Album Rescue Series: David Bowie ‘Tonight’ by Dr Ian Dixon

You might remember him from such extravagant masquerades as Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke; from outrageous publicity stunts such as proclaiming himself Satanist (Sandford, 1996), born again Christian (Leigh, 2014), bisexual, Nazi apologist (Trynka, 2011), even an alien. You might recall his feminine make up, his Kabuki and Kansai suits, his “screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo” (Bowie, 1973), his double reinstatement of the Pierrot theme (1967, 1979) or just pacing before a bulldozer surrounded by clerics of varying denominations in Ashes to Ashes (1979). That’s right! The inimitable David Bowie.

In the late 1960s, Bowie’s band, The Konrads, played at weddings, was ignored and booed off stage then, in the 1980s, Bowie played to audiences in the hundreds of thousands for the Serious Moonlight tour. During the 1970s he was hounded by the press for sexual excess and conspicuous public perversion then succumbed to monogamous marital reclusiveness in the 1990s. He has played, sung, written, arranged and produced for mega-stars such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, supported lesser-knowns such as Mott the Hoople and generally championed bands globally for their prog rock adventuring. He’s terrified himself with the constant threat of ‘madness’ as exemplified by his beloved brother Terry’s schizophrenia. He’s slept with more people than you could poke a stick at: everyone from Marianne Faithful to Nico, Charlie Chaplin’s widow, Oona O’Neill Chaplin, transsexual Romy Haag and supermodels Winona Williams and his scintillating wife, Iman Bowie.

Above all, Bowie represents the triumph of high art in popular music having firmly wedged himself into the zeitgeist with iconic songs like Space Oddity, Starman, Rebel Rebel, Heroes, Fashion and Let’s Dance while exemplifying the very spirit of rock creativity and its synthesis with art and literature, referencing works from Sigmund Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams to George Orwell’s 1984. David Bowie acts on stage and screen (especially noted for his exemplary physical gyrations in the stage play version of The Elephant Man in New York, 1980). He writes music in irreconcilably contrasting styles, even movie soundtracks for Nicolas Roeg’s (see Big Audio Dynamite) confusing extravaganza: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and the downbeat realist drama Christiane F. in which he plays himself (as he did in far more capricious vein in Zoolander (2001)). More recently, Bowie performed in The Prestige (2006) alongside Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale (Batman, Wolverine and Ziggy Stardust on the same screen! Now that’s a film worth seeing).

This is David Bowie: inexhaustible, inspired, insecure, admirable, charismatic, a man with impeccable manners and a reputation for rapidly writing songs that go from 0 to 100 in seconds. Fame (1976) was apparently penned with John Lennon in less than twenty minutes (Sandford, 1996)). In short, the man is a genius (antiquated modernist term though it be), which prompts the question: how did Tonight (1984) mess it all up so irrevocably?

Tonight, produced by Bowie, Hugh Padgham and Derek Bramble followed the unprecedented commercial and artistic success of Let’s Dance: his top selling album in which the production smarts of disco-funk king Nile Rodgers met with the sharp guitar excellence of Stevie Ray Vaughan (before the latter left the tour in a helicopter: disdainful that Bowie had matched his own outrageous egotism (Sandford, 1996)). Bowie’s 16th studio album, Tonight, reached number one on the British charts. Yet, despite its commercial success fans still whisper that the success was merely ‘off the back of’ Let’s Dance, which had skyrocketed Bowie’s fame.

Tonight is the album Bowie biographer Paul Trynka called, “a perfect storm of mediocrity”’ and “leaden white reggae” (2011, p. 408), and Melody Maker (1990) refers to as “rotten”’. The album relinquished Bowie’s former acumen at predicting the market and trailed the reggae wave by some years (Leigh, 2014). Tonight, the album after Bowie’s telepathic ability to predict the market, saw him leave behind the music-fashion predictions that had secured his place at the top of the pops – folk-rock, glam rock, theatrical grunge, techno and ambient, disco-funk, plastic soul and new romanticism. Tonight represented a loss of confidence on Bowie’s part and a switch to mainstream as a source of inspiration rather than underground music, which had serviced the master for over a decade. Where previous fare had included The Velvet Underground, Brian Eno’s ambient music and classical composers such as Gustav Holst, Hanns Eisler and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Tonight relied on sources from The Police, Laurie Anderson and The Thompson Twins.

Relying heavily on the 1980s big drum sound, even the dance anthems of Let’s Dance succumb to the tragedy of falling behind, but Tonight brings it home and nails the coffin shut on a decade of unprecedented reinvention and primavera excellence in popular music. 1983 was the year that dedicated Bowie journalist Charles Shaar Murray, “David’s number one cheerleader in the British press”’ (Leigh, 2014, p. 153), stopped documenting his albums. Having said that, this album represents moments of impeccably slick production, excellence culminating in the seamless pop icon Blue Jean. Indeed, Tonight fairly defines the self-conscious interplay of tasteless narcissism and artistic pursuit (that’s a compliment).

However, a closer scrutiny of the individual tracks leaves us wanting for an album worthy of the Bowie oeuvre. The songs combine the would-be sublime with the loud ordinariness of a moribund fad. Tracks such as Loving the Alien mix orchestral strings in the background in a fashion already exhausted by E.L.O. and Bowie chooses to ride the “leaden white reggae” wave headfirst into oblivion (Trynka, 2011, p. 408).

On Tonight, lacklustre guitar riffs by the otherwise stupendous Carlos Alomar remain a sad indictment hung on Bowie. Tonight plummets his hard-won mega-stardom into the absolute mediocrity of an absolute beginner (neither was his reputation rescued by his subsequent album, Never Let me Down, which in Bowie’s own words was “apocryphally awful”: plastic emotion succumbing to pure schmaltz). Perhaps, on track two of Tonight, Bowie was offering himself advice by repeating the affirmation: ‘Don’t look down’, as the resurgence of his monolithic cocaine addiction propelled his personal paranoia to sheer megalomania.

