Dalton Koss HQ is excited to announce that the Album Rescue Series book is now available for sale! Order your copy via our online retailer Lulu.com
At Dalton Koss HQ we love to empower those around us. To accompany the Album Rescue Series book, the very talented SAE Institute audio students were asked to put together an album of songs reinterpreted from some of the rescued albums found in our book. Students put their Producer hats on and were given total freedom to scope their reinterpretation as they wished. The resulting record has some very interesting responses, many of which reflect the students’ area of passion or expertise. Have a listen while reading the Album Rescue Series book! (Note: language warning on some tracks). To hear this music, follow the SoundCloud link.
Album Rescue Series book launch – Monday 16th November at 6:00pm at SAE Institute, 235 Normanby Road, South Melbourne, Vic 3205.
The Album Rescue Series book evolved from some lively debates between friends, family and colleagues as to the merits of various unloved and mistreated albums. These discussions lead to committing our thoughts to paper and rescuing various albums that the press and public considered far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The Album Rescue Series book is a contributive piece of work by music, media and cultural theorist scholars, academics and commentators, each of whom takes a unique approach in rescuing an album that they love.
Veteran rock ‘n’ roller Tim Dalton (Faith No More, Beastie Boys, Primus, Public Enemy, Run DMC, Atomic Kitten, Transvision Vamp) heads up a team of passionate authors: – Matt Bangerter, Broady, Mat Caithness, Ian Dixon, Lisa Gotto, Ian Hunter, Ragnhild Nordset, Gareth Parton, Adam Spellicy, David M. Turner and Nick Wilson. At the Album Rescue Series book launch you can meet and chat with the authors about the albums that they have rescued.
Tim Dalton is available for all media requests to talk about the Album Rescue Series book and/or his 36 years of international rock ‘n’ roll knowledge and experience.
Tim Dalton (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Rebecca Koss (email@example.com)
Dalton Koss HQ
8 Brand Street
Hampton Victoria 3188
The early 90’s were a turbulent time. Just a few years after grunge turned the music scene on its head, so the sudden death of Kurt Cobain caused another seismic upheaval. With rock’s biggest bands still readjusting to this brave new world, and grunge’s superstars dazed and in mourning, rock badly needed an adrenaline shot.
Into the vacuum poured a new breed of bands and none more talented volatile, or unhinged, as The Wildhearts. Offering a noisy alternative to the mainstream ‘Brit-rock’ these disparate-sounding newcomers flawed both audiences and the music press with their first almighty sucker-punch.
The bands auburn haired front man/guitarist, known to all as Ginger, for reasons too obvious to explain, had been promising to make his presence felt for a number of years. Latterly the hard living guitarist with UK Rod and the Faces, sound-alike’s, The Quireboys, Ginger’s lifestyle and belligerent personality had seen him fall out with the band’s new management, Sharon Osborne. Cast adrift, just as the Quireboys were about to break into the mainstream, and tour the world as support act for The Rolling Stones, it’s fair to say that the volatile man with the flame hair decided to view the situation as a call to arms, rather than the knife between the shoulder blades that it undoubtedly was.
For months, the rumour mill turned with whispers of Gingers new band. Names were mentioned, line-ups confirmed, and still nothing happened. Then, just as the music press was about to consign all the speculation to the bin, rock radio came alive with the sound of Turning American, by The Wildhearts, and no one had expected it to sound as it did.
To say that Turning American was a thinly veiled attack on Ginger’s previous band would be doing it an injustice. There was nothing veiled about it. ‘The smell of easy money and you’d follow it to death – I can smell the shit upon your breath.’
As alluded to earlier, Ginger Wildheart had always found himself to be a Vegemite personality. People either loved him or hated him; and it is something that continues to this day. A belligerent, aggressive, and hugely unpredictable character, with a yo-yo penchant for some of the darker indulgences of life, made being in a band with Ginger Wildheart as exciting as it was dangerous. However, right from day one of The Wildhearts, it was obvious that Ginger had a talent that the majority of his contemporaries could only weep into their Jack Daniels about.
After testing the waters with the EP’s, ‘Mondo Akimbo a Go-Go’, and ‘Don’t Be Happy, Just Worry’, the band’s line up finally stabilized with the release of Earth Vs. The Wildhearts. Even the album’s title betrayed Ginger’s worldview that he was always the outsider and fully prepared to fight his corner.
Earth Vs. The Wildhearts hit the record stores on August 17th 1993, and it had jaws hitting the pavement from the get-go. From the opening of ‘Greetings from Shitsville’, to the fade out of, ‘Love U til I don’t’, eleven songs later, it left the listener in no doubt that there was never any chance of a compromise. We can all think of albums we own that slowly welcome you into their world. As the more radio friendly and melodic tracks become that bit over familiar, you discover the layers and intricacies of the hidden gems. They invite you to enjoy your own journey of discovery, at your own pace and in your own way, but Earth Vs. The Wildhearts was an album with very different ideas about your listening pleasure. Like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, you felt as if you had been strapped to a gurney with your eyes and ears pinned back, and then psychologically assaulted by the kind of chorus melodies and hooks we generally consider to be the preserve of Lennon and McCartney, or the best of the mid sixties Motown stock writers.
The UK’s New Musical Express (NME) reviewed it with the words; “Earth Vs. The Wildhearts is akin to being jumped by a gang of hells angels on your way home from the pub, and receiving the worst beating anyone would wish never to have; yet through the blood and exhaustion, you crawl away feeling utterly exhilarated and wanting it to happen again.”
So what made this album what it was? Of course it has to start with the songs. In the twenty plus years since its release, Ginger Wildheart has continued to fuel the opinion that, somewhere in the Cayman Islands he has an offshore safety deposit box, full of killer chorus melodies and crunching guitar riffs that he can dip into whenever the mood takes him. Another defining factor is what a hybrid it is; a true Frankenstein of an album. Diamond pop melodies, guitar riffs that bands like Metallica and Slipknot would cut off an arm to have composed, and all delivered in musical arrangements and time changes that have more in common with some early seventies prog-rock album. They are musical elements that, on the surface, are like oil and water; they seem to have no earthly business being in the same recording studio at the same time, yet the fusion is absolute, and without there ever being a musical moment where you can separate any of them.
What comes across is that Dr Gingerstein was never going to give a **** what you, me, or anyone else thought. In the song, ‘Miles Away Girl’, he sings, “You never seem to have any money, because the decent people never get paid.” The line is just one of the dozens of allegories within the lyrics, and a typical Ginger Wildheart statement that he really doesn’t care who you are, or how great your life has turned out; his world view is seated in the person, and not what you have.
Like many great albums, Earth Vs. The Wildhearts didn’t fulfil its potential until the band had imploded in a spectacular mess of booze, bar fights, and hallucinogenic fungi. No sooner was it claiming its plaudits, and starting to dent the music charts, the party was over; at least for a while. Just like Dr Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s book, Ginger Wildheart succumbed to the monster of his own making; famously carving his initials into the boardroom table of Mushroom Records with a flick knife, when signing the band’s deal with them. As the band’s lead guitarist once said to me, “Ginger is never happy; if he found a bar of gold in the street, he’d complain it was the wrong shape.”
Earth Vs. The Wildhearts was a true monster rock album. It broke so much new ground whilst raising its hat in respect to so much that had come before it. Nirvana had become the Khmer Rouge of rock music. They had drawn a line in the sand and stamped year zero on guitar music with a battered Converse. Just as punk rock had blazed a scorched earth policy over the self-indulgence of seventies progressive rock, you could argue that music needed Nirvana in much the same way. However, they heralded a period where rock music became insular and sometimes dark. Kurt Cobain, Layne Stayley, Andrew Wood; the Jim Morrison’s of Grunge, dead before their time, and buried in a t-shirt that says ‘Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead.’ The Wildhearts debut album was the first clarion call in returning rock music to what it had once been, and should always be. It said rock music should be fun again; it should be about having a great time with your mates, and not sitting in your room contemplating your navel over a big joint of weed. It was an album that gave the finger to those who refused to acknowledge the past; Nirvana B.C, and wore its influences boldly on its sleeve. It was Metallica covering the early Beatles, or Nirvana covering Lynard Skynard, and produced by Phil Spector with a gun.
Earth Vs. The Wildhearts is a lost gem, and its legacy is rooted in that very fact. I once heard it described, as like owning a piece of banned or subversive art. Only a select group are aware of it and understand its weight and significance. Occasionally its owners might trust it to new ears, having warned them of the consequences. As Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix, ‘Red pill or blue pill?’ There really is no turning back because you can never unhear it.
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Earth Vs. The Wildhearts is written by Ian Hunter who is a music industry A&R, artist manager, occasional novelist, magazine writer, mischief maker and general trouble causer. Ian is now based in Sydney, lectures at the Australian Institute of Music and is part of a globally successful artist management team. (Follow Ian Hunter on Twitter @IanHunterwriter )
In 1886, Vincent Van Gogh painted a pair of workman’s boots placed on a rustic table; a work of intimate beauty, which achieves transcendence where the subject matter appears so lacklustre (Hall, 2001). Similarly, Kate Bush’s Aerial (2005), complete with themes of washing machines, clothes wavering in the breeze, the movement of ocean tides and birdsong in scat scansion electrifies the domestic mundane. Aerial, the album whose release was ‘imminent’ from the year 2000 and whose opening track ‘King of the Mountain’ was composed as early as 1996 (Moy, 2007), manifests Kate Bush’s sophisticated musicality in a manner which exalts the commonplace. This she achieves: not through soaring themes of tragic love or Houdini-esque escapism, not through the microtonal discordance of the Bulgarian women’s choir nor her brother Paddy Bush’s teeth-jangling guitar riffs, not through threatening to swap places with god nor dancing to death in the same red shoes David Bowie decried, nor releasing a plethora of fiendish critters from underneath her skirts, but through the meditative beauty of domesticity and the natural world.
Like Van Gogh’s boots, the album elicits mysticism through simplicity rendering the material sublime. If anyone can grow up to sing airy odes to washing machines and to her tiny son Bertie (b. 1998), Kate can. If anyone can feature the didgeridoo-appropriating Rolf Harris on themes, which reference French impressionism and English pastoral music for a full six minutes about gentle rain smudging an artist’s canvas causing ‘all the colours [to] run’, Kate can (Bush, 2005). The album’s work is homespun organic (rather than rock extravaganza): transcendental (rather than chart topping) and delicately orgasmic (rather than attention-seeking pageantry as with Kate Bush prior to 2005). As Kate (2005) states in ‘Joanni’:
“All the banners stop waving
And the flags stop flying
And the silence comes over”
Thus, in Aerial, there is quietude and contemplation, even behind its rock anthems. Despite the demeaning claims of cynical reviewers, Aerial (her first album ‘doubling’ since Hounds of Love (1985)) represents the artistic maturation of Kate Bush, thereby re-emphasising her continuing relevance to the ‘adult’ market (Moy, 2007: p. 124).
Pete Townsend once dissented, “Stop judging us by what we did when we were stupid, stupid kids”. Although referring to The Who’s wild antics (culminating with the death of Keith Moon), Townsend’s protest applies to the band’s rock juvenilia as well, becoming the catch cry of ‘aging rocker[s]’ who survive the 1970s (Bowie in Parkinson, 2002). In the wake of 70s excess, performing greats such as Townsend, Bowie, Freddie Mercury (R.I.P.) and Suzi Quatro find themselves battling a public, which, while forgiving their transgressions, will not allow their musical acumen to evolve. Add to this the confronting reality of growing up astoundingly beautiful in the public eye and you have the indefatigable Kate Bush: as T.S. Eliot (1920) muses, “some infinitely gentle, Infinitely suffering thing”, but with a generous dollop of Lindsay Kemp-inspired sassiness. Like so many 70s/80s rock heroes, critics compare Kate’s more recent work to the ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1978) of her early career while simultaneously making no secret of their dirty obsession with her eccentric sexuality (Vermorel, 1983). As Ron Moy illustrates, these ‘over-deterministic’ analyses usually tell us more of the critics’ psyches than Kate Bush’s contribution to thematically insightful music (2007: p. 1). In the Freudian (1986) sense, Kate is championed and punished simultaneously: her very attractiveness entrapping her. As one (bombastic) biographer notes (Vermorel, 1983: p. 63):
“Kate Bush is our goddess Frig. And like the Saxons we both revere and fear her. Shroud her in the mystery of her power and the power of her mystery.”
These critics yearn for Kate’s peculiar mix of angry femme noir and high art with the same vehemence that schoolboys draw lascivious parallels from her surname. There is no doubt the Bexleyheath pariah, Kate Bush, known for pop, art rock and neo-baroque composition, creates fame partly based on her remarkable sensuality, but more importantly makes significant contribution to the progression of serious pop music. Aerial is a prime example of such artistry as evinced though: Kate’s sublimated sexuality; mysticism; repetition as motif; the pastoral tradition; and her pervasive musicality.
The finally released 2005 album, Aerial, went platinum the following year and was awarded a BRIT nomination for Best British Album. In examining Aerial, which sold 90,000 copies in its first week of release and peaked at number three in the British charts, we must also acknowledge Kate’s significance as sexualised female and the ways in which critics have positioned her in the decades leading up to this album (Bush, 2015). In modern (fourth wave) feminist vein, trading on sex appeal is not a transgression, but an asset. Indeed, even the 1978, neck-to-ankle-gowned Kate Bush strategically used her sexuality for notoriety and deserves due respect for doing so. To what degree Kate was able to control the rapid trajectory of her fame (as Sinead O’Connor, Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus decades later) is debatable.
