland, and all of the episodes are worth listening to; with a startling but refreshing (and decidedly un-British) enthusiasm, he has things both praiseworthy and trenchant to say about his field, and understands perfectly both the mechanics and the emotions which go into creating a great popular song. On this record, as elsewhere, he is intent on putting his knowledge to practical use – see, he is saying, this is all pop music, from vaudeville to Motown (those “Dancing In The Street” references in “It’s A Miracle”), and that it all contributes towards a greater good. Sounds familiar – or prophetic?

His conclusion is that the songs, whether old or new, can and should still matter. But still there is this rueful restlessness; “Even Now” sounds triumphant – the closing rhetorical key changes sound much more suitable to Manilow than to The X-Factor -  but he is drowning himself in regret over the lover – or life? - he left behind on the road to fame. “Stay,” which came out as a single (both in live and studio form), features two of his backing singers, who, as a commenter on Amazon has noted, sound, when teamed with Manilow, like three parts of the same soul saying the same thing.

Side one closes, not with “I Write The Songs,” but with “Beautiful Music,” the closing track of 1975’s Tryin’ To Get The Feeling, and it is an extremely touching song about what music can do to a lost person, how it can bring them back to the world (“And when I heard about hurting and healing/Beautiful words about beautiful feelings/What lots of believing could do…”); similar in nature to, but different in kind from, Abba’s numerous songs about the effects of music; this song carries hope rather than the faint air of despondency. Here he uses the song – and yes, I do note that “Beautiful Music” and Barry Manilow share the same initials – as a bookend for “I Made It Through The Rain” (a song co-written by Gerard Kenny, whom you may recall from Chart Hits ’81); the effect is rather overwhelming, the feeling one of modernist old-time revivalism. As Manilow only implies here – though Wolfsbane’s Blaze Bayley and Bill Hicks both said it out loud, on Massive Noise Injection and Rant In E-Minor respectively – the audience are here, if not to be saved as such, but to be transported, even if only temporarily, from their everyday (and, by implication, mundane) lives. But the greater challenge would be: could you get an audience up to this level and keep them there? Manilow seems to think so; “We dreamers have our ways/Of facing rainy days,” he sings, with no evident intention on becoming Scott Walker (you might even say that Manilow is the happy alternative future which Walker steadfastly, or stubbornly, refuses to contemplate), and yet, as he sings his song about coming through, and surviving (“And somehow we survive” is the third line, unconsciously echoing Auden), you can sense that there’s something happening in this theatre, that lives are being reassessed and transformed, and perhaps even transcended  - especially when he sings, at the climax and to the audience, “…and so can YOU!” (i.e. “make it through”). You only have to believe, and this first half will end with you in a different place than where you were at its beginning.

As side two begins, we are in the “dancing” section; yet all four songs being sung are about two-timing, or cheating, or worse. “Bermuda Triangle,” a Top 20 hit from 1981, is a very silly but very amiable shaggy dog story – Humperdinck might have been able to sing it – with Manilow sighing “Woe is me!” as his partner runs off with someone else (but he then runs off with another woman, and are these the same two people viewed from different angles?). There follows a bit of stage chat – we have already heard repeated high cries of “WE LOVE YOU BARRY!” from the upper stalls (to one such exclamation, Manilow reacts with a smiling “All right, already!”) – where he compares the audience up in the stalls at the back as being “like a little singing, dancing nose.” Cue much laughter, and he can’t believe that the British press are writing about “my nose and the transit strike – in that order.” From this we move into a pretty funky medley of “Break Down The Door” – from If I Should Love Again, and co-written with Bob Gaudio (hence a good conceptual parallel with “Let’s Hang On”) – and “Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed?,” a song from 1979 later sampled by Daft Punk (“Superheroes”).