Where are the incisive lyrics so prevalent in Scary Monsters? Where are the sublime melodies which saw seasoned musicians such as Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Marc Bolan consulting with a 23 year old Bowie in 1970 (Vizard, 1990)? Some say his cocaine addiction all but wiped out his former genius: a phenomenon Bowie likens to having Swiss cheese for a brain: far from decrying this fact, Bowie celebrated it when he appeared on Parkinson (2002) touted as the “Peter Pan of Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

Bowie’s version of God Only Knows is not only embarrassing, it’s one of the most disingenuous tracks in rock history. The delivery, in the words of biographer Paul Trynka, is akin to a “pub singer punting for wedding and bar mitzvah jobs” (2011, p. 408). In this sad, crooner version of The Beach Boys’ 1966 classic, jaunty epistle, Bowie experiments with his ever deepening vocal delivery: a rumbling, bass register assisted by decades of chain smoking. This quality would be exploited to far greater effect on Heathen (1999) as he had done on Diamond Dogs (1974) and Let’s Dance (1982). On Tonight’s God Only Knows, however, everything from sentimental strings to turgid tempo, the ‘big sound’ rim-shot drums to the super-charged romanticism announces that this was simply a bad choice. With this version (and to his credit), Bowie’s tongue is firmly wedged in his cheek, but the delivery is so cringe-worthy nobody seems to have noticed the irony. The song begins as saccharine-schmaltz with a semi-shouted Sprechgesang quality weaved in for good measure then descends to pure bathos. With God Only Knows, Bowie outdoes the stain on Across the Universe: his previous highpoint of pure awful on Young Americans (1975) (when teaming up with John Lennon on the inspired Fame – an iconic track not even the pretentious 1990 remix could overshadow).

The eponymous track, Tonight, features steel drum and marimba rhythms (supplied by Canadian, Guy St. Onge) and played without the authenticity of Jamaican verve, even though Mr Bowie is ‘familiar’ with Jamaican culture (particularly Jamaican women) since his teen years in South London directly after the Second World War. There are, however, some exemplary backup vocals on this track, which also constitutes a beautiful synchronicity of timbre between himself and Tina Turner (the grandma and grandpa of rock together!).

After the haunting excellence of China Girl on Let’s Dance (even though Bowie ultimately despised his version), Bowie attempts again to resurrect some of the genius performance from Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot on Tonight’s next track Neighbourhood Threat. Regrettably, Bowie fails to achieve the ‘messed-up’ resignation of Iggy (even though Bowie had produced Pop’s album during a period of unmitigated creativity in Berlin: 1975-1977). Bowie himself declared the song ‘disastrous’, mentioning a plethora of different musical styles tried and failed in attempting to resurrect the song. To Bowie’s credit, however, this desperate anthem of street survival, Neighbourhood Threat, contains some perfect scintillation of bass guitar and drum combinations, notably, this time-tested pop music convention kicks the song off immediately. This effectively reinvents the song in a new genre, which is no small feat. In the past, my friends spent many a debauched night playing song-for-song: Bowie-Pop-Bowie and debate the merits of the differing versions (Iggy invariably won!) Neighbourhood Threat oscillates between glossy disco backing singers and three-chord guitar riffs including inspired contrapuntal movements between competing melodies as Bowie peels off: “Will you still place your bets, on the Neighbourhood Threat?

And so we arrive at Blue Jean: the listener sighs, ‘at last!’ as the album really takes off. This song represents all that could have been on this lively, but flawed album. The hit-parade anthem Blue Jean employs a characteristically remote vocal delivery, yet remains a capricious interpretation, sporting lyrics such as: “She’s got a turned up nose”. This is counterbalanced against an impassioned screaming of: “Sometimes I feel like. Dancing with Blue Jean. Somebody send me!” Senseless lyrics though they may be, the subtext of being out of your head in love with someone bad for you fairly drips from the vinyl (yes, vinyl, which dates-stamps this particular critic irrevocably). Indeed, even the deliberately fake, ‘cracked actor’ vocal rift finds its perfect place in this hit tune. The driving double-time beat of the verse leads seamlessly into the middle eight and chorus. The hit retains a genuine improvisational quality floating over the slick arrangement: the superb placement of shrieking, grunting saxophone riffs (played by the man himself) sets off the exemplary guitar solo played lovingly by long-time Bowie axeman, Carlos Alomar.

Wouldn’t it be sublime to leave this album at this point so we won’t even have to mention Tumble and Twirl, with its impulsive 6/8 time signature and gurgling, hyper-romantic Robert Smith-type vocal delivery? The song (and alas most of the album) reminds us of the tragedy of conscious postmodern caprice believing its own hype. Indeed, I Keep Forgetting (Leiber and Stoller’s reworking of Chuck Jackson’s original), and Dancing with the Big Boys makes the listener want to rip the album off the player and put Scary Monsters back on (lest we keep forget that Bowie was once the giant of progressive, edgy popular music). With a decisive rim-shot, the album ends: the big brass nightmare is over and we are left in a welcome abyss, where the absence of noise is somehow meaningful by comparison. Is the album too clean – did he not smoke enough ganja to render effective, dirty reggae (it was, after all, not his drug of choice (Leigh, 2014))? Was it all just a waste of space and vinyl and unsmoked ganja?