In this age of pop-pornification, Kate Bush seems relatively tame, but no one forgets the carnal expressionism of ‘black widow’ doll making love to a double bass in ‘Babooshka’ (1980); no one forgets the skyrocketing voice effortlessly emerging from the willowy sensuality of ‘Wuthering Heights’ (an effect found contemporaneously in popular Bollywood theme songs rather than in Western pop music). The retiring, yet brazen and Elvin voice from the ghostly Goth who became ‘every schoolboy’s fantasy’: Kate Bush, the seventeen-year-old nymphette discovered and initially financed by Pink Floyd’s virtuoso guitarist Dave Gilmour, represents a mystical and mesmeric contradiction (Moy, 2007).
Kate is the quintessential English rose, whose sprightly face and lithe body arrest global attentions. Here lies one of the abiding prejudices of pop music: that the serious, female, pop composer must be vigorously objectified rather than appraised solely for her artistry. Even seasoned critics elide Kate’s phenomenal talent as they gaze into those magical eyes. Entire biographies have been dedicated to unravelling the shamanic mystery of Kate’s beauty, rather than serious studies of her groundbreaking musical experimentation.
This is where the problem with Aerial lies: not with Kate Bush’s visionary genius, but with shallow commentators insisting she perform pop music to a hard beat, which shows off the litheness of her body rather than her vision as an artist.
Those critics ought also acknowledge that in 1978 Kate Bush became the first woman ever to top the British charts with a self-written song (Thomson, 2010). This is no small achievement in the misogynist world of rock charting: “an industry that still largely conforms to stereotypes of patriarchy” (Moy, 2007: p. 3). In the U.K., an artist once championed for such a hit generally remains in the popular zeitgeist for the rest of their career (which is not the case in the USA or Australia, where tearing down icons becomes the norm). We should acknowledge, therefore, that while Kate Bush clearly earned the right to her sexualisation, her sexuality followed her artistic success.
We might also understand that Kate (like so many pop artists denied the opportunity) deserves the right to grow up, to mature: she has surely earned her capacity to say what she wishes in the manner she wished to say it. Curiously, it is not so much Kate’s fan-base who rebukes the impressionistic bricolage of Aerial, but the critics who make retroactive comparison to The Kick Inside (1978), Never For Ever (1980), The Dreaming (1982), Hounds of Love and The Sensual World (1989). As one commentator opines, in lambasting the 2005 album, the pop song requires intense build up of tension through verse and middle eight then explodes with the expected ‘orgasm’ of sound into the chorus. Bowie knew this in ‘Starman’(1973), Queen knew it in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’(1975): just as Kate knew in ‘Wuthering Heights’. In this career-defining song, inspired by the 1967 BBC mini-series based on Emily Brontë’s eponymous novel, the screaming passion of, “Cathy, it’s Heathcliff, I’ve come home now, so co-ho-ho-hold, let me in your windo-ho-ho-ow”, leads to the repeated intoning of, “Wuthering, Wuthering, Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff!” which climaxes the chorus bringing shivers to the spine some four decades later. In ‘Babooshka’, the simmering tension of clandestine infidelity, “She signed the letter…” literally busts into the vengeful refrain: “Aye-yi, Babooshka, Babooshka, Babooshka, yi-yi!” (Bush, 1980). The augmentation of such pop clichés in Aerial represents the album’s point of difference, its strength as impressionistic musing and the fruition of a significant artist.
Trading as her newly formed company, Noble and Brite, under EMI Records Ltd., Aerial includes long-time collaborators Del Palmer, Paddy Bush, Stuart Elliott and Michael Kamen (R.I.P.) conducting the London Metropolitan Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios. The album exploits musical mesmerism, which dovetail into the soundscape with bridging passages between songs and features rhythmic, human laughter and scat singing paralleled with birdsong harmonies. In a lyrical echo of this, the prologue opens with a voice recording of Kate’s son Bertie inquiring, “Mummy? Daddy? The day is full of birds. Sounds like they’re saying words,” followed by Kate musing, “We’re going to be laughing about this” (as subsequently she does with characteristic bird-like capriciousness).
The inner cover design by Kate and Peacock proscribes washing blowing vigorously in the wind before rows of redbrick two-up/two-downs: patterns forming at the interface of domesticity and sensuality as they merge with the near indiscernible doves flapping in their midst thanks to John Calder-Bush’s decisive photography. On closer inspection, the inner sleeve reveals Kate’s famous ‘Elvis’ suit pegged up and blowing about on the clothesline: a visual joke, which also betrays an ingrained sadness: the performative mask rejected, the histrionics passed, the pop icon hung out to dry, but also a musing on the nature of celebrity (Moy, 2007: p. 124). The design work is littered with clouds, pigeons, blackbirds, seagulls, gannets with eyes under their wings, Randy Olson’s Indus Bird Mask and digital sonic waveforms. These visuals promise the listener a collage of musical secrets: a message to her fans and reference to past songs as if pleading, “Please, let me off the commercial hook.”
The boat named ‘Aerial’, from James Southall’s painting ‘Fisherman’ in the album’s centrefold, is forced into the ocean: a delightful visual paradox playing upon the elements of water and air; sea and sky resonant within the music. With this image, Kate Bush invites us to muse upon the definition of the word ‘Aerial’ as ‘existing, happening, or operating in the air’, ‘performed mid-air’ (Oxford Dictionary, 2015). The double album is appropriately divided into two parts: A Sea of Honey and A Sky of Honey. With Aerial, the surging inevitable of ‘Wuthering Heights’ crowd-pleasing chorus is mostly usurped by simple, melodious poetry. Indeed, Aerial bears more in common with Brian Eno’s ambient music and the themes of House and Garden than with Emily Brontë’s gothic word-scape.
Aerial features finessed lyrical observations drawing comparisons to painterly colours and the night sky in Italy. Like the painter in An Architect’s Dream, “Yes, I need to get that tone a little bit lighter there, maybe with some dark accents coming in from the side there” (Rolf Harris in Bush, 2005). Kate Bush muses upon the infinitesimally small separation between thoughts: a hypnagogic, Zen-like appreciation of organic life. As Rod McKie (2014) opines, “somewhere in between… an inner-space, like a vast landscape in some computer game, which seems to be timeless”. In fact, the album culminates Kate’s abiding thematic collapsing of opposing binaries: you/me; object/I; Other/self; empathetic references to, “I could feel what he was feeling” and multiple “in between” states (2005):
“Somewhere in between
The waxing and the waning wave
Somewhere in between
What the song and the silence say
Somewhere in between
The ticking and the tocking clock
Somewhere in a dream between
Sleep and waking up
Somewhere in between
Breathing out and breathing in,
Like twilight is neither night nor morning.”
Indeed, somewhere in between the pastoral and impressionistic lies Kate Bush’s Aerial; somewhere in between art rock and tonal poetry. Kate Bush’s musicality steps from the nineteenth century folk song and English traditions of pastoral poetry, but no one has synthesised them into palatable art pop quite like Kate. Her earthiness and spiritual nature steps from a sadly antiquated world, bringing strains of occultism and romance in its wake. Her sensibilities visit subjects elided by rock music’s current obsession with hard porn: as delicate as a poem or washing on a clothesline or the ‘flick’ of an artist’s wrists and hips (Bush, 2005).
Famously incorporating English and Irish folk music in her music, Kate evokes mysticism in her music: in particular English eccentricity and bird imagery described in Shakespeare’s (1595) Midsummer Night’s Dream as:
“Every elf and fairy sprite,
Hop as light as bird from brier,
And this ditty after me,
Sing and dance it trippingly.”
Apart from literary references, numerous tonal and lyrical references to Irish Banshees abound throughout her milieu and Aerial is no exception. Citation of British, early twentieth century composer Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’ might seem pretentious coming from less accomplished pop artists, but the simmering Kate, manages the reference both musically and lyrically with utter panache. The pastoral muse is the tradition, which truly couches this album. From Beethoven’s pastoral symphony (no. 6) to Vaughan Williams’ improvisations on themes from Thomas Tallis, the European obsession with the ‘innocent’ countryside is infused within this album. Formalism may be a lesser known quantity in pop music, but as the album cover for Aerial betrays with its digital sound wave forming the dividing horizon between the two elements of the album the sky of honey and the sea of honey, the lush unfolding of long time collaborator Del Palmer’s “trademark slithering fretless bass” (Dwyer, 2005), the rhythms undulate like a lapping tide; and this is but one of the many references to water, ocean and rain in the album.
As ‘An Architect’s Dream’ spills mellifluously into ‘The Painter’s Link’, Kate Bush has provided a sumptuous pastoral meditation: Bosco D’Oliveira’s percussion unfolding like the wheels of a country squire’s cart. The album is positively dripping with British jingoism: Kate’s personal Lionheart (1978).
Sunset announces that ‘all the colours run’ as the texture literally melts thematically, lyrically and musically from one statement into the next. Gone is the R & B formula and screaming nightmare of ‘Hounds of Love’; gone the unbridled passion of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and as ‘The Kick Inside’ morphs into the birth of her son, Bertie (a child Kate clearly cherishes). Indeed, the adulation of innocence in the form of children harks back to former compositions, ‘The Infant Kiss’ (1980) and ‘The Man With the Child in his Eyes’(1978) (the latter reputedly written when Kate was just thirteen (Moy, 2007)).
In ‘A Sea of Honey’ Kate’s voice wavers like lapping water. The elemental creeps from the dulcet tones and characteristic soft ‘R’s of her eccentric pronunciation. She sings of colours and makes biblical references: “Where sands sing in crimson red and rust, then climb into bed and turn to dust.” Like Bowie, Kate Bush represents shamanic and animistic proportions (Hunt, 2014). Through projected religiosity with Celtic proportions and fascination for nature, Kate invokes the natural world: a near psychotic projection of animism in the significance of the inanimate, like washing machines and the serendipity of rain on oil painting. Indeed, in reference to Aerial, it should be noted that poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, proves more popular with youth audiences than his protégé William Wordsworth, mainly due to the latter’s sublimation of sexual imagery within nature (as Freudian (1990) analysis illustrates): a practice the later Victorian poets knew well. How much like Kate Bush’s lyrics does Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott (1832) seem? Especially regarding the mourning maidens of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Man with The Child in his Eyes’? Indeed, the absence of palpable sexuality might explain the lesser success of the singles from Aerial than the album (Moy, 2007), given youth culture’s fascination with the single market.
Indeed, sublimated sexuality also explains the preponderance of repetition in the album. While R & B formula (and Kate herself) is no stranger to repetition, Aerial embraces a gentle Freudian ‘compulsion to repeat’ in numerous ways (1983). Where ‘Wuthering Heights’ repeats the eponymous title in a mantra, which batters our sensibilities, ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’s’ gentle, non-pop repetition, “Washing machine… Washing machine…” allows the phrase and music to die and resonate between iterations. The effect is mesmeric. The music itself, rather than constantly announcing noise, announces a right to gentility and silence as in the repetition of ‘π’s’ numeric formula (Bush, 2005):
“Sweet and gentle and sensitive man
With an obsessive nature and deep fascination
In a circle of infinity
The song, like so many others on the album, evokes an animistic joy in things unseen, but uncannily perceived as Freud (1986) illustrates in Totem and Taboo. Further, Kate allows repetition to enhance her experience of the ‘panoramic’ divine (Bush, 2005): that contradiction Kristeva (1982) describes as sublime, the awe of mountainous beauty combined with ingrained fear of the divine (Bush, 2005):
“We went up to the top of the highest hill
It was just so beautiful
It was just so beautiful
It was just so beautiful.”
The repetition sung in her upper register infuses with an awe-inspired timbre of delicacy; Kate Bush at her most divine, which invites the listener to gaze through the eyes of the artist, effecting greater agency than pop and rock’s mind-battering insurgence (which Kate still demonstrates unique aptitude for). Poetic repetition echoes in ‘Prelude’, where the keyboard matches the cooing of pigeons and ends on the dominant rather than resolving the chord structure as the birds repeat their meditative phrase. The final song (as if to remind audiences that she can still generate a rock anthem wall of sound), Aerial, rises to a repetitive climax then instantly ends with the gentle cooing of pigeons, bringing the album to a close with both an unexpectedly orgasmic ‘bang’ and a repetitive ‘whimper’ (Eliot, 1925).
In Aerial, Kate’s lifelong fascination for themes such as innocence, nature, the divine, the Celtic and mystical, breathing, dreaming and romantic passion all repeat in this album in tandem with a new experience of the world: maturity – both artistic and personal. Decline this invitation at your peril, critics.
Where detractors see only imitation and pretension, Kate Bush’s soaring talent as gentle musing in Aerial sits proudly within her established lexicon. Aerial represents the maturation of Kate Bush, which compliments and outgrows her mesmerising, youthful compositions. Aerial celebrates simplicity in domesticity as only a true master such as Van Gogh might render it. It would be fair for critics and fans alike to allow Kate Bush’s sexuality to evolve also: from mystical nymphette to maternal recluse. The stigmas of the past do not pass easily, especially in British pop where, once exalted, the star remains on the pedestal for the duration of their lives and beyond. It seems the flipside of this convention is to tear them down with cold, judgemental ownership. Kate Bush, the critics declare, has no right to experiment, no right to grow and supersede rock cliché. To the contrary, the investigative artistry of Aerial should be considered a significant contribution to the canon of Kate Bush and to the progression of popular music: through simplicity rather than histrionic excess. Kate has created a textual smorgasbord with this album; served to a rarefied palette. Thank-you Kate. The album is breathtaking. Mwah!