After this we’re on to “Copacabana” – Manilow can hardly not sing this – and what a bleak song it is, with a final verse in particular which is worthy of Lou Reed. Still, Manilow asks the audience, while they are “in mourning for Lola’s lost love,” to applaud the musicians who have been working their backsides off all night. And he is very careful not to be entirely clear about “just who shot who”; when the song was expanded into a full-length stage show, it turns out that Rico was the one who was shot…and not by Tony or Lola (moreover, there is a framing device which has Tony existing only in the mind of a middle-aged songwriter, the actress who plays Lola is also the songwriter’s wife, etc. – do I even need to point out that this is yet another step to New Pop?).

The dancing section duly over, it is time for the heavy duty finale. I wrote about “Could It Be Magic?” in my non-selling book The Blue In The Air and do not propose to revise my views, namely that it is not just Manilow’s masterpiece but also one of pop’s true masterpieces; the last piece in the late sixties avant-MoR jigsaw puzzle (hence “I Made It Through The Rain” can be viewed as a very belated sequel to “MacArthur Park”). The opening Chopin chords inspire the biggest cheers of the evening and the song, like the stallion to the sun, rises to meet its opposing number – “Mandy,” his first hit of consequence, a song which, when called “Brandy” and recorded by Scott English, was about a dog, but here becomes a Holy Grail symbol of a love lost, never to be found again (“I sent you away”) – and hence the thunderous transition back into “Could It Be Magic?” at the end signifies just how hard-won Manilow’s joy and ecstasy are, how greater, therefore, is the catharsis.

The concert then ends, as such, though hasn’t really ended; there is a regretful, low-key bye-bye reprise of “London,” and then comes the point where the album reaches a new level of transcendence. He goes straight into “We’ll Meet Again,”  a song this audience has known all their lives, yet very few of them were probably even alive when it was written, let alone throughout the war which it typifies and symbolises. And…perhaps without even thinking…the audience starts to sing along and clap their hands; it is initially just Manilow’s voice and a very slow-burning acoustic guitar, before the music switches to a careful electric piano – and the audience comes in, and it is as if the circle has been completed, that we are back in the days of soundtracks and singalongs, maybe even back in the music hall.

It is a fairly overwhelming listening experience. It is not just that Manilow is effectively covering the waterfront of pop history here – there’s little rock to be heard, but things unobtrusively advance until the onset of disco (the final verse of “Copacabana”) – but…well, there is something greater at work here. Or something more accidentally sinister. Remember that this album was released and made number one in the middle of a war; how much greater, therefore, the inadvertent poignancy of hearing “We’ll Meet Again,” perhaps in some cases sung by people who might not have lived to see that year’s summer.

But Manilow is still not finished – “I ain’t goin’ home yet!” – and it is time for the major audience participation number, with the lights shining out of the dark, and the one voice, or eight thousand voices, singing in the darkness. If nobody has compared Iron Maiden with Manilow before, then they should, and both are highly relevant in this year of years; if Maiden were reviving rock, then Manilow’s music plays like a secular revival. Listen to the communion on “One Voice” – he is patiently, slowly urging his listeners, his co-conspirators, to understand just how much music can matter. On “Beautiful Music” he talks to music as though it were a human being, and with this album we are getting awfully close to “the point” (even if The Point is New Pop); music, Manilow says, is only worth playing or listening to if it has something to express, a meaning or a message to offer. “One Voice” as performed and recorded here makes you feel something, and perhaps here we are getting to the bottom, or the centre, of what music means.

What Manilow’s music means is everything that is absent from, say, Streisand’s music – there’s colour! There’s dancing! There are funny costumes! – balanced by a very concentrated and, I believe, heartfelt faith, maybe even a sanctity, which puts me in mind of Bill Fay. “One Voice” ends; there’s a quick reprise of “It’s A Miracle” and the band play out with an instrumental reprise of “Could It Be Magic?” which you feel could go on forever, as the dazed but fulfilled crowd flood out into Kensington Gore, back to their desks, their counters and their lives. And yet Manilow is rolling out as elaborate a preparatory rug for The Lexicon Of Love as anyone. But look closely at the front row on that cover, the one which seems more lit than any. The man sitting in suit and stripey tie just in front of Manilow, red handkerchief firmly in breast pocket, and hands grudgingly placed on his knees – that could be Alan Partridge. Whereas the woman sitting three seats to his left, the woman who appears to be holding her candle more fervently than anyone else, bending her head to stare directly at him – that can’t be Diana. Or can it?