Yet I resist the urge to do just that and, as I cogitate the theme of this collection: Album Rescue Series, I must acknowledge that it is the very genius of Bowie’s former glory that raises the bar for the artistic and commercial success of such a venture. Ironically, this means he is judged harshly by fans and critics. Indeed, the album represents a clash between commercialism and artistry. On reflection, the advancement in engineering is exemplary; the sound is clean and seamless to the very edge of technological capacity in the 1980s. We must pay homage to Bowie for venturing even further into new terrain creating a synthesis of reggae and white cynicism, for maintaining a modicum of intelligence within the lyricism. In the notoriously shallow zeitgeist of the 1980s it stands out as experimental (within tight, commercial parameters) and colourful. Perhaps his old buddy Christian Bale should play this album during his scathing (ironic) indictment of 80s pop in American Psycho (2000).

Bowie has, and will always have, extensiveness and inclusiveness in his music – ever increasing range vocally, musically and inter-disciplinary influences: far from a mere follower of the market. We must acknowledge that the contemporaneous market had painted Bowie into a corner. The pressure to emulate the commercial success of Let’s Dance or the artistic excellence of Scary Monsters must have represented extraordinary insecurity for this mega-star. The music on Tonight is crisp, inventive, unique and (largely) unpredictable. Bowie is to be praised for continuing his experimentation with musical styles beyond mega-stardom. Thus, within David Bowie’s musical milieu, Tonight is an album definitely worth playing. Although other Bowie albums might be written off, there is, in Tonight: sweat behind the market positioning; pain behind the commercialism; excellence in the production; and sheer balls in the risk.

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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. David Bowie ‘Tonight is written by Dr Ian Dixon, our first in a series of 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)

ALBUM RESCUE SERIES: THE CLASH ‘GIVE ‘EM ENOUGH ROPE’

Some albums are born classics while others need a more revisionist approach. The Clash’s second album ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ is definitely in the latter category. If any album was in need of a critical rescue 37 years after its release then it’s this one. Back when this album was released I was 15, just about to turn 16, and I’d played their eponymous 1977 debut album, The Clash, to death. Every single track on the first album, according to my young ears, was amazing. At the time I’d worked hard to earn the money to buy this album by having two paper rounds, one early morning and another one in the evening. In compete contrast to today; music back then was an expensive commodity. I worked hard, saved my money and rushed out to my local record store to buy this record. When I got it home and first played this record I was pretty disappointed. Where was the anger, where was the aggression and where was the confrontation? In fact, where was the punk rock? This record sounded like some mid Atlantic over-produced pro-rock band?

Retrospectively there seems to be some social and economic parallels between the UK today and the late seventies. It was a time of economic depression, the working class were still down trodden by the conscienceless political rulers and moneyed elite, racial tensions simmered and a generation of disenfranchised young people with no future prospects were ready to lash out a wave of destruction in the form of riots in protest at the injustices of the world they find themselves in. We’re not quite there with the youth riots yet, Brixton and Toxteth style, but they are definitely on the horizon if things don’t change.

It was during this period that The Clash released their second eagerly awaited album ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ on 10th November 1978. When all the other major British punk bands died in 1978 and were replaced by tepid New Wave acts, CBS (the Clash’s label) tried to push the band into the US market whether they liked it or not. In preparation for the recording of this album the band undertook a ‘secret’ mini tour of the UK Midlands. Bernie Rhodes, the band’s manager, and the record company had settled on Sandy Pearlman, a heavy metal producer with a commercial track record with bands like Blue Öyster Cult, to produce their second album. He was described as the “Hunter S. Thompson of rock, a gonzo producer of searing intellect and vast vision” in the Billboard Producer Directory.

Between 24th and 26th January 1978 The Clash played in Birmingham (Barbarellas), Luton (Queensway Hall) and Coventry (Lanchester Polytechnic). According to Paul Simonon (2008) “The record company had this idea that they wanted a big name American producer for the second album”. The record company felt that the band’s first album was just too raw and not radio friendly enough for American audience’s refined taste. Pearlman attended all three shows to audition the proposed material for the album. At the last show at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry (26/1/78) Perlman tried to get backstage just before the show to meet the band. Mick Jones’s old school friend, Robin Crocker (AKA Robin Banks), was taking care of backstage security and he didn’t know who Pearlman was. Crocker wasn’t a man you messed with. Some heavy duty manners were employed to keep Pearlman from going backstage resulting in the longhaired American record producer lying prostrate on the floor blood pouring from his nose as the band stepped over him to take to the stage. As normal The Clash don’t play by the rules, what a great introduction to your new record producer. Pearlman must have been keen because this incident did not dampen his enthusiasm to make their second record.

As 1978 wore on an exasperated record company desperately wanted a follow up album to capitalize on the quick and cheap first album. CBS did not release the first album in the USA; it was only available via import, as they thought the quality was not high enough for American audiences. To compound matters, the once wholly supportive music press where also starting to view The Clash with suspicion amid claims that they were lazy and not pulling their weight. Strummer and Jones de-camped to Jamaica for two weeks to write new material prior to recording. The whole band reconvened and undertook an initial multi-track recording at Wessex Sound Studios, and Basing Street Studios in London.

Wessex Sound Studios would become The Clash’s studio of choice for future recordings while Basing Street would see Mick Jones return there with Big Audio Dynamite. The Clash, Sandy Pearlman and engineer Corky Stasiak spent many weeks recording the tracks for Rope. This was in complete contrast to the first album, which was recorded and mixed in CBS’s own basic Whitfield Street Studios, London. The first album had urgency to it; it was recorded and mixed over a three-week period working Thursday to Sunday each week. The band, and in particular drummer Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon and bass player Paul Simonon, complained about the nick picking way that Perlman recorded. Both complained bitterly about the lack of spontaneity during these recording sessions. Once recording was complete Mick Jones and Joe Strummer claimed to have been virtually kidnapped and taken to San Francisco for overdubs and mixing. Jones and Strummer probably went to San Francisco without Headon and Simonon quite willingly but their claims aid the myth and legend of The Clash. What is known is that Headon and Simonon where very pissed off about not being involved in the USA overdub and mixing sessions.