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Kate Bush ‘Aerial‘ is written by Dr Ian Dixon, one of ARS’ guest academics. Dr Ian Dixon is a well known Melbourne-based film and television director who is also one of the world’s most eminent David Bowie scholars. (Follow Dr Ian Dixon on Twitter @IanIandixon66)
Manchester is regarded as the UK’s second city after London, despite the unsubstantiated counter claims from Birmingham, and is one of the world’s greatest industrial cities. The city is famous for driving the industrial revolution, cotton production, a 36 mile (58km) long ship canal, TV broadcasting, art, music and even providing the world with the standardisation for screws via the Whitworth Thread standard in 1841. Despite all of these great inventions and innovations, Manchester is usually known throughout the world for its two football teams Manchester United and Manchester City.
I am pretty lucky. Since the mid 1980s I have travelled the world extensively with my backstage rock ‘n’ roll career and everywhere I go I see people who have never been to Manchester wearing football shirts of these two teams/brands. A quick search on the Internet lists over fifty active football teams in the Greater Manchester area. The problem with this style of binary reductionism is that great teams that are neither United nor City are not represented. I am not a football fan or expert by any stretch of the imagination but I’d hazard a guess that there are some great games being played by teams like Bury Football Club or Bolton Wanderers.
This is the major problem with Northside’s 1991 release Chicken Rhythms on Factory Records (FAC310). Northside are in effect Accrington Stanley to The Stone Roses’ Manchester City or The Happy Mondays’ Manchester United and as such do not attract the attention they so well deserved. In the music scene, this scene became known as Madchester; there were so many bands present during this period that it was fairly obvious that some would fall between the cracks. I am absolutely sure the same thing happens in any great musical movement; think the San Francisco Sound of the late 1960s early 1970s and the two major players of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but what about Stoneground? Don’t worry, Stoneground’s 1971 eponymous album is going to feature in Album Rescue Series volume II.
Manchester, and its new sound Madchester, was the dominant sound in British popular music during the late ’80s and early ’90s and I almost missed it. From 1985 onwards I spent very little time in my home country (the UK) as I was travelling the world as a live sound engineer with a host of well-known international acts. Luckily for me I had a day off in Manchester during a world tour with New York alternate jazz rappers De La Soul and so I was able to hook up with my old mate Gary ‘Mani’ Mountfield. I’d met Mani a few years earlier when he was on the stage crew at various Manchester venues ‘humping’ band’s equipment. We were only 20 days apart in age and we took an instant liking to each other. As I’d spent so much time away from the UK with my touring activities, I had no idea that Mani had joined the band The Stones Roses as their bass player, in fact, I had no idea that he could even play bass. On this occasion I hooked up with Mani and we found ourselves in an old knackered ‘borrowed’ car heading to the town of Failsworth, famous for the production of felt hats in the 1850s, to purchase marijuana . It was during this 3.7mile (6km) trip, that Mani gave me the details of the new Manchester music scene that I didn’t even know existed; it was known as Madchester. Once we arrived in Failsworth, our hosts sold us dope at a greatly inflated price (due mainly to Mani’s recently found celebrity status) and then proceeded to smoke it with us. It was at this point that I first heard the album that is the subject of this album rescue: Northside’s Chicken Rhythms. Presumably, the album name comes from the use of funky, chicken-scratch guitars, which the band weaves into its abstract, aloof, slightly quirky brand of alternative psyche pop/rock?
A major album issue is that Northside were late arrivals to the Madchester party with their debut album release in 1991. The Happy Mondays had their first album out in 1987, The Stone Roses in 1989, Inspiral Carpets in 1990 and even fake Madchester band, The Charlatans, had released an album in 1990. The genesis of Northside came in 1990; it occurred in the North Manchester districts of Blackley and Moston by Manchester United fan Warren ‘Dermo’ Dermody (vocals) and Manchester City fan Cliff Orgier (bass). Soon joined by Michael ‘Upo’ Upton (guitar) and Paul ‘Wal’ Walsh (drums); the band was complete. The formation of Northside is the classic story of Thatcher battered austere Northern Britain: young people indulging in hedonism in hard times. The band’s formation dovetails perfectly with the introduction of the new recreational drug of Ecstasy that was sweeping the country. Up until the late 1980s, Saturday afternoons were a time of football violence. All this changed with the introduction of ‘E’ and Acid House. I am pretty sure that the Thatcher government of the time did not release that it was the introduction of cheap Ecstasy into working class areas that stopped football hooliganism dead in its tracks rather than their out of touch laws.
This new regional musical movement of Madchester was a heady fusion of Acid House dance rhythms and melodic pop distinguished by its loping beats, psychedelic flourishes, and hooky choruses. Song structureswere familiar, the arrangements and attitude were modern, and even the retro-pop jangling guitars, swirling organs, and sharp pop sense, functioned as postmodern collages. There were two different binary approaches to constructing these collages, as evidenced by Mani’s band, The Stone Roses, on one side and the Happy Mondays on the other. The Stone Roses were a traditional guitar-pop band, and their songs were straight-ahead pop tunes, bolstered by infectious beats; it was modernised classic 1960s pop music. The other approach was the one adopted by the Happy Mondays who cut and pasted samples like rappers, taking choruses from the likes of the Beatles and LaBelle and putting them into a context of dark psychedelic dance. Despite their different approaches, both bands shared a love for Acid House music and culture, Ecstasy and their hometown of Manchester. As the name would suggest, this music was very geographically specific. It was the British press that labelled this style of music Madchester after a Happy Mondays song. It was also termed as “baggy” by the popular press, after the baggy loose fitting clothing worn by the bands and fans, in particular bell-bottomed jeans, tie-dyed or fluorescent coloured oversized sweatshirts all finished off with a fishing hat. This style of clothing mirrored the music e.g. the mix of 60s psychedelic rock with 70s funk but all within the context of late 80s Acid House. The clothing was rooted in leisure (hence the fishing hat) and was designed to be loose and easy to dance in, by makers such as Manchester’s legendary Joe Bloggs. Northside sat in the liminal space between these two schools of creativity though they did lean heavily to the Stone Roses style of production.
As Factory Records had so much talent at its disposal, and because of the sheer volume of material it was releasing, there were going to be casualties. Some albums were bound to slide by without making a dent. All Factory Records releases had a unique identification number including Tony Wilson’s coffin (FAC501). Chicken Rhythms was number FAC310 and that’s a lot of releases by a small cash strapped regional record company. Not for the first time in an Album Rescue do we see a superb piece of music slide into obscurity because of poor marketing. Factory Records had lots of previous form in this department. Tony Wilson and his colleagues at Factory Records always aimed at the stars but continually only just managed to hit the moon. As a creative entity, Factory Records was world class and iconic, but as a business it was a financial disaster: an abject lesson in how NOT to operate a creative business.
It’s also possible that as a Factory Records act you needed the patronage of its head Tony Wilson, or as he liked to call himself later on in life, “Anthony H. Wilson”. Without Tony’s direct supervision, his favorites included e.g. Joy Division/New Order, Happy Mondays, Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio, you didn’t get the attention you deserved. As Wilson often pointed out “I went to fucking Cambridge University you know?” he favored the bands that displayed a high level of political intellectualism and/or high art. Northside failed in both departments and this was to their detriment. Factory Record’s artists are known for some of the most iconic cover art in the history of popular music e.g. Joy Divisions Unknown Pleasure. Peter Saville, Factory Records’ in house style guru, art director and designer was not involved with Chicken Rhythms. Instead the cover was farmed out to the second division graphic design company Central Station. The cover was an insipid, uninspired, weak collage of old birthday cards reformed as an apple. The only way to describe this album cover is appalling; it worked against the material contained on the audio recording held within. This is akin to packaging a tasty morsel of delicious food in a wrapper with a picture of dog shit on it. The old adage “never judge a book by its cover” should ring true, and this cover sucked and it definitely contributed to Chicken Rhythms disappearing into relative obscurity. Factory Records even managed to botch up the barcode on the album so that any sales recorded in a chart return shop didn’t register.
Northside deserve to be celebrated because they took some chances and dared to dream. One has to admire their desire to strive for some form of originality. The Lightening Seeds’ lead man, Ian Broudie, who obviously had compassion for the band and their music, expertly handled production on the album. Recorded at the residential Rockfield Studios in rural Wales the change of scenery was beneficial and provided them with some much needed fresh air. Stand out songs from the album are the infectious ‘Take 5’ with the “64-46 BMW” refrain directly lifted from reggae superstar Yellowman’s Nobody Move, the silly ‘Funky Munky’ and the anthem ‘Shall We Take A Trip’. Broudie and Northside form the perfect creative premier division team to produce a wonderfully dynamic album of space, place and bass. Though the material is delivered through a lens of happy up-tempo pop, the lyrics are somber and essentially about hoping to hope in what were desperate times. These were very hard times in Britain with the end of Thatcherism still five long years away.
Through this album, Northside articulated the anxious postindustrial panic of working class youth that was sweeping the country. Mindless hedonism was portrayed as the new culture of a disenfranchised youth. Northside were a band that came along with an album that struck a cord, celebrating that era for the youth of the day. Album tracks such as ‘Shall We Take A Trip’, ‘A Change Is On Its Way’ and ‘Who’s To Blame?’ are all wonderfully optimistic. Though ‘Shall We Take A Trip’ proved to be a problematic track and single, it was immediately banned by most radio stations because of its obvious drug reference. However, it resonated with kids because of these obvious drug references. Most youngsters experiment with and/or are intrigued by drugs to some extent, it is all part of growing up. The lyrics take their inspiration from Lennon’s ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and LSD. The chorus line of “answers come in dreams”, clearly spell out the initials A.C.I.D. This track is full of double entendre and was possibly a nod to Lennon’s great lyrical genius, wordplay and warped way of thinking?
Damage was also inflicted to this album by what was missed off of it. Out of the Rockfield recording session were the tracks ‘Moody Place’, ‘Tour De World’ and ‘Rising Star’ all superb tracks but not collated onto the album for various reasons. ‘Moody Place’ has got one of the best bass lines ever right up there with Public Image Ltd.’s track ‘Public Image’. It’s a great song and the subject matter is about hope and trying to stay strong when it seems everyone around you is slowly going down. The lyrics are mostly about hoping for hope in desperate times, which was a common theme in the late 80s and early 90s. Most of the blame can surely be firmly placed with Factory Records for not fully understanding how the curating of this album’s material would affect sales? Imagine what this album could have achieved had it been released with a more sympathetic record company, one that could have afforded a marketing campaign and some decent cover artwork?
As mentioned earlier, Northside came to the party very late, in fact, they arrived when the party was virtually over. Factory Records was overstretched financially and mismanaged operationally. Tony Wilson was now more interested in investing in his own legacy rather than facilitating decent music. Also the zeitgeist had shifted over night, it’s a moving target at the best of times. The year 1991 saw a shift in what was seen as cool both sub-culturally and geographically. It’s ironic that just as the economic hard times of North West of England were abating the music upped and left. The two star teams of the Madchester scene, The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays, had become fat and lazy with success and were more interested in recreational drug use then making music. To be precisely correct their profession was now drug use interspersed with occasional recreational music making.
Into the North West British void came the sound of North West America; grunge. This new musical genre de-emphasized appearance, drug use and polished technique in favor of raw, angry, passionate songs that articulated the pessimism and anxiety of its young angry audience. Lyrics were no longer hedonistic and forward-looking but pessimistic and angry. The look was no longer baggy Joe Bloggs casuals with glow sticks and Acid House smiley faces rather it was opportunity shop, make-do and mend austere attire. All optimism and hedonism was stopped dead in its tracks, as was Northside’s career. Instantly the world’s music press’s front covers had pictures of Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and other Seattle area grunge bands. No longer was this about hedonism in hard times it was about self-enforced austerity in good times. Northside’s Chicken Rhythms caught and reflected the fragile moribund zeitgeist of Madchester, though this album is long since deleted it remains a valuable artifact of political and social history. If you can lay your hands on a copy then it’s well worth listening to this forgotten Madchester gem.
 Please note that I no longer condone the recreational use of marijuana though I do understand and fully support the use of medically prescribed marijuana.
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. ‘Chicken Rhythms’ Northside is authored by Tim Dalton. (Follow Tim on Twitter @Touringtim)
It’s the mid-eighties. I am ten years old and my teenage sister plays a song over and over; a mysterious, miraculous song that catches me instantly by its sheer beauty. Since she is the mature teenager and I am the baby sister, I’m not allowed in her room of course. So I cower in front of her door, waiting for that wonderful voice to sing and talk to me in a language I don’t know but understand right away. Melancholic that voice seems to me, soft and sad. No doubt what makes the singer so miserable: Olamu. This person, this Olamu, must have caused his bitter-sweet pain, I figure. I am sorry for his desolation, still I can’t wait to hear him sing of Olamu again and again. And then, when I am absolutely sure that nobody can see me, I begin to dance: slowly and hesitantly, swaying to the rhythm, more confident with every step. The tale of Olamu, its sound and feel, has set me in motion. “Pop is physical, sensual, of the body rather than the mind, and in some ways it is anti-intellectual; let yourself go, don’t think – feel“, writes Hanif Kureshi (1995: p.19). In this enchanted moment, I purely sense the heart of the matter. I have experienced something special: my entrance into wonderland.