(Some overdubbing and redoing of instrumental parts took place back in Los Angeles. The musical director was Victor Vanacore. The album was advertised on TV – catalogue number: ARTV 4. Irish pressings came with a bonus one-sided 7” flexidisc on which Manilow is interviewed by RTE2 DJ Marty Whelan.  On the back cover he stands alone, with a grin, hands on his hips, head and foot in white, receiving the light – and clearly very glad, and redeemed, to do so.)

Sunday 21 July 2013

STATUS QUO: 1+9+8+2

(#262: 24 April 1982, 1 week)

Track listing: She Don’t Fool Me/Young Pretender/Get Out And Walk/Jealousy/I Love Rock And Roll/Resurrection/Dear John/Doesn’t Matter/I Want The World To Know/I Should Have Known/Big Man

The title didn’t fool me either, and neither did the record. Add the constituent numbers up with the dainty, verging on microscopic, plus signs, and you get: twenty (as the rest of the cover quite clearly informs us). Their twentieth album? No, because once you discount live and compilation albums, this was only (only?) their fifteenth album. But in 1962, Francis Rossi and Alan Lancaster met for the first time. You’ve probably long since stopped reading this piece, impatient for entry #267, and thrown up a quiet roar of frustration that, in this year of years, you have to be reading about this lot again.

What can I say? Key records like Sulk and New Gold Dream miss the direct TPL cut, but an album pretending to call itself 1982 gets in. Why? Part of the reason may have to do with the fact that at around this time, the group did two Prince’s Trust benefit concerts at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, the second of which was attended by Prince Charles himself, and the resultant publicity helped sell the album.

What was also happening in the Britain of April 1982 – or several thousand miles south of Britain, to be exact – was a war, a war, moreover, which while it was happening was referred to in the media only as a “conflict.” Yes, Denis Healey, under the Callaghan administration, had sent a fleet to the islands in 1977 when the Argentinians began making threatening noises without any further “conflict” required. But Mrs Thatcher saw the nascent Ealing comedy scenario in her head, probably more vividly than she had considered the fascist junta then in power in Argentina, and decided that perhaps it wasn’t the people, or even the sheep, which needed saving, but the Stanley Holloway idea of “Britishness,” wherever in the world it might land.

Then soldiers began to get killed, and ships were blown up, and suddenly Thatcher was made to realise that post-war cinematic fantasies were a lot more complicated and messy when attempting to transpose them into real life. No matter, though; the islands were recaptured, Galtieri was brought down, to nobody’s regret – with the attendant irony that a British defence matrix intended to fight communism ended up defeating fascists – and the 1945 lontano reappeared in the mist ebbing above the average English dell. Britain Was Great Again and Thatcher became unassailable in the polls; we won a war, where were the rest of you?

And 1982 – and 1+9+8+2 – marked, I think, the point where Status Quo crossed the line from credible rock band to light entertainment National Treasures, a fixture as impassive and immovable as the Queen, or England, to the point where I’m not sure they thought they needed to try any longer (truly this record is the sound of rock and roll as the Royal Family might understand it).

There were valid reasons for this; John Coghlan had gone towards the end of 1981, either jumping or being pushed – he seems to think that it was a mixture of both – and the group’s drummer was now Pete Kircher, formerly of Honeybus and the Original Mirrors.  This means that by 1982 Quo no longer sounded like an integrated group; Kircher’s drumming on this record, shall I say, fills a gap, but is so unobtrusive and frill-free that one could at times mistake him for a drum machine – indeed, a drum machine loop is evident on the closing “Big Man” and the last lines of Animal Farm come to mind; only on “I Should Have Known” does he exhibit any discernible personality or supra-functional activity.