CBS Records, The Clash’s record company, initially owned The Automatt studios in San Francisco but by 1978 it was sub leased to ex-CBS employee David Rubinson. The studio complex was known for its top-notch equipment and for the radio friendly hit records it produced. Between September and October 1978, singer Joe Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones worked with Pearlman at The Automatt to record overdubs for the album. Flying in from the UK, Jones and Strummer stayed at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown, and almost every night they went to see punk bands play at the Mabuhay Gardens, known locally in the punk scene as ‘The Mab’. Between takes at The Automatt, Strummer and Jones listened for the first time to the Bobby Fuller Four version of I Fought the Law on one of Rubinson’s studio lobby jukeboxes. When they returned to England this song was re-made into a Clash classic which would make its first appearance in March 1979 on their short, five date, London Calling Tour. Then in May 1976 it would become the stand out track on The Cost Of Living.

The results of the Rope are not nearly as good as they could have been and there are perceived to be three major flaws. First of all, Pearlman hated Strummer’s voice and buried it disastrously low in the mix. Secondly, he packed the sound with distortion, booming drums, and overdubbing, making all the songs sound similar and muddying the impact of The Clash’s considerable guitar fury. Thirdly, the lyrics Strummer wrote came under attack because they were considered histrionic, esoteric and soaked in melodrama: they look unkindly on British punk. What the public didn’t understand was that Strummer’s lyrics were self critical of the band, his own career and the world at large.

Mixing the drums so loud on this record is probably a testament to the abilities of Topper Headon. This is one of the few albums in the DKHQ Album Rescue Series where I largely blame the production on the album needing a rescue. In this instance I would opinion that Pearlman was a bad choice as producer for this record. It could have been much worse though. At the time there was no digital audio workstations (DAW) or software, which allows for the manipulation of audio. If this DAW software and technology had been around at the time of recording, and had Pearlman used it as un-compassionately as he did of analogue recording technology available at the time, then this album would probably be un-savable.

The Clash were not in a pleasant situation during 1978. They were being accused by the music press of selling out, of being phonies and being pushed by their record company for a more commercial, clean, mainstream, sound which they apparently loathed. The music falls apart under the war between producer and band; commerciality and creativity never sit well together. In abstract form the songs written by Joe Strummer are fantastic, and would have been truly world-class had a more sympathetic production been employed. Safe European Home is a great mixed paean to Kingston Jamaica, Tommy Gun is a chilling take on terrorism, Drug Stabbing Time has an undeniable rock groove. Stay Free is a world-class romantic history of the band, written in true Mott The Hoople style by Mick Jones about his childhood mate Robin ‘Banks’ Crocker (he of the Pearlman punching incident pre recording of Rope). I would agree that these songs aren’t punk songs; correct they aren’t. This is Strummer developing as a lyricist, in the same way that Jones was developing as a superb studio arranger. This is the sound of The Clash leaving punk behind and moving into much more interesting territory. Rope is a transitional album. These facts should be celebrated because without Rope we would not have the undeniable classic London Calling or the equally impressive Sandinista. Rope is The Clash and in particular the creative talent of Strummer/Jones developing and serving notice on what’s to come.

The album cover features a painting in stark flat colors of a Chinese horseman looking down at an American cowboy’s body being picked at by vultures. The album art was designed by Gene Greif and is based on a 1953 postcard titled End of the Trail. The original postcard was photographed by Adrian Atwater, and featured the dead cowboy Wallace Irving Robertson. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones had come across a painting titled End of the Trail for Capitalism by Berkeley artist Hugh Brown that was on display at San Francisco’s punk rock hangout the Mabuhay Gardens. Strummer and Jones would have seen this picture many times during their three-week stay in San Francisco while attending gigs at ‘The Mab’. It obviously made a lasting impression as the album cover and picture have a striking resemblance.

The original postcard titled End of the Trail (1953) by Adrian Atwater depicts the dead cowboy Wallace Irving Robertson.
The original postcard titled End of the Trail (1953) by Adrian Atwater depicts the dead cowboy Wallace Irving Robertson.

Maybe 37 years is enough time for us to re-evaluate this largely ignored album and accept it into the cannon of The Clash’s work? In many ways this album is like a set of rough sketches of ideas and concepts, which would be employed on further work. On the first album, The Clash stuck to their guns and insisted on Mickey Foote mixing it despite opposition from the record company. On Rope they caved in to CBS and their decision led them to having Sandy Pearlman as producer. In actual fact this gave them a good position to bargain from, insisting that Guy Stevens produce London Calling. The other noticeable fact is that the last gang in town were split into two factions, Strummer/Jones and Simonon/Headon, during the writing, recording and mixing of Rope. Strummer/Jones are probably the beating creative heart of the band but they needed the Simonon/Headon lungs to function. I’d love to hear a Mick Jones re-mixed and re-mastered version of this album from the original multi track tapes (if they still exist). Maybe we should think of this album not for what it is but for what it could have been? Despite the inappropriate and unsympathetic production, this is a great album and is well worthy of rescuing.

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Album Rescue Series: Ultravox ‘Ultravox!’

Some people know about my two-part life but most don’t. The two halves are cycling and music which are similar to oil and water; its very rare that the two mix. In early 2015 bicycle company Swift Carbon, who named their top of the range racing bicycle Ultravox, invited me to the launch of their new carbon fiber racing bikes. It was an interesting event held in a posh, spotless, boutique style bicycle shop in St Kilda, an über hip and trendy suburb of Melbourne. At this launch I met South African company owner Mark Blewett and I asked him why he hadn’t named these bicycles something more cycling orientated e.g. Mistral or Sirocco (both hot winds that blow across the Mediterranean from the North African desert). It turned out that Mark was a big fan of 80s synth-pop and in particular the UK band Ultravox, what he didn’t know was there were two very different versions of this band.