Wonderland, Erasure’s debut album was a miserable flop in 1986. ‘Oh l’Amour’, my magical song, turned out to be the third consecutive commercial failure for the band. Just like the two preceding single releases, ‘Who Needs Love Like That’ and ‘Heavenly Action’. These songs didn’t crack the Top 50 in the UK, nor the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, ‘Oh l’Amour’ only reached number 85 in the UK single charts (but fared better in Germany, where it was a Top 20 success). Considering the album’s disappointing chart performance, it seemed clear that this new pop duo was not supposed to have a bright future. However, Wonderland hinted at what would become central to Erasure’s appeal. As a sparkling collection of catchy and soulful pop tunes, seemingly simple at first hearing, but increasingly fascinating because of their profound craftiness, Wonderland formed the nucleus of the band’s gorgeous, glorious, and glamourous pop career.
When Vince Clarke and Andy Bell met in 1985, their musical pasts and paths could not have been more different. Clarke had been the founding member of two paramount new wave bands and was an experienced and successful electro pop song writer. Starting with Depeche Mode, Clarke was the sole writer of their first three singles, including the breakthrough Top 10 hit ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. After leaving the band in late 1981, Clarke built an equally prominent career by forming the duo Yazoo with Alison Moyet. Both albums, 1982’s Upstairs at Eric’s and 1983’s You and Me Both, are regarded as new wave essentials, and their hit ‘Don’t Go’ became an electro pop classic. A succeeding short-lived project, The Assembly, with producer Eric Radcliffe initiated a UK number four hit single, ‘Never Never’, featuring Feargal Sharkey on vocals. As an electro master-mind, Vince Clarke had created a whole range of synth pop hymns, all of them vibrant and vital even in today’s standards.
Concurrently, Andy Bell had just begun to take his first musical steps. While selling women’s shoes in Debenhams and performing in a band called The Void, Bell’s first attempt to pursue a musical career was not promising. Fameless and nameless as he was, Bell responded to an advertisement in Melody Maker looking for a vocalist to take part in a new musical project. He auditioned. Clarke was searching for the perfect pop beat and pop group, and selected Bell to be his musical other half. His choice wasn’t instantly applauded. When Wonderland was released, some critics felt that there was no artistic progression from Clarke’s past, finding fault with Bell’s too shrill vocals and rejecting him as a bad copy of Alison Moyet. Others were appalled by the songs’ lyrics, finding them flat or banal and bemoaning a missing concept. Still others would hint at Bell’s effeminate dancing style, which, in their view, lacked any sense of coolness or confidence.
In a certain sense, the critics were right. Erasure is all about imitation, surface and artifice, about exaggeration and exaltation – deliberately so. Wonderland refuses any subtleties and intricacies; its tracks are either chirpy tunes (‘March Down The Line’, ‘Say What’, ‘Heavenly Action’) or overloaded tear jerkers (‘Cry So Easy’, ‘Reunion’, ‘My Heart… So Blue’) – no deep philosophy intended. The chorus of ‘Senseless’, a wonderfully self-referential song, expresses this state of being as, “It’s alright to feel the mood/ it’s alright, so good, so far/ Babe it’s alright“. Does it make any sense? Probably not. Does it have to make any sense? Definitely not.
Seen in this way, all that Wonderland comes to stand for, its plastic pop sounds, its simplistic dance rhythms and electronic beats, its ebullient melodies, its corny cover art work, its bubble gum synth pop pleasure, are not deep flaws but a statement. Wonderland is the champ of camp. In her famous Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag (1964) defines the term as “a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Camp, according to Sontag (1964), is characterized by audacious extravagance and ostentatious theatricality. Its quality as a form, style or expression lies in its capacity to ironically comment on any notion of normality, parodying it through an aesthetic sensibility that inverts the relation of surface to depth.
While Sontag (1964) developed her observations in the mid-sixties, Erasure’s stance to camp is inextricably linked with the pop cultural media universe of the mid-eighties. This can be seen most clearly in the band’s music videos. Not until the age of cable and satellite and, notably, the emergence of MTV, did video evolve as a significant pop cultural form. Erasure’s first music videos demonstrate a specific pleasure for this new kind of visual aesthetics, bringing together a whole range of audiovisual styles and modes of performance by drawing on drag and dance, televisual imagery and commercial superficiality. The music video for the debut single ‘Who Needs Love Like That?’ takes place in a mock western setting featuring Clarke and Bell in dual roles: both of them are dressed as cowboys but appear in woman’s drag as well. In what looks like a garish mixture of B-movie location and cartoon-like situation, everything we perceive is a masquerade that is in excess of itself. This overplay of style also informs Erasure’s second music video ‘Heavenly Action’, an outrageous science fiction parody complete with a toy-like spaceship, gaudy space flying suits, fantastic landscapes of planet cupid, and a bunch of child actors appearing as pink putti. Using the western and the science fiction genre as entry points, both videos revolve around a playful exposition of the fabrication of spectacle, which then becomes a self-conscious spectacle in its own right.
The most interesting and self-reflexive of Wonderland‘s videos is ‘Oh l’Amour’. Not as flashy and flamboyant as the former clips, this video concentrates on a studio performance of Erasure, featuring not only musicians Clarke and Bell but also what lies at the heart of their synth pop endeavor, i.e. computerized sounds and aesthetics. The lead part is played by the BBC Micro, a computer system which Clarke used to compose ‘Oh l’Amour’, featuring prominently in the video to provide the song’s text and graphics. The video begins with a computer screen displaying the UMI music sequencer, ready to play the music we are about to hear. In what follows, a pixelated font delivers not only the song’s lyrics but also command lines of the computer program itself, resulting in a kind of hybrid poetry of sound and system. Further, the digital elements that were confined to the screen in the beginning spread through the studio’s scenery as the video progresses. Bit by bit and byte by byte, the computer code seems to emancipate itself from its purely functional destination, dancing around the band or waving like a digital curtain in the background. The video lays bare the ways in which configurations of technology, music text and context take shape in specific arrangements. Programmability and pre-fabricated sounds are not presented as cold machinery lacking emotion and melody but appear in perfect harmony with Bell’s vocals and movements as well as with Erasure’s overall sensations and sentiments.
At the end of the piece, a blinking cursor erases the refrain’s line ‘Oh l’Amour’ to replace it with ‘What Now?’ articulating a moment of hesitancy, an instant of tentativeness when a formation is still groping with its own limitations. What now, in 1986? A new pop duo demonstrates a specific kind of innovative strength, enabling novel developments both within synth pop sound culture and the music video form. It wouldn’t take long until Erasure’s energy poured over the airwaves right into their fans’ hearts; including that of a ten-year old girl stepping into wonderland.
Kureishi, H. 1995. That’s how good it was. Page 19. In: Hanif Kureishi and John Savage (Eds). The Faber Book of Pop. Faber and Faber. London UK and Boston USA.
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Erasure ‘Wonderland’ is written by Professor Lisa Gotto, one of ARS’s guest authors. Lisa Gotto is a film professor at the International Film School in Cologne, Germany. (Follow Professor Lisa Gotto on Twitter @lisagottolisa)
It’s 1986 and I am a fresh-faced skinny 23 year old. I’m working for Roadstar PA Systems of Sheffield who are located in the Socialist republic of South Yorkshire (sic) in the UK. Roadstar are the new upstart audio hire company supplying large concert PA systems to international rock ‘n roll bands like The Eurythmics, The Alarm, Runrig and a host of other bands that have long since disappeared into obscurity. I’d only worked for this company for 18 months when I’m told my next tour will be a Def Jam Record’s package ‘Raising Hell Tour’ of Europe featuring; Run DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. Back in 1986 very few people, me included, had heard of Def Jam Records and I remember being very disappointed that my boss at Roadstar had assigned me to this tour. I was bottom of the heap on the audio crew, my job was to set up and pack down the audio equipment and I didn’t even get to touch a mixing console, never mind mix a band. On paper this wasn’t a very appealing gig, in fact it sucked big time. The ‘bands’ weren’t actual bands but one bloke playing some records, with one or two, or in the case of The Beastie Boys’, three blokes shouting over the top of these beats. The first show was two nights at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on Friday 12th and Saturday 13th September 1986. Because I’d left school at the age of 16 my education was extremely limited and I didn’t know that the name Odeon was the name used to describe ancient Greek and Roman buildings built specifically for music; singing exercises, musical shows and poetry competitions. With 39 years of hindsight, and lots of expensive education behind me, the name seems very apt. In Europe, back in the mid 80s, Hip Hop music was a relatively new phenomenon, and as with anything new, it was largely misunderstood and mistreated by the media.
Rap music’s antecedents lie in various story-telling forms of popular music such as talking blues, spoken passages in gospel music, and the call and response of field music. Its more direct formative influences came from the 1960s, with reggae DJs toasting over strong bass beats, and stripped down styles of funk music, most notably James Brown’s use of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ raps over elemental funk beats. Initially this was part of New York’s dance scene where it had morphed out of block parties at which DJs played percussive breaks of popular songs using two turntables to extend the breaks. Black and Hispanic kids would competitively ‘rap’ over these breaks to gain kudos in their neighbourhoods. You can see the appeal of this music in Thatcher’s unfair, unjust urban locations. Zeitgeist; there’s that word again; it appears in almost every Album Rescue Series entry. Two sold out nights at London’s 3,500 capacity rock venue; the Hammersmith Odeon, was pretty impressive by four new unheard of New York ‘bands’ signed to an unknown obscure niche record label. Due to trouble outside the venue before and after these shows, Hammersmith Odeon refused to host any more rap groups for several years afterwards. This is a pattern of events would follow us around the world for the next few years.
At the production rehearsal, held early afternoon before the first show, we had a pretty big problem. Last band on the bill, The Beastie Boys, had taken an instant dislike to Roger ‘the Hippy’ who was supposed to be mixing their front of house sound. Roger came with the PA system and had a pretty impressive track record of mixing bands like Nils Lofgren and Katrina and The Waves. This palmares did not impress the Beastie Boys and it was obvious that Roger’s unfamiliarity of this new genre was problematic. Just before doors, the Beastie Boys hit the stage for their sound check. It was like a gigantic chaotic atom bomb going off. DJ Mix Master Mike was dropping some huge phat beats at a ridiculous high volume while the already sloppy drunk MCA, Ad Rock and Mike D start running around the stage screaming, “turn this shit up”. It was powerful, chaotic, and primeval, it was also kind of scary in an aggressive way and as a punk rocker I relished every single second of it. In complete opposition sound engineer Roger was not enjoying a single second of it and he tried to control this chaotic shambles by asking, “Could the lad in the red cap please give some level on the radio mic and the rest of you please shut up”?
I was stood at the side of the stage like a punk rock Aristotle watching this epic Greek tragedy unfold when Mike D (the lad in the red cap) grabs hold of me and screams “Yo homie, you know how to mix mutha-fucking sound right?” Indeed I mutha-fucking did and on the spot they tumultuously fire Roger and promote me to front of house engineer. Result! I’m only 23 and I’m now the front of house engineer for the most exciting band on the planet. A few months later, in 1987, I’m re-united with the Beastie Boys when we embark on their headline world tour to support the newly released debut album License To Ill. I guess these guys liked my attitude. I spent the next few years of my life touring the world as live sound engineer for The Beastie Boys and that made me very happy indeed. My personal mantra has always been “do what you love and love what you do”. It started that day and I’ve stuck to it.
So why this album rescue; everybody loves this album and has fond memories of it? With over 10 million albums sold, it’s an undeniable retail success. Granted it took 30 years for the album to achieve its Diamond status, but that’s a considerable number of albums to shift by anyone’s standards. Not only did the punters buy it by the truckload, but the music press loved it too as did lots of radio stations. Licenced to Ill was the first rap album to reach number one on the USA’s billboard charts and it’s the eighth best selling  rap album of all time. This pattern repeated all over the world although huge sales do not constitute a great album alone.
Surely all of these metrics prove that this album is not in need of an album rescue? OK, I’m pushing the boundaries here. This is not so much an album rescue, as a critical reappraisal, which is a rescue of sorts. With this album Mike D, Ad Rock, the late MCA and their record company, Def Jam, pulled off the greatest post-modern Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle of all time. Licensed To Ill remains the most creative and intelligent post modern parody ever created in any creative medium. There I’ve said it. When the Beasties Boys rap about drinking, robbing, rhyming, partying, fighting, pillaging and brass monkeys, we should really contextualise this subject matter through the lens of situational ethics. The father of situational ethics, Joseph Fletcher (1966) stated, “all laws and rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love”. This album was definitely born out of love and I believe that it’s almost impossible to be critical of anything created out of love. In situation ethics, right and wrong depend upon the situation. There are no universal moral rules or rights, each case is unique and deserves a unique solution. As with other great parodies e.g. David Bowie’s (1967) The Laughing Gnome, a parody of Anthony Newley, the artist needs to fully understand and love the material that they are engaging with.
Maybe the correct way to rescue this album is to re-imagine, re-evaluate and re-contextualise it? Through this process we can construct an alternative discourse to the commonly misheld one. The buffoonery and cartoon controversy normally associated with this album can be dispelled and instead I’d like to reposition this album, as a deeply intelligent work of art, created by artists not fools. Granted the creators don’t do themselves any favours with their post-modern slapstick shtick parody. As with all post modern texts it’s all about surface, hedonism and fun devoid of any substantial meaning, which is why most people don’t fully appreciate this album. Licensed To Ill is a remarkable ironic marriage of heavy metal guitars, funk beats and edgy poetic rap lyrics. Hand crafted under the tutelage of producer and Def Jam founder Rick Rubin, this album is a substantial ground breaking piece of historical work.