But this is palpably not the same Status Quo who have been absent from this tale for over six years (although long-serving keyboardist Andy Bown was by now a full band member). The five studio albums they released between Blue For You and 1+9+8+2 all comfortably made the top five (as did their 1977 double live album and 1980’s 12 Gold Bars greatest hits collection); this record’s predecessor, 1981’s Never Too Late, despite boasting one of the worst album covers of any major British rock act, was kept out of this tale only by Kings Of The Wild Frontier. However, there were signs of wear and tear; finally releasing a single called “Rock ‘N’ Roll” in November 1981, and making it a keyboard-predominant ballad with hardly any guitars, was a nice touch – but the track itself came from 1980’s Just Supposin’.

What listening to 1+9+8+2 makes me think of is the attempted revisit of a pub crawl in the new Simon Pegg/Nick Frost movie The World’s End. The film itself is a canny mixture of Last Orders and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, and like Siegel’s original movie of the latter, the analogy can hardly be understated; the men – or, at any rate, Pegg’s character – try to recapture whatever stirring and hope they might have harboured in 1990, a simpler and happier world of “Loaded,” “One Love” and “Kinky Afro,” but they discover, incrementally, that none of the pubs resembles the pubs they used to know, that the shoulder-shrugging acceptance of creeping corporatisation and uniformity have made for a Stepford world. When everyone and everything is the same, then nothing, and no one, can afford to be different.

While this phenomenon will hardly be a revelation to those of us who have witnessed the gradual closing down and arid realignment of London over the last decade, one does wonder whether the band heard on 1+9+8+2 are a clone Quo. They sound like Quo – to a degree, since they no longer have their original drummer – but on not-so-close examination they are a lifelike but lifeless replica of Quo.

The Quo I’ve written about in the seventies knew their limitations, all right, but they were inventive, scarcely ever obvious and had that crucial degree of inter-band musical telepathy. But lyrics like “it ain’t working right” (“She Don’t Fool Me”) and, more pertinently, “Oh no not again” (“Jealousy”) are depressingly self-fulfilling. There is nothing to distract the listener’s attention from the fact that the group have chosen to stay in this overage boys’ world of smelly pubs, mean girls who do them wrong (the latter being the primary subject of almost every song on the album) and wilful ignorance of the outside world. I note that Francis Rossi only had a hand in writing four of the eleven songs, and it shows; there are embellishments (the guitar FX on “Get Out And Walk”) rather than amendments or progression. Business-as-usual rockers like “I Should Have Known” and single “Dear John” (the latter not written by anybody in the group) are pallid and listless.

Worse comes when Rossi doesn’t sing lead, and Quo prove just how shockingly anonymous they can now otherwise become. “I Love Rock And Roll” is so tacky and ghastly, with its cheap keyboard interjections and crappy lyrics, that it could be Racey; and no it’s nothing to do with the Arrows or Joan Jett, though does make me wish I were writing about Jett’s infinitely superior I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll album from the same period. Elsewhere (e.g. “Get Out And Walk”) they sound as though they are auditioning for the Cars. On “Resurrection” they even have a go at being the Eagles, but only succeed in reminding me of how great an album David Lindley’s El-Rayo X is. “I Want The World To Know” is like Black Lace covering Howard Jones’ “Like To Get To Know You Well.” But perhaps the worst song on the record is the atrociously ham-fisted attempt at emulating American AoR that is “Big Man” which plods along bombastically like Styx on an off day. And people wonder why America chose to stay with ZZ Top; this sounds like a bad Bon Jovi pastiche, before anybody had even heard of Bon Jovi!