The lessor known but more adventurous Ultravox (version one) ran from 1974 to 1979 and then the more commercially successful Midge Ure fronted version two ran from 1980 onwards. Most people are familiar with version two due to mega hits like Vienna and Dancing With Tears In My Eyes. For me this is a problem as the latter more commercial and insipid work throws a long shadow over version one.

It’s the version one February 1977 debut album, Ultravox! that I am rescuing here. The exclamation mark is a sign of their origins. When the band formed in 1974 the Krautrock band Neu! was a heavy influence. Originally the band went by the name Tiger Lilly and drew their influences from The Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, Bowie, Steve Harley and The New York Dolls. Though not really a performing unit at this stage, other than the odd pub gig, they did write a lot of material some of which makes it onto this album. This album was recorded cheaply at Island Record’s studio in Hammersmith, west London in only 17 days. Production work was undertaken by up and coming producer Steve Lillywhite, who would later find fame with U2, Simple Minds, and Roxy Music’s Brian Eno.

On the 2003 compilation release, The Best Of Ultravox, there isn’t a single track from this debut album. I would argue that Ultravox were at their most vital, and did their best work, on this debut album. But why is this piece of excellent music largely ignored? Anyone expecting this album to be similar to the Midge Ure fronted Ultravox (version two) of the Vienna era is in for something of a shock. The Ultravox of the late 1970s were a much stranger, much more interesting and engaging outfit. The music on this album is as idiosyncratic as anything that made it onto vinyl during that era. The list of influences is long: Neu!, Berlin-era Bowie and Eno-era Roxy Music are perhaps the most obvious on this record. Forming in 1974 and signing to Chris Blackwell’s Island label in 1977 put the band into a liminal state, a bit too late for punk rock and a bit too early for the New Romantics. Their sound on this record is a combination of post punk, glam rock, electronica, new wave, classical and reggae, which is probably Chris Blackwell’s influence. Gary Numan, who was heavily influenced by Ultravox, said that they were “conventional but with another layer on top”. There’s a real sense of this music not belonging, it’s disconnected, doesn’t fit and not of its time. Looking back at it through a 38 year long telescope it all starts to make sense, it’s all about perspective. In the same way that cheap electric guitars defined the sound of the 1960s, cheap synthesizers defined the sound of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ultravox were suspended in 1977 between the bold influences of Bowie and Roxy on one hand and a vision of new wave and early 1980s synth-pop on the other. Ultravox was a band out of sync with the times.

I first discovered this album when a schoolmate stole it from a local record shop and offered it to me for £5. As a 15 year old I was probably the only person in my whole school that the music thief could possibly sell this record too. In retrospect my schoolmate was probably thirty years ahead of the time by stealing music when everyone else was still paying for it. Some would call him a thief; I would call him a visionary. What initially attracted me to this album was the fabulous high quality gatefold cover. The five members of the band dressed predominantly in black PVC against a black brick wall with a vivid bright red neon sign spelling out Ultravox! This photograph is a pre-computer one, so there is no Photo Shop manipulation here. The huge neon sign was real and I’m guessing it’s languishing in a north London garage somewhere awaiting a TV makeover show when some heavily tattooed guy called Rick will bring it back to its former glory. When the gatefold opened staring out were Stevie Shears (guitar), Warren Cann (drums/vocals), Billy Currie (violin/keyboards) and Chris Cross (bass/vocals). The back cover is a backlight picture of John Foxx in a TV studio dressed in a black suite with his shirt collar and cuffs burnt off. It’s a powerful image, a kind of digital Jesus Christ like figure? The cover artwork and design is credited to Dennis Leigh, which I didn’t realize at the time is John Foxx’s real name. This was a piece of luxury design and packaging, Art Into Pop strikes again.

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The five members of Ultravox dressed in black PVC.

The music press of the day, yes we actually had a music press back in the late 1970s, did not treat this album kindly upon its release. Ultravox!‘s sales were disappointing, and neither the album nor the associated single Dangerous Rhythm managed to enter the UK charts. The band’s debut as Ultravox was after they had signed to Island Records and had made this album. The press found this problematic, as it seemed to contravene some un-written punk rock rule of the day. The band walked directly into the lion’s den by playing their first show as Ultravox at the Nashville Room, 171 North End Road, London, W6. At the time the Nashville Room was the home of the booming pub rock scene (101ers, Duck Deluxe, Dr Feelgood, Kilburn and The Highroads, etc.) and not somewhere a contrived alternative art school band complete with violin, synthesizer and newly signed record contract should be playing. The gig very quickly turned into a ‘hyped’ event, rammed to the rafters with self important gonzo music journalists determined to pull the band apart. In the 19th century, Charles Sanders Pierce defined the theory of semiotics as the “quasi-necessary, or formal doctrine of signs” and its quite feasible that one of the issues at the Nashville Room that night was one of semiotics. The red neon sign, from the album cover, caused the most offence when it was used as the backdrop on the stage. I wasn’t there but I’ll speculate it looked very impressive. However the journalists who were viewing this through the lens of punk rock interpreted it as a sign of arrogance. It’s very rare for a debut album to be damaged because the band had a strong visual image, which they wished to communicate to their audience. All high school media studies students would see this as a classic case of what Umberto Eco terms aberrant decoding.