Rap music was not supposed to be made by rich privileged upper class Jewish kids. Had they played by the rules then they would have become the stereotypical doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants or even presidential candidates. But their privilege and education provided the cultural capital fuel that ignites this album. Having an acute understanding and passion for different subcultures, pop culture, jokes, music, fashion and art all provided the foundational material on which this album was built. The traditional elements of rap, such as guns, ghettos, money, hoes, sex and drugs are largely eschewed or at least re-appropriated via intoxicating creative wordplay. Their parody was so impenetrable and utterly convincing that it wasn’t immediately apparent that their obnoxious, misogynistic, hedonistic patter was a consciously constructed part of their persona. Luckily for us the passing years have clarified that this album was a huge postmodern joke made all the funnier by those taken in by the joke or completely unaware of the joke.
This album is a classic example of what French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss termed “bricolage”. This album is the sound of the Beastie Boys acting as classic bricoleurs. They are taking some very specific symbolic objects such as music, language, clothing, appearance and forming a unified signifying system in which these ‘borrowed’ materials take on a new and more powerful significance. Not only is the notion of bricolage at play in their music, but it’s also at play (literally) in items such as VW car badges, clothing and even their language e.g. the use of the word “homie” as a shortened version of “home boy”. Criticism about the Beastie Boy’s lack of conviction and authenticity abounded at the time. They were unfairly compared to the punk rockers that a decade before them had taken to the streets to hurl bricks at the riot police. They consciously understood that punk rock had achieved zero and that the youth of the mid 1980s was not prepared to face the tear gas and baton charges. Instead the Beastie Boys instigated a much more effective covert semiotic guerrilla war and it was all expertly delivered under the cloaking device of extreme parody. Their work on this album and every other album they have made is intellectual, inter-textual, is constantly in dialogue with other forms of cultural expression and it can only be fully appreciated when it is located in its original context, which is in the mid 1980s.
Listening to the cajoling rhymes of this album in 2015, filled with clear parodies and absurdities, it’s difficult to imagine the offense that many people took back in the 1980s. This is one of the funniest and most infectious albums ever made and it’s all articulated via the gonzo literation of some posh bratty Jewish kids from New York who in all probability are much cleverer then we are. The parody of this album is not offensive to the traditional black rappers; instead it points its undercover barb at frat college jocks and lager louts; the people who bought the album. Their hedonistic beer soaked version of life was intoxicatingly aspirational, in an alternative way, and made to look very appealing via their gleeful delivery. The subject matter of this album is completely contradictory to the dominant mid 1980’s monetarist aspirations because it celebrates the very conditions of its enforced leisure; namely boredom, meaninglessness, dehumanisation, commodity fetishism, repetition, fragmentation and superficiality. Track seven, the huge worldwide mega hit of Fight For Your Right (To Party), is the personification of their new worldview.
The mid 1980s were a time of money, MTV, excess and spring break in warm sunny nirvanas such as Panama City and Daytona Beach. The interesting thing about Fight For Your Right To Party is that it was originally intended to be a parody of popular party rock songs of the time like Twisted Sister’s I Wanna Rock, although that intent was seemingly lost on the audience. It’s as if The Beastie Boys where insider dealers (something that was also popular in the mid 1980’s) and were poking fun at their own kind. Just sampling and scratching Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to hip-hop beats does not make for an automatically good record, though there is definitely a visceral thrill to hearing those muscular riffs put into super serious overdrive. Their artistry wasn’t just confined to the writing and recording of the album but also in their exceptional understanding of the media as a conduit or delivery system for their powerful message.
This debut album, and its subsequent tour, provoked moral panic and media outrage resulting in tabloid headlines across the world. The Beastie Boys instantaneously became the latest folk devils, the band that the media loved to hate. Popular myth would be fuelled by stories of the band’s controversial behaviour. The media and popular tabloid press amplified and greatly exaggerated events on this tour out of all proportion, which greatly increased album sales. In part this was due to the exuberant stage show that was purposefully designed to mimic the album. As a member of that tour, I saw none of this behaviour, what I saw was lots and lots of identical looking hotel rooms, airport lounges, venues and the inside of tour buses. I remember helping a very home sick MCA backstage in Germany make a collect call to his mum and dad back in New York. Album Rescue Series is no place for these antidotes but you will be able to read them in my forthcoming book Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. The Beastie Boys and their producer Rick Rubin had read Stephen Davis’ version of Led Zeppelin’s hotel destroying tour exploits, Hammer of the Gods (1985), and it had made a big impression on them all. Not only is the album’s lyrical content heavily influence by this book and lifestyle, but the album cover’s artwork is also highly inter-textual.
The smouldering aeroplane crashed into the side of a mountain cover illustration is a deceptively complex piece of work both artistically and semiotically. The image is darkly humorous, but not out of step with the times or the sonic content of the album. Artist David Gambale (aka World B. Omes) created a pre-Photoshop collage of various airplane parts then illustrated over it using water-soluble crayons. I’m not an artist but I’m guessing the process must have taken significant hours and the dramatic results are worth it. The plane on the album cover is an inter-textual reference to the legendary Starship, a Boeing 720 airliner owned by Bobby Shering and converted into a kitsch rock-star flying tour bus. Led Zeppelin were the Starship’s most famous occupants and even wrote the song Stairway To Heaven about their on board experience. The Starship would transport any rock band that could afford the exorbitant hire fee e.g. The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Allman Brothers. Stripped of it’s reference, an aeroplane is not glamorous, its merely an ecologically unsound, inefficient and very expensive form of transport. Ever since “the day the music died” (McLean D. 1972) back in 1959, when a chartered flight claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, plane crashes have ended the careers of some of music’s biggest names. Patsy Cline’s plane went down in 1963, silencing one of the greatest voices to ever crossover from country music to popular music. We lost the great Otis Redding to an airplane accident in 1967, and just a few years later, singer-songwriter Jim Croce’s career was terminated just as it was starting to take off. Perhaps none of the above was as startling as Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s horrific 1977 plane crash, which killed three members of the band, the assistant road manager, co-pilot and pilot. Airplanes are symbols of both extravagant rock star excess and sombre tragedy. What better way to announce a new young band to the world than to crash their jet into the side of a mountain before their career had even taken off? Just like a centre page fold out cartoon from the Mad comic, the fun is in the details. The plane’s tail number “3MTA3” spells “Eat Me” backwards. The Beastie Boys logo on the vertical stabilizer was intentionally designed to evoke the Harley-Davidson logo. Many people have commented about the connotations of how the smouldering plane resembles a stubbed out spliff. Via this album, the Beastie Boys are displaying an advanced understanding of semiotics that Roland or Ferdinand would be immensely proud of here.
I am quite prepared to stick my neck out here and argue that the Beastie Boys have never made a bad record: Paul’s Boutique (1989), Check Your Head (1992), Ill Communication (1994), Hello Nasty (1998), To The 5 Boroughs (2004), The Mix-up (2007) and Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (2011) are all masterpieces in their own right. Even their other parody record, The In Sound From Way Back (1998), which precisely parodies Perrey and Kingsley’s 1966 album of the same name, is another masterpiece. If we ignore the 10 million copies sold of License To Ill and listen to it minus the filter of parody then we are getting very close to rescuing this album. It isn’t only the music or the rhymes that translate beyond the parody crime scene. License To Ill clearly shows the Beastie Boys didn’t give a fuck at exactly the time when the world desperately needed to be shown how not to give a fuck. Flying in the face of rampant yuppie materialistic capitalism they demonstrated that you could be ground-breaking, cutting edge, important, creative and relevant all at the same time yet still have no goals beyond getting drunk and partying hard.
Licensed To Ill marks the turning point in cultural history when the slacker generation (the three members of band are born 1964, 65 & 66) start making music for the millennial generation. This album proved that you could live life as one giant inside joke, speaking in tongues and making hilarious obscure references to Chef Boyardee or Olde English 800 and no one outside your circle of jerks would be any the wiser. Oh how we laughed. License To Ill accurately predicted the future to the Millennials upon its release in 1986. The mantra bestowed on them was “follow your dreams” and because they were constantly being told they were special, this cohort tends to be over confident. While largely a positive trait, the Millennial’s confidence has been known to spill over into the realms of entitlement and narcissism. They are the first generation since the Second World War that is expected to be less economically successful than their parents. The Millennial’s optimism is founded in unrealistic expectations, which often leads to disillusionment. Most Millennials went through post-secondary education only to find themselves employed in low paid dead end jobs in unrelated fields to the ones they studied or underemployed and job-hopping more frequently than any previous generation. License To Ill soothsaid this bleak scenario but then also gave us a not too cryptic optimistic answer, which was “Fight for your right to party”. I rest my case.
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. This week’s Album Rescue is by Tim Dalton. (Follow Tim on Twitter: @touringtim)
By the mid 1980s, seminal punk rockers The Clash had disbanded. Founding member Joe Strummer fired lead guitarist and songwriting partner Mick Jones via public communiqué in 1983 and the hastily reconstituted Clash Mark II only managed to launch one final, misguided salvo before skulking off to die: 1985’s Cut The Crap which, for all the opprobrium heaped upon it, boasts the epic, defeatist state-of-the-nation address This Is England.
In the traditional rock ’n’ roll playbook there is a post-band-breakup ritual to be observed: after an appropriate grieving period the former members, having gone their separate ways, set about issuing solo albums. Tunes that were torpedoed, vetoed, or simply failed to pass muster finally see the light of day, at last immune to internecine wrangling. Mick Jones took this well-trodden path, forming Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D) in 1984. B.A.D.’s mix of sloganeering punk, electro pop, sampling, hip hop, dub reggae and funk seemed like an organic update of The Clash’s genre explorations and for a time the band enjoyed great success.
Joe Strummer’s solo career, on the other hand, presented as a classic case of Wilderness Years. He went off the reservation, sporadically popping his head above the parapet before promptly vanishing again. Unless one was a keen eyed aficionado of late 1980s independent film, it was a pretty effective disappearing act motivated by Strummer’s state of mind following the implosion of The Clash.
Having reached the summit of rock stardom, Strummer found himself isolated and riven with remorse. In his relentless pursuit of fame he had severed many significant human bonds, becoming the very thing he had once decried. In his own prophetic words:
“What’s the point in being one of the few? There’s nothing there. You can get all the Rolls Royces, all the country houses, all the servants, all the dope – and there’s nothing at the end of that road… no human life or nothing.”
– Joe Strummer, Rude Boy (1980)
Strummer’s ensuing period of itinerant soul-searching was contextualised within a redemptive narrative arc by Julien Temple, in his 2007 documentary The Future Is Unwritten. At the end of Temple’s film, Strummer devotes himself to rekindling the spark of camaraderie with those he had once spurned, around the flames of his legendary Glastonbury Festival campfires.
But back to the mid-1980s, before such reparations had been made. Whether consciously or not, Strummer made use of the years between 1986 and 1989 to systematically dismantle his iconic persona and scatter the fragments to the four winds. This was a strategy that, to a large extent, involved Strummer subsuming his ego and identity to the will of other artists.
The first was filmmaker Alex Cox, who invited Strummer to contribute two songs (Love Kills and Dum Dum Club) to the soundtrack of his 1986 film Sid & Nancy, which depicted the doomed romance between punk idols Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. In the first of several acting roles he would take on during this period, Strummer appeared in the music video for Love Kills (also directed by Cox), playing an incompetent Mexican Federale opposite Gary Oldman’s Vicious, in a prison-break superhero fantasy.
Strummer already had some prior form as an actor, playing himself in Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s 1980 docu-drama Rude Boy. And it could, of course, be argued that “Joe Strummer” was a long-form role-play by the downwardly mobile, class-conscious John Mellor – one he was growing ever more weary of performing. Aside from the odd Travis Bickle-style Mohawk haircut, Strummer was never given to the chrysalis-like transformations of a Bowie or a Dylan – it was always about the music – but he would nevertheless don a variety of guises in the next few years, before emerging in his final incarnation at the turn of the century.
By 1986, the wounds sustained during the breakup of The Clash were already starting to heal: Strummer co-produced and co-wrote many of the songs on Big Audio Dynamite’s second (and strongest) album, No. 10 Upping St. His role in this case was essentially that of ‘Silent Partner’, lending artistic support to former band mate Mick Jones and his new crew.
In 1987 Strummer returned to acting, in Alex Cox’s next feature Straight To Hell. Surely one of the most bizarre Plan Bs ever conceived, the film came about after the collapse of a proposed Nicaraguan tour by Strummer, The Pogues and Elvis Costello, in support of the embattled Sandinista government. Augmented by an eclectic supporting cast (including Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones and Jim Jarmusch) the musicians and Cox relocated to Almeria, Spain, where they cooked up a genre-colliding heist film slash ‘Paella Western’ remake of Giulio Questi’s Django Kill. Roundly dismissed at the time as a self-indulgent piss-take, or a very expensive home movie, Straight To Hell endures as an often hilarious, anarchic, proto-Po-Mo hybrid (and quite possibly an unacknowledged influence on one Quentin Tarantino).
It was during the production of Straight To Hell that Strummer connected with a musician who would take on an increasingly significant role in his subsequent creative efforts: Zander Schloss, formerly from punk band the Circle Jerks. They bonded on-set: Strummer was playing one of the film’s protagonists, Simms, a member of a gang of thieves who hole up in a desert town only to run afoul of the caffeine-addicted McManus Gang (played by The Pogues); while Schloss was cast in the minor role of local hot dog vendor Karl The Weiner Boy. Further details of the film’s eccentric ‘plot’ are probably best omitted, though it is worth noting that Strummer fully immerses himself in the role of a brooding, sexually frustrated wannabe bank robber. In addition to contributing two songs of his own to the film’s soundtrack, Strummer teamed up with Schloss to co-write Karl’s theme song, Salsa Y Ketchup, a rousing, double-entendre-riddled paean to sausages. Thus an unlikely yet fruitful collaboration was born.