So the “Buy British” undertow of the times probably aided this album’s success, but in the immediate wake of The Number Of The Beast it simply will not do any more. Not when Combat Rock was just around the corner, or the Go-Gos were number one in the USA with Beauty And The Beat. Not when everything else was changing. And I am influenced by the knowledge that had it not been for Status Quo and the British people’s fatal attraction towards National Treasures, this space would have been occupied by Pelican West. Go and listen to “Lemon Fire Brigade” and “Calling Captain Autumn,” open the window and understand the difference between life and death.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

IRON MAIDEN: The Number Of The Beast

(#261: 10 April 1982, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Invaders/Children Of The Damned/The Prisoner/22 Acacia Avenue/The Number Of The Beast/Run To The Hills/Gangland/Total Eclipse/Hallowed Be Thy Name

(Author’s Note: “Total Eclipse” was not part of the original album, being the B-side to the single of “Run To The Hills,” but was added to the 1998 CD reissue)

After being endlessly invoked in this tale, it was inevitable that Patrick McGoohan and The Prisoner would make a direct appearance. Not so easy to predict was that when the real thing materialised, it would be within the context of that seemingly rarest of beasts, a heavy metal number one album from the early eighties. It is tempting to look at all the people represented in Then Play Long as sometimes unknowing citizens of a dramatically expanded and inflated Village, all keeping themselves imprisoned to a greater or lesser degree. But the song which the familiar dialogue prefaces is so assured in its courage – its repeated cries of “Fight!” presage Muse – and so artfully performed that it is easy to believe that Iron Maiden, of all number one acts, actually could muster the chutzpah to break down the gates.

For many people in the early eighties, The Number Of The Beast, the third Iron Maiden album and the first to feature Bruce Dickinson as lead singer, broke down a lot of gates; there was, in 1982, a slightly younger and slightly more displaced demographic who saw the record as their Never Mind The Bollocks, a sort of rebirth of hard rock. Iron Maiden, despite having existed since “Bohemian Rhapsody” was first number one and having gone through impenetrably multiple personnel changes, even by 1982, initially broke through in 1979 as part of what then Sounds editor Alan Lewis called the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, together with the likes of Def Leppard, Diamond Head, Saxon and Dickinson (and then Maiden drummer Ciive Burr)’s old group Samson. The rationale was simple – and the group’s shoutout to “Kiss, Priest and UFO” on the sleeve makes it explicit – in that heavy metal was going back to basics, influenced by the example, if not the music, of punk. Bands like Judas Priest and Motörhead obligingly settled into their predestined John the Baptist roles, setting the stripping down of rock’s framework into motion, but the likes of Iron Maiden were perceived as different, something not umbilically chained to the past. A band which a new generation could claim for themselves.

And it may well be that claiming followers for itself is what heavy metal does best. In May 1982 (not 1981 as Ask: The Chatter Of Pop misleadingly states), Paul Morley was sent to interview Dickinson and Steve Harris, bassist, originator and chief songwriter of Iron Maiden, for the NME. Morley was not a fan, and did have reasonable devil’s advocate questions for the two musicians; Maiden’s music as a fancy dress emasculation and simplification of evil, an ironically bland approach which did nothing but unite various stray people under the guise of light entertainment. In fact Morley’s approach, as demonstrated elsewhere in the interviews collected in Ask, now reads as increasingly didactic and self-suffocating (and, with Harris’ responses being printed in a mock-Cockernee accent, also patronising), with people being derided for what they are not, rather than what they are. Dickinson and Harris are diplomatically baffled; they protest that Maiden’s music has never tried to be anything but tongue-in-cheek fantasy escapism…and top quality rock. They splutter at the thought of being termed “bland”; Harris says at one point, “You put an Iron Maiden album on the turntables and watch your fucking mother-in-law drop the dishes or something.” They point out that “Run To The Hills” made the top ten as a single, and that Radio 1 would avoid having to play the record other than when they had to (chart shows, etc.). Then Dickinson very quietly points this out to Morley: “Basically you’re saying that heavy metal musicians are too dumb to deserve an audience” and doesn’t get a useful response (what does “destructively enclosed” or “harmfully sensationalist” mean?).

The musicians are not without fault; they sound confused when the subject turns to black people or homosexuals, and regularly describe women as “birds.” But they mean well, and it is Morley who comes off as looking foolish. There is something that Dickinson says in the course of their conversation which has always stuck with me; speaking about Deep Purple In Rock in particular, but also about music in general, he notes: “You felt great, you were right there with them, you felt what they felt. You look for the shiver that goes up the spine and if it’s there, it’s fucking great (italics are the author’s).”