What about the music on this album? There aren’t any bad tracks, it sounds much bigger than its environment. The joint production work between the technically savvy Lillywhite and the cerebral Eno is sonically top notch. I would propose that one of the issues the music press had with this album is that it did not adhere to the strict three minute, three chord, shouty aesthetics of punk that was popular at the time, it was all together a much more complex piece of work. During the 1970’s the music press wielded their immense power quite irresponsibly and to a large extent it was them that inflicted unwarranted damage on Ultravox! the album and the band. The sound of this album is unique and was just too different for most listeners at the time, which is possibly why it alienated the band from their potential following. At times the lyrics are a little overblown and art school pretentious e.g. track eight (The Wild, The Beautiful and The Dammed) “I’ll send you truckloads of flowers. From all the world that you stole from me. I’ll spin a coin in a madhouse. While I watch you drowning“. For me though this is all part of the fun.

The first track (Satday [sic] Night In The City Of The Dead) possesses the same no-nonsense attitude that The Clash would display. It also captures the edgy noir mood that pervades the entire album. Track two Life At Rainbow’s End is an upbeat future gazing tune about living the good life. This fascination with Futurism is the core theme of this album and it is most prominent on track four’s I Want To Be A Machine. Relations within the band were occasionally on a tenuous footing during this time as Foxx declared that he intended to live his life devoid of all emotions, a sentiment expressed explicitly here. This track excels because it culminates in a startling reverb laden violin-fest. Track five’s Wide Boys bares its influences openly when it kicks off with a Bowie-ish Rebel Rebel Mick Ronson sound-a-like guitar riff before settling down into a Spiders From Mars’ groove. On track six’s Dangerous Rhythm John Foxx starts aping Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry but set against a catchy Island Records house style reggae beat. The anthemic track eight, The Wild The Beautiful And The Damned, with its experimental and avant-garde themes draws heavily on Bowie’s 1977 Low album, which was only released one month before Ultravox! The album closes with track nine’s haunting My Sex, a spares piano driven composition with bare disarming vocals overlaid with electronic heart beat and eerie distancing synth strings.

Ultravox! back cover featuring John Foxx.
Ultravox! back cover featuring John Foxx (AKA Dennis Leigh).

After this debut album two more albums followed, Ha!-Ha!-Ha! (1977) and Systems Of Romance (1978) neither of which sold well nor were particularly exciting. With three poorly selling albums under their belt Island Records pulled the plug and dropped the band in 1979. Despite being dropped by the record company the band undertook an un-successful self-financed USA tour the same year. By this point the writing was well and truly on the wall for Ultravox version one. Guitar player Stevie Shears was fired after the USA tour and John Foxx’s professional relationship with Billie Currie was well and truly broken. With the extra strain of financial bankruptcy facing the band, John Foxx left to pursue a solo career. Ultravox version one was well and truly terminated by the end of 1979.

When I’m out on my bicycle and ride over a bridge in a river valley its virtually impossible to comprehend the structure’s engineering elegance and architectural beauty. As you ride along all you can see is the road ahead and it’s not until you put some distance between you and the structure that you can you look back and admire its beauty and elegance. Maybe this visual metaphor holds true when considering this album? Ultravox! was an album bridging the gorge between punk and new romantics/synth pop. At the time we couldn’t see this because we were right on top of it but in retrospect its becomes fairly obvious of the form and function that this album takes. Dave Thompson, writing for AllMusic, opinioned, “It was Ultravox! who first showed the kind of dangerous rhythms that keyboards could create. The quintet certainly had their antecedents – Hawkwind, Roxy Music and Kraftwerk to name but a few, but still it was the group’s 1977 eponymous debut’s grandeur, wrapped in the ravaged moods and lyrical themes of collapse and decay that transported ’70s rock from the bloated pastures of the past to the futuristic dystopias predicted by punk”. This CD makes me grateful and proud that when I was young, my youth was not wasted, in fact it was rocked by this album.

Album Rescue Series: Vinny Peculiar ‘Ironing The Soul’

From mid 2003 until early 2012 I was employed as a lecturer in Popular Music Studies at a very large metropolitan university in Liverpool in the UK. I was based in the Art and Design Academy where we had the part-time musician, full-time beat poet and world-renowned wordsmith Roger McGough as our Honorary Fellow. McGough was very stately and walked around the building with an aloof air, as you would expect from a much decorated (OBE & CBE), 70-year ‘national treasure’ poet. He’d studied for a French degree in my hometown at the University of Hull. This is the very same university where poet Philip Larkin worked as a librarian. Obviously there is something about Hull that brings out the poet in people. One day I walked into the staff print room to find McGough on his hands and knees at the base of a large Hewlett Packard printer, as if praying. Jammed in the printer was large A3 piece of paper: I’m guessing this piece of jammed paper contained his latest poem? He was bright red in the face, swearing profusely, it didn’t rhyme, while pulling with all his might at the jammed page. I was incredibly impressed with how many percussive expletives he was able to shout out; he was not fazed at all by my entrance. McGough rose majestically to his feet, regained his composure, pushed his glasses back up onto this bridge of his nose shouted one last “FUCK YOU”, kicked the printer, slowly turned and left the room sans le papier. It was kind of surreal.

Another UK based, but much lessor known poet and musician, is Vinny Peculiar (aka Alan Wilkes). Although his poetry and music are nowhere near as well known as Roger McGough’s work I still regard him as an under sung national treasure. In 2014 the Irish Times newspaper described Vinny as “the missing link between Roger McGough and Jarvis Cocker but with the wittiest lyrics this side of Wreckless Eric”. Being a huge fan of all three artists this is very high praise indeed. He’s released eleven albums over the years but it’s the 2002 release, on Ugly Man Records, Ironing The Soul that I’m rescuing.