That same year Cox, on a creative roll, directed a second feature: his allegorical masterpiece Walker, penned by legendary screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid). Ostensibly an historical biopic about William Walker, the freebooter who invaded Nicaragua in the 1850s under the doctrine of manifest destiny, the film is a rabidly anti-American stab at President Ronald Reagan’s then-contemporary support for the counterrevolutionary Contras. The film is rendered all the more subversive by the fact that it was made with $800,000 of Universal Studio’s money. Confined to a furtive cameo on the periphery of the frame, all but unrecognizable beneath bushranger beard and straggly long hair, Strummer’s on-screen contribution to Walker is negligible. Off-screen, it’s another story.
No longer content with dashing off a few tunes for the soundtrack, Strummer expressed a desire to compose the entire score for the film. Duly afforded the opportunity by Cox, Strummer recorded a series of 4-track demos using only acoustic guitar and a rudimentary keyboard. These skeletal ideas were entrusted to the prodigiously talented Zander Schloss – a “show off” by his own admission – who fleshed them out into lush arrangements for stringed instruments, horns and percussion. Much inspiration was apparently taken from the local music Schloss and Strummer heard in the cantinas they frequented during the film’s Nicaragua shoot.
Walker’s resulting score blends folk and country with more distinctly Central American and Caribbean influences, at times echoing Bob Dylan’s minimalist soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, elsewhere evoking the strident dramatics of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western themes. The Clash often experimented with musical genres (dub, reggae, funk, rockabilly), assimilating their influences through a tight-knit filter. Out on his own, Strummer became an ever more inclusive musical polyglot, a twitchy World Music exponent (minus the Great White Saviour Complex). Strummer’s contribution to the actual recording is limited to lead vocals on a few lilting campfire ballads, demonstrating a remarkable degree of autonomy imparted to Schloss and his session musicians. It is sublime in its own right, but as the first full-length solo album by the former front man for The Clash, it understandably left many fans bewildered.
In 1988, Strummer was commissioned to compose the soundtrack for Marisa Silver’s independent film Permanent Record, a melancholy meditation on teenage suicide. An early test screening of the film reportedly moved Strummer to tears. The backing band assembled for this project, fittingly dubbed The Latino Rockabilly War, comprised the rhythm section of punk/jazz outfit Tupelo Chainsex – bassist Joey Altruda and drummer Willie MacNeil – augmented by the now ubiquitous Zander Schloss on lead guitar. The eight songs they recorded rank among Strummer’s best solo work and display a brash, one-take vitality, repetitive rave-up Trash City even featuring the film’s star, Keanu Reeves, guesting on scrappy rhythm guitar. A slightly altered line-up of this band would soon go on to create Earthquake Weather.
But before they did, Joe cropped up on screen once more, skulking around a Memphis bar playing a suicidal drunk in one of three intersecting storylines that comprise Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train. A role specifically written with Strummer in mind (as is Jarmusch’s casting modus operandi), his character’s repeated line: “Don’t call me Elvis!” is a succinct, significant statement of Joe’s desire to shrug off the ill-fitting rock star mantle.
Which brings us, finally, to 1989’s Earthquake Weather.
I recall buying this album eagerly upon its release – apparently one of only 7,000 people to do so, if my research is correct. Finally, a fully-fledged Joe Strummer solo album! After a few perplexed spins, it was thereafter consigned to some dark recess of my record collection. Reviews from the time vindicated my initial disdain.
Before we take the platter out for reconsideration, let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the front cover. As a tequila sun sets over Californian palm trees, an enigmatic silhouette stands on the edge of a swimming pool diving board, quiff hanging lank atop his uplifted head, cigarette dangling from his lower lip. A leather-jacketed, bow-legged, cowboy-booted guitar slinger, Telecaster slung like a rifle at his hip. A pomaded pirate poised to walk the plank. It’s simultaneously elegiac and defiant. Later adopted as the logo for The Joe Strummer Foundation and as Chris Salewicz notes in his biography Redemption Song, it’s “an iconic Strummer image ironically much better known than the music inside the record it was intended to herald.”
Off-mike, Joe bellows a war cry: “LET’S ROCK AGAIN!” and the album opener Gangsterville kicks off with no fanfare, the words and music coming thick and fast, rhythms wrestling. Strummer hollers urgently over the top of a reconfigured Latino Rockabilly War, now with Lonnie Marshall replacing Joey Altruda on bass:
The Revolution came, the Revolution went
Strummer summarises, with an abrupt sense of futility.
Wanted: one man to lead a crusade
Payment: a bullet on a big parade
Then, all at once: the pounding punk thunder flips to a tipsy Caribbean sway and we’re relocated to the titular ‘Gangsterville’. The effect on Strummer’s vocal also turns on a dime, switching from mighty slap-back echo to tinny, crackly filter, as if emanating from a cheap transistor radio in a broken down ’57 Chevrolet. The song continues in this schizoid fashion, alternating back and forth between two distinctly opposed feels, the effect unnerving yet undeniably cinematic: the abrupt transitions from verse to chorus are like scene cuts. The lyrics equivocate every bit as much as the music – Strummer is alarmed to discover common ground with both the victims and perpetrators of political crimes:
On the other hand, sitting next to an evil crew
They just got down from floor 82
Been selling Indian reservations
Comin’ in looking for some jazz and a little libations
I like the same kind of beer
I gotta get right out of here
If the first track speaks of political disillusionment, the second, King Of The Bayou, immediately contradicts this position with a hopeful salute to Phillipine President Corazon Aquino, elected in the wake of the 1986 People Power Revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos. Here, the optimism is infectiously anthemic:
Cory is the one
She’ll never ever die young
Next up is Slant Six, which comes on like a Keith Richards solo number, right down to Schloss’ wiry slide guitar licks. It’s apt, then, that the song critiques the decadent trappings of rock stardom – and their isolating effect – that Strummer himself was struggling to avoid:
You got Juan-Le-Pins
You got the needle and the deep cellar wine
You got the slow boat to China
You own part of South Carolina
What a fate: to be imprisoned at the height of your dreams
An abrupt climate change comes in the form of Island Hopping, whose lazy nylon-string lope, evocative of Jamaican folk, underpins a telling ode to the joys of shirking one’s duties and the lure of capitulating to wanderlust:
I don’t like to do a drop of work
Drive a cab, or paint the church
It’s been the same since I don’t know when
So I’m goin’ island hopping again
Throughout the album Strummer is preoccupied with rebellion, escapism and restlessness, topics that must have felt very dear to him during these “lost” years. Significantly, the majority of the song titles suggest movement, modes of transportation or destinations: Slant Six, Leopardskin Limousines, Ride Your Donkey, Island Hopping, Gangsterville, Sleepwalk, Highway One Zero Street, King Of The Bayou, Shouting Street, Passport To Detroit. The lyrics coalesce into a surreal, novelistic, globe-spanning travelogue, jumping to and from locations both real and fictional, rapidly juxtaposing rich and poor, cops and robbers, boardrooms and barrios, in imagery pitched somewhere between Bob Dylan’s Invisible Republic and William Burroughs’ nightmarish Interzone.
Earthquake Weather marks the point where Strummer’s laissez-faire approach to band leadership reached both its zenith and nadir. Evidently pleased with the result of recent collaborations, he allowed his co-conspirators great liberty to flesh out his foggy notions, bringing their diverse musical pedigrees to bear as they discovered the arrangements through intensive jamming. Zander Schloss, for his part, revels in this freedom, grandstanding on lead guitar, banjo and any other stringed instrument within reach as he navigates the hairpin genre curves. His hyperactive solos come off like Marc Ribot channeling J. Mascis. These musical explorations often took place with Strummer in absentia: he would take to the streets in search of real-life lyrical stimulus, or hunker down in a far corner of the studio in his notorious spliff bunker to pursue more inward inspirations.
It’s only around the middle of the album that this otherwise fruitful regime of organized chaos threatens to skip the rails: on Dizzy’s Goatee and Leopardskin Limousines the grooves are tentative, the vocals delivered in an unconvincing mumble, as if something hasn’t quite gelled. And Boogie With Your Children and Sikorsky Parts – which no amount of re-listening can fully redeem – bear unfortunate comparison to early Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is possibly due, in no small part, to the abrupt mid-session replacement of Willie MacNeil with drummer Jack Irons from the aforementioned Californian funkers.
Four songs on the album reveal that Strummer never fully transcended his Punk Rock Warlord persona. Nor perhaps, ultimately, did he truly wish to. Shouting Street drives like a madman, with Schloss rapid-firing Chuck Berry licks from the passenger seat (complete with a shout-out to Jim Jarmusch); Jewellers & Bums is an insistent thumper that could stack up against anything on The Clash’s flawless London Calling; Highway One Zero Street (with a title that’s pure Zimmerman) effortlessly shifts gears from Mariarchi-Waltz time to stabbing punk to anthem rock to popping funk, unfolding like a map of intersecting ethnic neighbourhoods; and Passport To Detroit rockets along an apocalyptic desert highway at midnight, headlights illuminating doomy portents.
The sole cover version on the album, Ride Your Donkey, is a relaxed rendition of The Tennors’ Rocksteady standard, which Strummer might have first heard at the Marquee Club in the early days of London’s punk scene. Its inclusion here suggests a nostalgic trawling through past influences, and is one of the few backward glances Strummer permitted himself in his relentless forward march to a new identity.
Some critics speculated that Earthquake Weather was a self-sabotaging attempt on Strummer’s part to wriggle out of his contract with EMI, but it’s far too complex a piece of work to have been conceived with such a cynical endgame in mind. Much was made at the time of the “muddiness” of the album’s production and it’s true there is a kitchen-sinky chaos to some of the mixes, but much like Strummer and Schloss’ soundtrack work the focus favours ambience over radio-friendly clarity. Several songs even feel like they’ve wandered in off the set of Walker: Island Hopping, Leopardskin Limousines and the album’s closer, Sleepwalk (originally written for Frank Sinatra), provide gentle acoustic oases of calm amid the urgent electrical storms that dominate elsewhere.
The album has a palpable sense of topography and geography, heavily populated by a multinational cast of heroes, villains and background extras, as if Strummer’s forays into film were feeding back into his songwriting. The cumulative effect of Earthquake Weather is akin to reading the screenplay and listening to the score for an unmade trans-national road movie, as an abstract but nonetheless coherent narrative plays out on the screen behind one’s eyes. The main character, of course, is Joe Strummer himself. No matter how hard he fought to submerge his stardom and defer to his creative associates, the resulting work bears his indelible imprint.
It took another decade for Strummer to finally emerge as a solo artist in the traditional sense. With new backing outfit The Mescaleros, he released a trio of increasingly decent albums in quick succession between 1999 and 2002. The last of these, Streetcore, was completed posthumously by band mates Martin Slattery and Scott Shields, Strummer having only recorded his rhythm guitar and vocal tracks before his sudden death at age 50.
And so, once again, responsibility for the realisation of Strummer’s vision fell to his collaborators – but this time out of heart-breaking necessity rather than trusting intent. As a result, Streetcore makes for bittersweet listening: it’s the solid solo album every fan had been waiting 13 long years for – but Joe was no longer around to hear it. Faced with the reality that we’ll never be graced with another, and freed from past prejudices a listener may have once brought to the material, the music Strummer made between 1986 and 1989, culminating in Earthquake Weather, now reveals itself to be richly rewarding and ripe for redemption…………….
Cox, A. (2013) Website of filmmaker Alex Cox (Retrieved from alexcox.com)
Hazan, J. & Mingay, D. (1980) Rude Boy (Buzzy Enterprises / Michael White Productions)
Jarmusch, J. (1989) Mystery Train (JVC Entertainment Networks / Mystery Train)
Pottker, N. (2014) In Conversation: Zander Schloss (Retrieved fromfiles.wordpress.com/2014/10)
Salewicz, C. (2006) Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography Of Joe Strummer (London, Harper Collins)
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Joe Strummer ‘Earthquake Weather’ is written by Adam Spellicy, one of ARS’s guest authors. Adam Spellicy is a screenwriter, filmmaker and an occasional musician based in Melbourne, Australia. (Follow Adam Spellicy on Twitter @AdamSpellicy )
It’s an interesting process writing these Album Rescue Series (ARS) entries as no two are ever selected, researched or written the same way. Finding a piece of music to rescue is relatively easy; you simply find an album that you like, but the general public or the critics hated, and then rescue it by whatever metrics you deem appropriate. In fact a good proportion of the 11,000 plus albums that I own fit into the bracket of awkward, unloved, misunderstood, didn’t sell or are simply bizarre, so by default they are all suitable for an album rescue. To completely misquote German philosopher Martin Hiedegger “Music speaks us, we do not speak music”. This holds true to the music that I’ve purchased over the years. My music collection tells you more about the type of person that I am, and my conscience state when I bought an album, then I ever could, even more so if you place these purchases in chronological order. The whole of Nick Hornby’s (1995) baby boomer book High Fidelity taps into the notion of music defining us and our life journey.
The first step in my album rescue process is to look through my CD collection and ‘audition’ various albums. Once a suitable album has been sourced the next step is to play it continuously whilst researching. The locating and auditioning of Keith Richards’ 1988 first solo album Talk Is Cheap was a really easy choice, the research less so. As an avid reader, my primary research is normally whatever books I can lay my hands on. When Keith Richards’ released his autobiography Life in 2011, I bought it immediately and read all 630 plus pages in a matter of days. For this ARS, I thought a good starting point would be to re-visit this book, which I really enjoyed during the original read. It was with some disappointment when I checked in the index to find that only three pages (529 to 532) are dedicated to this album. Considering the number pages that are given over to Richards’ Rolling Stones albums and his second 1992 solo album Main Offender, it would appear that Richards himself would be grateful for this album rescue too. Released in October 1988 on Virgin Records, Talk Is Cheap received a reasonably receptive critical reaction; many reviewers half-jokingly called it the best Rolling Stones album in years. Sales could have been better and it never sold in anywhere near the numbers that would make Richard’s record company claim it to be anything close to a success.