There is no doubt that Iron Maiden wanted to inspire that kind of feeling in younger listeners – can we do for kids now what Gillan and Blackmore once did for us? There are few nobler callings – and it is noticeable that the group’s continuing devotion to its fanbase is maybe not that far removed from, and arguably more effective than, The Jam; they have never issued stern Wellerian diktats, compelled their listeners to keep up with what they’ve just listened to like a tired sergeant yelling at his reluctant company of privates, gone away at the point where they were most loved.

Likewise, it is hard to listen to the characteristic rhythm section galloping unisons of Harris and Burr, particularly when tempo changes from slow to fast, as happens on both “Children Of The Damned” and “Run To The Hills,” and not sense some kinship with Foxton and Buckler. And the lyrics on The Number Of The Beast, though largely derived from the sword and sorcery section of Forbidden Planet, are as bleak, if not bleaker, than those of The Gift; “Gangland,” for instance, puts the “Carnation” self-loathing paranoia into sinister perspective (“Face at the window leers into your own/But it’s only your reflection, still you tremble in your bones”).

But what I am trying to get at here is that The Number Of The Beast is a far more entertaining listen than The Gift, and a much more genuinely forceful one at that. Rather than treating their fans as naughty schoolchildren at the back of the class in whom knowledge has to be forcibly instilled, Maiden consider their fans as equals, as evinced by the sleeve’s dedication “to Headbangers, Earthdogs, Rivet Heads, Hell Rats and Metal Maniacs everywhere. See you on tour!” And the music bustles through any hint of monastic ambiguity, hurls itself at your face.

The opening “Invaders” sets aside any questions. Dickinson’s voice blends so naturally and rightly with the musicians, in ways that Paul DiAnno and Blaze Bayley’s voices, for all their merits, didn’t, that it’s impossible to think of this as their first record together; they seem always to have been there. Accusations that heavy metal was at this point systematically shutting down on itself and all other outside influences – that all the NWOBMH were doing was playing music inspired by listening solely to other heavy metal groups – are terribly unfounded; any group capable of negotiating the tricky bridge of “Invaders” clearly know their jazz and folk (see also the canny little visual Zappa tribute on the sleeve) – and while Harris said yes to Purple, Sabbath and (to a lesser extent) Zeppelin, he also said yes to Yes, Jethro Tull and Wishbone Ash (listen to the latter’s Argus, particularly “Blowin’ Free” and “Throw Down The Sword,” for a clear notion of where Maiden learned their musical approach; Martin Birch, the engineer on Argus, was also Maiden’s producer).

Dickinson, meanwhile, certainly channelled a lot of Ian Gillan through his voice, as well as the more vaudevillian approach of Arthur Brown, but there is also a considerable amount of Peter Hammill – hear the latter’s Nadir’s Big Chance from 1975 for proof, and compare with the outraged way in which Dickinson sings the line “If he had LIVED he would have crucified us all” on “Children Of The Damned”  – and a lot more sensitivity than the singer is usually credited for (the quiet introduction to “Hallowed Be Thy Name” which, despite its gallows pole reference, strenuously avoids being Zeppelin). In other places – most unexpectedly on the choruses of “22 Acacia Avenue” (charmingly subtitled “The Continuing Adventures of Charlotte the Harlot”) – his long-sustained, high-pitched ululations make him sound, of all singers, like Billy MacKenzie. “Acacia Avenue,” by the way, is a very silly “Roxanne” retread, thematically if not musically, climaxing in a bellowing Dickinson declaiming “Stop all that screaming! You’re packing your bags and you’re coming with ME!,” far too camp and pantomimic to be taken for misogyny.

The music, however, as I said before, is thoroughly assured and helpfully single-minded. Co-lead guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith must be the closest-knit guitar duo since the Stones (or at least since Glen Tipton and KK Downing in Judas Priest); it really doesn’t matter who plays what, since any ego is subsumed within the greater good of the band. “Invaders” alone is enough to send any cobwebs flying, and forceful enough to remind us that another group, who perhaps listened to this record very closely, will later have a number one record entitled Invaders Must Die.