Ironing The Soul is a beautiful album of kitchen sink confessional outsider pop, which is dedicated to his dead brother Melvin Wilkes (1961-2001). The other ten albums are definitely worth a listen but Ironing The Soul is his magnum opus. This album is a rare beast because the arbiters of style and taste (reviewers) all hailed it as a masterpiece, yet the general public completely ignored it. Vinny didn’t get the attention he so rightly deserved with this album and I bet he loved that. The music on this album is considered problematic because it doesn’t neatly fit into a genre rather it straddles a few. At 50 odd year’s old the cool kids don’t dig him, his music is too odd for the mainstream and his wit is way too intellectual for most people. This album has limited appeal abroad because it’s too quintessentially English. Over the last decade and a half he’s managed to release an original album every few years for a very small but highly appreciative audience who recognize his awkward brilliance. He’s a kind of warm hearted but much more likeable Morrissey of The Smiths.

If you want his full life story then listen to track one (Flatter and Deceive) on Ironing The Soul, it’s all there. In brief, before his re-location to rainy Manchester in the north west of England, Vinny was born and raised in the Worcestershire village of Catshill. The music of his local church, he endured a Methodist upbringing, was his first love but 70’s Glam Rock soon put an end to all that. After flunking formal education and spending an eternity on the dole he trained as a mental health nurse and worked in long stay psychiatric hospitals with some challenging patients. He ended his long-standing relationship with the NHS some years ago in order that he might go and search of everything he’s still looking for. Much of Vinny’s work is autobiographical, the songs are remarkably candid, honest, witty and with a laugh out loud absurdity while at the same time they are poignant and self effacing. Ironing The Soul is a pretty unique album, the songs make you laugh then cry and think all at the same time, you really do need to hear it.

Ironing The Soul is of personal interest to me as I was present during its recording at Hug Studios in Liverpool. I was working with Liverpool management and record company Hug who at the time managed the bands Space and Sizer Barker. We all shared the same manager, offices and studio complex. Sizer Barker and I were located in the downstairs studio at Hug while Vinny was recording in the upstairs studio. Over the period of a few months during 2001, I watched and listened as Vinny’s music was transformed from rough vocal and acoustic guitar demos to a fully finished album. Instrumental in this transformation was producer/engineer Rob Ferrier. Ferrier’s official title does not reflect his true role on this record. He opened the creative gates allowing Vinny to come crashing through. The true beauty of this album is that it fully captures his world of oblique, tortured punk poetry nostalgia. This album gives a deep insight into his strange world because every song is stuffed to the gills with melody and eccentricity. All the songs on this album are clever, funny and wonderfully weird. As album producer, Ferrier channels all of Vinny’s eccentricity and barbed wit into something strangely compelling, and in turn transforms him into some sort of unlikely, heroic pop star, the type they just don’t seem to make anymore.

During the 2001 recording sessions at Hug Studios it was a very interesting to observe the creative process. The technical production on this album is the old fashioned analogue type, which perfectly suites the material being captured. Vinny’s guitar playing and songwriting are second to none mixing Americana chord changes and instrumentation with the ear for a good tune. Through a lens of guitars, mandolin, lap-steel, cheap synths, glockenspiel, egg whisk, spoons, handclaps, immaculate arrangements and compassionate production, Vinny’s music is brought to life. Throughout this album Vinny is complemented with the addition of various musicians included ex members of The Smiths, Oasis, Aztec Camera and The Fall. Ferrier’s production and arrangements complements the material perfectly. Effects are subtle; the album expands across the full audio spectrum and is beautifully dynamic in a pre-MP3 way. Production isn’t laid on with a trowel; it’s understated and acts in the same way as light seasoning is added to a recipe to bring out the true taste of a great meal.

Track four, One Great Artist, is a fantastic example of how Vinny takes the ordinary mundane everyday events of the world and twists them into something magical and unique. I distinctly remember being in Hug’s shared kitchen area when some kind of semi-joke argument broke out about how the studio kitchen was only big enough for one great artist. Of course Vinny took this and constructed some ridiculously bizarre lyrics about great painters, “There’s only enough room in this kitchen, for one great artist and that is me”. With existential angst he also states, “I’m not afraid of dying in obscurity”, which is both very scary and totally accurate. The other band in the kitchen that day, Sizer Barker, where invited into the studio to add “art school chorus” backing vocals on this track. Standing in the recording studio with Sizer Barker that day repeatedly shouting “One great artist” into a microphone is a memory I’ll forever cherish.

There’s a fabulous anarchic elegance to Vinny Peculiar’s music, which is both thrilling and faintly unsettling. Uncut Magazine hits the nail on the head when they wrote, “If Tony Hancock had made pop records they’d have sounded like this”. The ten songs on Ironing The Soul are a beautiful blend of Americana, indie-pop and busker-punk, they create an almost George Formby like world of oddity and human frailty, and the self-deprecating veracity of his lyrics never fails to hit the intended spot. Ironing The Soul is a triumph of creativity over commerciality; the general public’s loss is our gain. This album takes an obscure view of the world and makes it a much better place and I think that that’s a good enough reason to rescue this album.

Vinnie2

Album Rescue Series: Mary Margaret O’Hara ‘Miss America’

The long format essay seems to have died; something I partly blame on Twitter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m on Twitter (@touringtim) and I love the expediency of only having 140 characters to say the important stuff. This reductionism can be even more extreme. A friend and colleague of mine writes four word movie reviews, e.g. Whiplash “drummer learns two songs” or Apocalypse Now “Chopper, hopper acid dropper”. This got me thinking about how best to describe Miss America released by Mary Margaret O’Hara in 1988? Four words is far too easy an option, so I thought lets make this really difficult and describe this album and artist combined into ONE word, and that word is . . . UNIQUE. This is a classic, perfectly formed, beautiful gem of an album that passed almost everyone by, hence its well worthy of an album rescue.