The Rolling Stones are huge. In astronomical terms they are equivalent to the sun and they sit at the absolute centre of the rock ‘n’ roll solar system. The sun with its dominant mass exerts the greatest gravitational force in the solar system and holds all other objects in orbit and governs their motion. The Rolling Stones universal gravitational pull exerts an un-escapable force over all objects within their gravitational field e.g. Mick Taylor, Marianne Faithful, Brian Jones, Andrew Loog-Oldham, Alan Klein, the list is extensive. This makes a truly objective analysis of Keith Richards’ solo work virtually impossible. When Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham fired musical genius and original founding member Brian Jones from the band in 1969, the creative engine of the band defaulted to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. This event was a major contributor to the establishment of the institution that would become ‘The Glimmer Twins’. Jagger and Richards have worked together since they first formed the band over 50 years ago in 1962. Anyone who has ever wondered what Richards’ contribution to the considerable output of the Rolling Stones could undertake some objective and scientific research.
Atomic theory supports the belief that all matter is composed of tiny, indivisible elements. This theory has very deep historical roots, initially appearing thousands of years ago in Greek and Indian texts as a philosophical idea. However, it was not embraced scientifically until the 19th century, when an evidence-based approach began to reveal what the atomic model looked like. It was at this time that John Dalton (no relation), an English chemist, meteorologist and physicist, began a series of experiments, which would culminate in him proposing the theory of atomic compositions. Thereafter it would be known as Dalton’s Atomic Theory and would become one of the cornerstones of modern physics and chemistry. Dalton came up with this theory as a result of his research into gases. In the course of this research, Dalton discovered that certain gases could only be combined in certain proportions, even if two different compounds shared the same common element or group of elements. So for this album rescue I am going to be donning a white lab coat, safety goggles, latex gloves and undertaking some subjective, scientific subtractive and combinational analysis, something that I’m sure John Dalton would be proud of.
Only a fool would dispute that Keith Richards is one of the most prolific riff creators in rock history Start Me Up, Midnight Rambler, Satisfaction, Beast of Burden, Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Women, Paint It Black the list goes on. Every one of these classic Rolling Stone’s songs, and virtually everything the band have recorded, is built upon Richards’ initial guitar riff foundation. What we are trying to deduce here is what other attributes does Richards contribute to the Rolling Stones? Talk Is Cheap is a vital piece of evidence that can help solve this question. Richards’ playing style is more conspicuous without the presence of Mick Jagger, whose larger-than-life personality can often over-shadow other aspects of Richards’ musical contribution. My hypothesis here is that Richards is the heart and soul of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band while Jagger merely provides the show biz chutzpah. My first scientific step in addressing this hypothesis is to identify what the Rolling Stones might sound like without Richards. Here, I suggest listening to Mick Jagger’s second 1987 solo album Primitive Cool but only in the name of scientific research because it’s an absolute disgrace; weak writing, poor musicianship, hideously overproduced and coated in the worst production excesses of the era. If you think this second album is bad then you definitely won’t want to listen to Jagger’s first 1985 solo album She’s The Boss. Both albums are beyond rescuing and would benefit from euthanasia. By 1993, Jagger starts to get the hand of solo albums with Wandering Spirit, which was a fabulous solo record, largely because of the superb production by audio alchemist Rick Rubin. Rubin understood Richards’ contributions so he went out and found a Keith Richards clone to fill the void.
Simply examining Mick Jagger’s solo recording isn’t going to provide the full answer to the hypothesis, so here we apply some sub-atomic theory. The Stones recorded their 18th studio album Dirty Work in 1985 with producer Steve Lilleywhite. Most people agree it’s a great album even if it is an album born out of the fracturing of the Glimmer Twins relationship. Everyone in the Stones, and the press, assumed that the band would tour in 1986 to support Dirty Work, but Jagger had a completely different agenda. Stones drummer Charlie Watts claimed that Jagger had folded up twenty-five years of history and had turned his back on the band once recording was complete. Richards’, the ardent traditionalist, and Jagger, the trend jumping shape shifter, were no longer living together in perfect harmony. In his autobiography Life (2011: p.527) Richards’ claims that Jagger’s priority in touring to support Primitive Cool was deliberately designed to close down the Rolling Stones. By 1987 things were looking rocky for the Stones and there was the distinct possibility that the end of the band was imminent. The Stones didn’t tour at all from 1982 to 1989 and didn’t venture into the studio together from 1985 to 1989. Mick and Keith are well known for their public disagreements, but things got very nasty when Jagger decided to tour in support of his second solo album, rather than Stone’s album. It signalled to many a change in Jagger’s priorities from the band to his solo work. Maybe Jagger had started to believe his own hype and honestly believed he was the Rolling Stones? Or was he simply fed up of running what was in effect an international global brand and being the sole creative, due to Keith’s self-enforced drug absence, within the enterprise? According to Richards’ (2011: p.520), Jagger sent letters out to the band informing them of his decision. Whatever Jagger’s reason he was perfectly entitled to do as he pleased because he’d already invested a quarter of a century’s work into the band. Richards was disheartened and finally succumbed to the idea of recording without the Rolling Stones. I’ve never met Keith Richards but from what I’ve read, he’s a pretty laid back cat and things have to be at the extreme end of the dial before he takes any action. According to Richards’ autobiography Life (2011), Jagger has been unbearable for the last 30 years. He also described his love-hate relationship with Jagger as being “like a marriage with no divorce” (2011: p.461). Richards reacted very badly to the departure of his soul mate ‘Glimmer Twin’ partner and it’s likely he was fearful of his own enforced creative solo future. Richard’s vented his anger in the press calling Jagger “Disco boy, Jagger’s little Jerk Off Band, why doesn’t he join Aerosmith?” (2011: p.527). Richards’ even threatened to “slit his (Jagger’s) fuckin’ throat” in one press interview (abid).
Richards was confronted with a huge problem, which was largely solved, via Occam’s Razor or the Law of Parsimony. This theory dating from the Middle Ages, states that among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. At the age of 44, Richards could have taken the easy route, the route of least resistance and simply retired, he certainly was financial capable. Ever since Richards had kicked his heroin habit around 1978, also the year the Stones released their greatest album Some Girls, music had again become his raison d’être. It was at this point that Richards became determined to make music, even without Mick Jagger though not entirely on his own. It’s ironic that when Richards quits the smack in favor of music, his long-term musical partner simply fucks off. This album might be billed as a solo album but Richards had some grade A1 premiership collaborators on Talk Is Cheap. The core band comprises of Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Ivan Neville (piano/keyboards), Charley Drayton (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums/producer) and became know, semi-jokingly, as the X-Pensive Winos. There are also numerous guest artists taking part, including Sarah Dash who provides the superbly appropriate duet vocals on Make No Mistake, bass virtuoso Bootsy Collins, saxophonist Maceo Parker, Bernie Worrell on organ and Mrs. Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, provides some superb vocals. Rolling Stones’ contributors include The Memphis Horns, sax player Bobby Keys in all his Texan finery and ex-Stones, guitarist Mick Taylor. This band was originally assembled by Richards to back up blues veteran Chuck Berry for the not entirely successful Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll documentary and concert.
Drummer Steve Jordan becomes a surrogate Glimmer Twin and key collaborator when he takes on joint production and songwriting duties with Richards. Between the two of them they put together a musically simple and straightforward album. Where this album excels is in the top notch playing, as you would expect from such a stunning band of musicians. Sonically this album is superb as it hails from a time when big production budgets resulted in access to the world’s greatest recording studios. The tracks Take It So Hard (2), Struggle (3) and Whip It Up (9) are riff perfect Richards’ classics. Track ten Locked Away is emotionally intelligent without being maudlin and worldly while sounding adult and contemporary. The main point of Talk Is Cheap is the music, nothing more; Richards obviously didn’t want to fret about anything but the groove. While Jagger’s solo work sounded like Mick with some studio musicians, Keith had assembled a band, found a productive songwriting partner and surrogate Glimmer Twin in Steve Jordan, and created a record that was free of frills. This is an album of free expression and enjoyment; Richards sounds like he’s playing for himself, having a ball and loving every moment of it. Because the X-pensive Winos are hand picked by Richards, they have a different work ethic from the Stones, which forces Richards to focus on the music. What resulted was a solid album built on fundamentals rather than style. The brilliance of Keith Richards is his ability to serve the song, and the band, with his playing. Richards is an expert collaborator with a simplistic but unique tone, a fabulous sense of rhythm, an uncanny ability to turn the beat around and the ability to move around inside the structure of the song with those signature soulful riffs. His guitar playing is not about fancy or lightning fast playing or impressive technique, he’s got Waddy Wachtel for that. It’s all about those simple glorious infectious grooves and some basic but timeless song writing.
Richards and Bob Dylan would appear to agree on the fact that you know when you have a great song because you can strip away all the production and play it with an acoustic guitar and a voice. Dylan calls this a “song with legs” (Heylin, C. 2000), a song that is strong enough to get up and walk around on its own. All the songs on Talk Is Cheap have legs, in fact, the songs are so good they can do star jumps. This album shouldn’t come as a shock because Richards had served notice on the 1978 Stones album Some Girls with his solo written track Before They Make Me Run. Richards was busted for heroin in February 1977 at Toronto airport and the criminal charges and prospect of a prison sentence loomed over the Some Girls recording sessions and endangered the future of the Rolling Stones. It would appear that Richards is reactive and not pro-active to situations as the recording of this track demonstrates. According to Elliot Martin’s book The Rolling Stones: Complete Recording Sessions (2002: p.263), Richards recorded this song in five days without sleeping. Originally entitled Rotten Roll, the song was recorded in Paris at the Pathé Marconi studio in March 1978 during one of Mick Jagger’s prolonged absences from the Some Girls recording sessions. That’s not to say that Jagger didn’t have a right not to be present, he’d carried the band, and Richards, single-handed for the last decade.
Talk Is Cheap, returned Richards’ musical focus and for the first time in a decade put him back in the position of playing what he wanted to play and not what the crowd expected to hear. This is a luxury that most musicians don’t have and Richards’ millionaire international rock star status is one reason he could make such a unique and engaging piece of work. Talk Is Cheap is definitely not a period Stones album, it isn’t the Stones at all, but is an expression of Richards fondness for traditional rockabilly, soul and at times hints of funk. Surprisingly, there is not a whole lot of blues in it explicitly, but it does lurk in the background, I guess the blues are saved for Rolling Stones albums? Track seven, How I Miss You, is as close to a Rolling Stones simulacrum as its possible to get. A rocker of a song with a deep heart felt cry out to long lost friend such as Anita Pallenberg, Gram Parson or even Mick Jagger? Richards and his co-songwriter and producer, Steve Jordan, put together a collection of songs that display all these loves of Richards in an honest, straightforward and simple way. Talk Is Cheap is an island of simple solid rock ‘n’ roll granite in a featureless shallow sea of late 1980’s post modern glitter; to my ears this album sounds even better today than it did back then.
If I was to pick one track from this album to serve as an indicative example of the whole album it would have be track two Take It So Hard. It starts with the hallmark Richards’ rough-n-ready riff that clearly signals that he has reclaimed his mojo, which had been begrudgingly on loan to Jagger through most of the 70s and 80s. The loose but very attuned X-pensive Winos jump in with a hard-driving groove and Richards sings the tune with all of Jagger’s swagger and sneering attitude, even if he doesn’t quite have Jagger’s flair. Moreover, there are enough ad-libs in this track to tell you he’s definitely having fun. Waddy Watchel’s guitar solo in the break is a leitmotif originally authored a couple of decades earlier by Richards, but Watchel reappropriates and reinvents it here in this album. Naturally this solo fits a Keith Richards’ song perfectly. All the tracks on this album are simple and I don’t mean this as a criticism. Upon its release many critics claimed the simple attributes of Talk Is Cheap were it’s main problem, because simple attributes no matter how well mastered, always remain simple. This criticism completely misses the point.
This album needs rescuing because simple is always good, simple works, simple is agile, simple is clever, simple is confidence, simple focuses the mind and simple lets you see the wood without the trees in the way. Simple is not a criticism, simple is about doing one small thing incredibly well, Richards’ style, as opposed to doing lots things not so well, Jagger style. This album displays a simple but expert mastery over the music that Richards loves to play, a mastery which he displays on his second solo album Main Offender (1992) but which is not fully displayed on any Rolling Stones records. As 19th century French writer Stendhal wrote in his 1830 work Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and Black) “Only great minds can afford a simple style”. Evidence of how simple Richards’ likes to make it can be seen in his guitar choice. Six strings is one too many, five strings work great especially with open G tuning. Richards’ prominent guitar of choice over the years has been a Fender Telecaster. This guitar is all about being a tradesman and coming to a job tooled up. Telecasters aren’t about flash or showing off they are about getting the job done. Look at other well-known Telecaster players: Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, George Harrison, Syd Barret or Graham Coxon and you’ll see my point. Keith Richard’s Talk Is Cheap is definitely the greatest Fender Telecaster record ever made.