“Children Of The Damned” was enough to confirm the group’s superb control of tension, release and dynamics, coming across like a more meditative Black Sabbath throughout the slow first half, before speeding up and escalating to Dickinson’s final, apocalyptic high note; the guitar work in the song’s closing section is, Lena reminds me, highly reminiscent of Pat Benatar’s draining 1980 song about child abuse, “Hell Is For Children.”

“The Prisoner” – band manager Rod Smallwood very nervously rang up McGoohan to ask his permission to use the dialogue, but the great man said don’t be silly, of course you can use it! – is surprisingly generous in touch, and its lyric extremely relevant to the context and metaphor of the original series (“My blood is my own now,” “Don’t care where the past was”). Despite its final operatic defiance, the band plays, if anything, like the Ramones, fast and light rather than flat and bombastic.

Like The Jam, Maiden made great sense as a singles act, and both the title track (the introductory voiceover, incidentally, is spoken by one Barry Clayton; first choice Vincent Price asked for too much money, but we’ll be hearing from him on TPL soon enough) and “Run To The Hills” were quite in keeping with New Pop developments, in that the mission to revitalise and resuscitate pop music was parallel to Maiden’s ambition to resuscitate and revitalise rock music. Both are terrific, and “Hills” in particular is underrated; an update on “Indian Reservation” perhaps, but the lyric is intelligent enough to encompass the viewpoints of both the Cree Indians and the massacring soldiers, ready to pillage and exterminate to ensure space for free enterprise. No points for guessing whose side Maiden are on, though; Dickinson’s concluding three-step falsetto shriek is pretty extreme and unambiguous in that respect, and moreover, one can easily visualise a twenty-year-old Axl Rose listening to this song and learning it.

Burr’s “Total Eclipse,” not part of the original album, fits in well enough here, with its visions of apocalypse extending beyond Vikings and blue soldiers of history to encompass the present tense, and in its usage and cross-stitching of guitar duopoly demonstrates just what an unsung influence early Van Halen was (1982 also being the year of the latter’s excellent Diver Down album) and also (as demonstrated throughout the album) what an abominably underrated influence Slade had on the rock bands which followed them (like Slade, Maiden roll far more than they rock). But “Hallowed,” which has the same plot as Tony Christie’s “I Did What I Did For Maria” – at least in terms of going to the hangman at daybreak without fear - was the big finish, its initial quietude gradually rising to a roaring fearless-of-death defiance, even though it finishes on the strangest of lines ever to finish a heavy metal album: “Life down here is just a strange illusion.”

The record hit big immediately and gained them an audience, of sorts, in the States, as well as the attention of various Bible belt types who saw “666” and took immediate offence.  More importantly, however, there were innumerable teenagers in America, sick of the milk of magnesia diet of REO Speedwagon and Styx, who wanted something more, and, crucially, something fresh. Yes, there was Black Flag and the Melvins and Minor Threat and all the rest of them – and I’ll bet they all lapped this record up, as did people who would go on to form groups like Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax (not to mention G’n’R). Even Lady GaGa has gone on record as naming Maiden her favourite band (“their fans live, breathe and die for Maiden, and that is my dream”). It still seems a far more decisive break from stultification than most, and – although we will be revisiting Maiden several times as this tale progresses – you have to love a group who will put “Pete Brotzman” on their thank-you list, although sadly this is not a misspelt German improvising saxophonist, but the band’s correctly spelt amplifer supplier. And would Weller have dreamt of augmenting The Jam with a huge papier maché mascot named Eddie?  No new path is walkable without humour, but The Number Of The Beast, by recognising that humour is always something to be taken with the greatest of seriousness, is still a blast of a record to listen to, and as good an example as any in this tale of new ways coming forward to supersede old ways. Except that – as entry #262 will demonstrate – the old ways weren’t always for turning.