Talk Is Cheap is a wonderful record because it features for the first time Richards’s second instrument, his voice. With this second instrument, Richards wonderfully expresses his experiences, while his first instrument, the guitar, so wonderfully expresses his endurance. His voice is unique, most people hate it, a few love it and as he rightly states, (2011: p.534) “Pavarotti it ain’t, but then I don’t like Pavarotti’s voice”. For the first time Richards is writing material that he wants to write and not in collaboration with Jagger and for a different audience. Richards’ is not prolific in his solo output; he barely averages a solo album every 17.5 years. As George Bernard Shaw once said “I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter”. To return to my original hypothesis, this analysis has proven that as a primary component of the Rolling Stones, Richards is the engine driver and without him the machine does not move. During Richards’ heroin sabbatical (which could have been one of his productive periods), Jagger carried him, as any good partner should, until Richards was well enough to work again. In many ways Jagger’s semi-selfish actions of concentrating on his solo work pushed a refocused Richards into making Talk Is Cheap. Mick Jagger broke from the Stones to try and be a rock star and largely failed while Richards was pushed into making a record he never wanted to make. Neither Jagger nor Richards sold anywhere near the amount of solo records as they expected to, but that’s not the point. Jagger explored the territory solo and came back to the Rolling Stones to re-identify himself. Richard’s was forced out begrudgingly to explore solo territory as a junkie joke and came back a creditable musician. Whatever the circumstance I am very pleased that Richards made Talk Is Cheap and I believe that it is a significant piece of work that is well and truly worthy of an Album Rescue. Without Talk Is Cheap the Rolling Stones would have disappeared into the “where are they now” file. How could any Keith Richards’ record possibly be better? How could any Keith Richards’ record ever be worse?
I was born in 1962 in the city of Hull, or to give it its full name, Kingston upon Hull, which is located in East Yorkshire in the north east of the UK. The city of Hull sits on a vast flat barren clay wilderness called the Plain of Holderness. This Plain was one huge marsh up until 1240 when the Dominican monks established a Friary in the market town of Beverley. From across the North Sea, these Dominican monks brought in the Dutch to drain this large swathe of land to make it habitable and suitable for farming. To this day you can still see the ditches and dykes built by the Dutch to drain this great plain. Easily sourced fresh and clean water filtered through the chalk of the Yorkshire Wolds also made this area desirable for habitation. I can’t prove my theory but it’s my contention that something was added to this water during the late 1970s and 1980s. The result was a noticeable, unprecedented outbreak of artistic and musical creativity in Hull during this period the likes of which have not be seen since. Whatever was in the water during this period was obviously good stuff and did the trick.
From the mid 1970s through to the late 1980s, Hull, and in particular the Polar Bear pub, seemed to attract artists and musicians from all corners of the UK. The Polar Bear pub was on a road called Spring Bank so called because this road followed the course of the original conduit which brought fresh water from the Yorkshire Wolds’ springs into the city. One person I casually befriended during 1981/2 was art student Philip Diggle from Manchester, who was studying fine art at Hull College of Art and Design. At the time, Philip was a poor starving eccentric artist (he still is) who told me one night, after way too many beers in the Polar Bear pub, “I’m drawn to action painting and I’m going to make it my vocation”.
Back then this Victorian pub had a long public bar, a lounge and a very strange liminal space referred to as “the café bar”. This was a small wood paneled room that held approximately 20 odd people and was wedged between the bar and lounge. This was the city’s only arty bohemian safe spot and every night of the week it was filled with poor starving artists and musicians such as Roland Gift, Eric Golden aka Wreckless Eric, Lili-Marlene Premilovich who would later morph into Lene Lovich, her lover and musical partner Les Chappell and just about every other local indie band, would be record producer, fine artist, architect and other assorted creative wannabes. It was here that I made the connection that Philip Diggle was in fact the younger brother of Buzzcocks rock God guitarist Steve Diggle.
A few years earlier, I’d seen the Buzzcocks play a couple of times at the Wellington ‘Welly’ Club in Hull. Most punk bands at the time hailed from down south, specifically London. Buzzcocks were different as they came from Manchester, located a couple of hours away along the M62. Most southern punks bands that I saw live, more often than not at The ‘Welly’ club, were like peacocks e.g. lots of expensive bondage trousers, leather jackets with studs and other flamboyant touches. Bands from the north, and especially Manchester, dressed down; it was more second hand thrift shop punk as opposed to the highly stylized Vivian Westwood/Malcolm McLaren look. The northern look was much more accessible. An Oxfam or second hand thrift stores allowed the poor working class of Hull to emulate this dressed down punk look.
With their dressed down punk look, the Buzzcocks had the musical chops to match. Pete Shelley, the band’s lead singer, looked like the weedy kids at my school, the ones that got bullied and never got picked for the football team. His vocal style was quiet, limp, whiney, camp and often out of tune. It wasn’t the classic punk rock loud, proud, macho and shooty vocals you associate with this genre. Shelley was unique and he was certainly not a lead man in the classic punk rock mold like Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer or Dave Vanian. Northerners like myself loved the Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley; we identified with them and claimed them as our own.
Their 1977 Spiral Scratch EP was the first ever self-release punk record. It sounded fantastic and was 100% Punk Rock. Track one, side two; Boredom was a call to arms. For me it was this record, not The Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK, that signalled Punk Rock had arrived. This EP announced punk’s rebellion against the status quo whilst also providing the strident musical minimalism template (the Steve Diggle guitar ‘solo’ consisting of only two notes but repeated 66 times!) that all future punk records would measure themselves against. Martin ‘Zero’ Hannett quickly recorded and mixed the music in a single day and it was perfectly insistently repetitive and energetic. Jon Savage states in England Dreaming (2001: 298) that this record was instrumental in helping establish the small record labels and scenes in both Manchester and Liverpool. Following on from this EP, the Buzzcocks released three fantastic albums; Another Music In A Different Kitchen in 1978, the superb Love Bites also in 1978 and A Different Kind of Tension in 1979. Martin Rushent expertly produced all three albums, none of which need rescuing here.
For the traditional Buzzcock fans, Homosapien was a super-sad and disappointing event upon its release in 1981. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre maintained that the concepts of authenticity and individuality have to be earned but not learned. We need to experience “death consciousness” so as to wake up ourselves as to what is really important; the authentic in our lives which is life experience, not knowledge. As he wrote in Being And Nothingness (1943: 246), “We can act without being determined by our past which is always separated from us“. Many artists reach this point in their careers; this is the moment when Pablo Picasso swaps expressionism for abstract cubism. Sartre would probably concur that Pete Shelley experienced his ‘death consciousness’ moment when he recorded this album. Homosapien is the moment Shelley and Rushent swap electric guitars for synthesisers; they are both acting without being determined by their collective and individual Buzzcock pasts.
Much of the material contained on this album were songs originally intended for the Buzzcock’s fourth album. Some of the material on Homosapien even pre-dates the Buzzcocks and had been cryogenically stored for a number of years. This wasn’t Shelley’s first solo album as he had recorded, but not released, an album called Sky Yen way back in 1974. Some of this material was re-worked on Homosapien. The Buzzcocks had fully committed to recording a fourth album. It’s pure conjecture, but this album was probably set up to continue their intriguing, strange and powerful direction they had taken on their third 1979 album A Different Kind of Tension. Rehearsals for the fourth album were underway in Manchester when the record company (EMI/Fame) refused to advance the money needed to make the record. Tensions were running high, so producer Martin Rushent called a halt to rehearsals and returned to his newly built barn studio, Genetic, on his property near Reading in Berkshire.
Shelley followed Rushent down to Berkshire and the two settled into Genetic studios with the intent of working on Buzzcock demos. This was no ‘home’ studio; technologically it was cutting edge and years ahead of its time. Rushent had predicted the future of record production, investing a considerable sum of money on audio equipment such as a Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, Roland MC-8 Microcomposer and a Roland Jupiter 8 keyboard with the intent of teaching himself the new art of music programming. Once Rushent had confirmed that ‘sequencing’ was the future of record production, he equipped his Genetic Studio with the very best and most expensive audio equipment. This included a MCI console, one of the first Mitsubishi Digital multi-track records, at an eye popping £75,000 ($153,000), a Synclavier and a Fairlight digital synthesiser, where most people would buy one or the other.
Very quickly Shelley and Rushent fell in love with the sound of the ‘Linn Drum’ demos at the exact moment where mainstream electro-synth pop was just taking hold. Rushent used his studio as a research and development laboratory, perfecting his new way of producing records. Homosapien is the sound of one musician (Shelley), one record producer (Rushent) and lots of early, expensive computer technology. Visionary Island Records’ A&R Executive, Andrew Lauder, heard the early demos and instantly offered Shelley a solo deal. Tired of the Buzzcock’s near bankrupt financial state, Shelley abruptly disbanded the band via an insensitive lawyers’ letter mailed to his band-mates.
Virgin Records’ A&R Executive, Simon Draper, listened to the finished Homosapien album; he’d heard the future. Martin Rushent was instantly hired to produce the Human League’s 1981 hugely popular masterpiece album Dare. By the time Rushent set to work on Dare, he had perfected a new way of sequencing and programming synthesiser-based music. In this process, he had pioneered the technique of ‘sampling’, skills he first practiced on Homosapien. This, said Shelley, marked a departure from the baroque flourishes of the outdated progressive rock era: “Martin wasn’t content that synthesisers produced weird noises; he did his best to use them to convey musical ideas. These days when you listen to music you don’t even hear the synthesisers. That is due to Martin, who was at the vanguard of making electronics work for the music“.
The Buzzcock fans’ shock had barley dissipated from the unexpected news of the break up when Homosapien was released. A great number of Buzzcock fans were disappointed and disenchanted by what they perceived as Shelley jumping on to the Gary Numan synth-pop bandwagon. Shelley’s lyrics remained just as cold, disjointed and disgruntled as they ever were on a Buzzcocks’ album, only now they’re placed much more in the forefront of the soundstage instead of being just an afterthought. The album confirms that Shelley’s wry, witty, lovelorn pop songwriting ability was still perfectly intact. As you would deduce from the album’s title, this work is as narcissistic as anything that David Bowie could ever write, “Homosuperior in my interior“; it doesn’t get any more narcissistic than that.
Despite the new method of computer-sequenced production Rushent manages to retain the tight compressed, hard vocals of Shelley’s band work. The ten tracks on this album are magnificent, modernist abstract electronic works of art. The opening track and first single, Homosapien, was rejected by British radio due to the song’s apparent homosexual overtones, even though taken at face value, its controversial nature seems less evident. Regardless, it was a worldwide club hit, especially in gay clubs, and was the blueprint for many synth-pop dance tracks that followed. Tracks like the fabulous experimental I Generate A Feeling and the relentless I Don’t Know What It Is are confirmation of this testament. If this album was a painting it could easily be one of Philip Diggle’s modernist pieces of abstract expressionism. The similarity between this album and Diggle’s paintings are very similar i.e. Diggle’s paintings are complex 3-D abstractions, they go beyond texture, and some of them are inches thick as is Shelley’s music on this album.
With the lack of mainstream radio play, and poor reviews, this album was largely unloved upon its release. The NME said that “Homosapien is the first chance to examine the solo Shelley over the full range of interests and emotions but it is a disjointed album… the problem is the bulk of the raw material is too ineffectual, often embarrassing and half realised, to give the songs a focal point which binds, injects or drives them with the necessary conviction or resolution… It lacks energy, urgency and desperation, something to grab on to: the power to wake you or make you or shake you up. A shame because Shelley still has a lot to give”.
When Homosapien was originally released, it pushed the technological envelop on all fronts. As a cassette, there were ten tracks on one side, while the other side was a computer code that could be loaded onto your Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer. I often wonder how many people played the wrong side of the cassette on their HiFi system and heard the garbled cacophony of computer code, thinking this was the album? I bought the cassette version upon its release in January 1981, but could never get the computer graphics to work properly. My cassette version was quickly replaced by the sonically much superior CD version, which came out a few months later in June 1981.
I would also suggest that this album suffered from some unwarranted homophobia. Pete Shelley was punk’s version of heavy metal band Judas Priest’s lead singer Rob Halford. When both artists came out, the press had a field day resulting in many fans deserting both artists; not that it made one iota of difference to the music. Judas Priest was still a kick-ass heavy metal band no matter the lead singer’s sexual preference. The one positive of Shelley’s ‘coming out’ was the attention Homosapien received by a totally new demographic that never heard of the Buzzcocks. As a stupendous club dance track, the single Homosapien, was a huge success in gay clubs around the world even if it didn’t generate high retail sales.
In recent times, the genius of Philip Diggle’s modernist action paintings have been recognised by the American corporate business world who are buying his work as part of their investment portfolios. Diggle’s works can now be found hanging in the Rockefeller Centre and corporate headquarters of the Chase Manhattan Bank; both located in New York City. In many ways the Shelley/Rushent album Homosapien is similar to one of Diggle’s artworks. It can take thirty years or more for cutting edge works of art to be fully assimilated and accepted into the cultural landscape. This album was the work of two visionary artists who created a substantial work of art as opposed to an ephemeral standardised pop record. This album is evidence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory at work. The name of the studio, ‘Genetic’ and the name of the album ‘Homosapien’ are all not so coded semiotic clues as to how this album evolved from the punk rock of the Buzzcocks. Homosapien will forever be associated with the sexually charged gay scene, the smell of Amyl Nitrite and thumping bass of gay club dance floors. Too many homophobes made this album taboo and off limits. My suggestion is to get hold of the Homosapien CD, play it loud and just enjoy the fabulous music.
 The Telegraph 2/7/14 (Rocks Back Pages accessed 24/6/15)
NME 22/8/81 (Rocks Back Pages accessed 24/6/15).
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album.