O’Hara is one of the most unique performers on the planet and what she does to music via the conduit of her voice is akin to the tricks a contortionist performs in the circus ring. Her timing is unconventional, her timbre idiosyncratic, her voice is expressive as it soars, falls and goes everywhere in between on this album. There are very few singers to whom she can be compared, so I won’t try. This album is one of those records that has to be heard to be believed though I doubt it will ever be fully understood, its often bewildering, at other times bewitching but totally intriguing. Miss America remains stunning nearly 27 years on from its initial release in 1988. There’s nothing else quite like it, so perhaps it’s appropriate, frustrating and mysterious that O’Hara never recorded another album. I’m discounting the soundtrack for the 2002 Canadian movie Apartment Hunting, which was released without her approval. Miss America is a rare and precious because it makes you long to hear more, I’ve being playing this record since its release and still haven’t tired of it. Trying to describe this record is almost impossible, words just aren’t complex enough to fully capture or describe O’Hara ephemeral voice. This is an album that you can only start to understand through repeatedly listening to it.

O’Hara was born in Toronto in the early 1960’s, the precise date is unknown, and graduated from Ontario Art College after studying painting, sculpture and graphic design. The art college route into popular music was a very common one and is superbly articulated in Simon Frith’s 1988 book Art Into Pop. With a surname derived from Irish ancestry she was one of seven children and raised a Roman Catholic. Van Morrison, Dinah Washington and the jazz records that her father would play in the family home, shaped O’Hara’s musical taste during her formative years. She also painted, and acted, like her sister Catherine, who would go on to star in Home Alone. After playing in bands at clubs across Ontario, the acting and painting were dropped and music became her primary creative outlet. Visionary executive head of Virgin Records’ A&R department Simon Draper was blown away by her demos, and O’Hara was quickly signed in 1983.

It took almost five years to make Miss America partly because of O’Hara’s perfectionism and partly due to her unconventional recording habits. Primary multi-track recording was undertaken in 1984 at the rural Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, South Wales. As a residential studio this facility has played host to almost every super-star band from the 70s, 80s and 90’s. Queen recorded Bohemian Rhapsody there. Rolling fields full of sheep obviously have a positive effect on the creative art of record production. Sonically this studio sounds superb even by today’s standards. At the time Rockfield was stocked with the very best recording equipment available. Andy Partridge of XTC, who was also signed to Virgin Records, had raved about the demos and he took up position in the producer’s chair on the recommendation of legendary producer Joe Boyd. Straightaway, there were problems. There are stories of Partridge stopping his production duties after a day when O’Hara’s manager fired him. The myth is she found out that he was an atheist and that Partridge’s co-producer on the project John Leckie (who later produced albums by XTC and The Stone Roses) was a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a controversial Indian guru who reportedly supported free love. I guess this was too much for a Canadian with a strict Roman Catholic upbringing or its just another smoke screen? Tapes from this 1984 session were recorded by in-house engineer Paul Cobbold, but were left unfinished.

The Rockfield tapes lingered or languished in Virgin Record’s “to difficult pile” until Canadian guitarist, composer and producer Michael Brook broke the stalemate in the summer of 1988. After Brook saw O’Hara perform at Toronto’s Music Gallery, he made direct contact with Virgin and offered to help her finish the album. Virgin jumped at this opportunity. With Brook’s assistance, O’Hara and her band re-recorded four songs in the summer of 1988 and remixed seven of the original cuts from the Rockfield sessions to finish the album. Brook was once a member of the new-wave band Martha and the Muffins, remember that fabulous single Echo Beach? He obviously knows a good tune when he hears one. Three of the 1988 recordings were produced by O’Hara and Brook; the rest were “constructed and conducted” and produced by O’Hara. According to an article in Canadian Composer she mourns the lost of the original tapes, but she is still proud of the songs that eventually emerged on Miss America. O’Hara talks about the song To Cry About, later covered by Hull band Everything But the Girl, which tells us much about the emotional weight wrapped up in that album. “Virgin said I wrote that about my boyfriend who died. I didn’t. I wrote that song in August 1980, in the bath, when we were still together.” When the song was played to her boyfriend, full of lyrics about loss and timed disasters, he said it was about him, but O’Hara didn’t agree. A year later in 1981, the boyfriend drowned. “And then the lyrics were obviously about him, as if I’d seen it happening”.

Legendary 1960s wall of sound record producer, and now prison inmate, Phil Spector once said that a record only needed three vital elements to be perfect: –

  1. It must be ridiculously repetitive
  2. Have a primeval beat
  3. Be about sex

According to Spector’s metric this record is a fail on all three accounts. This probably says more about Spector’s chutzpah than it does about the music that we are considering here. Luckily there’s another set of much more appropriate metrics as proposed by ex-record producer and now academic Richard James Burgess, in his 1997 book, The Art of Record Production. According to Burgess there are eight elements that are needed in equal proportions to create the perfect pop record. The recipe is thus: –

  1. The song
  2. The vocal
  3. The arrangement
  4. The performance
  5. The engineering
  6. The Mix
  7. Timelessness
  8. The Heart

It’s quite possible that Dr Burgess is onto something here. It has to start with the song, a narrative, the story, an exposition that has a beginning, middle and end. You know when a song is strong because it can be sung with minimal or no instrumentation and still amaze the listener. Try this simple experiment with virtually any song written by Lennon/McCartney or Bob Dylan; it works. French philosopher Roland Barthes, as always, has much to say about the vocal or more accurately “the grain of the voice” in his 1977 book Image, Music Text. Every singer perfects his or her own chant, his or her own speed, rhythm, cadence, volume and grain of voice. “The Grain“, says Roland Barthes, “is that materiality of the body” the voice is the most misunderstood instrument on the planet. Very few singers posses the grain and the majority posses no grain at all. Mary Margaret O’Hara is the personification of the grain of the voice.

Arrangements on this record, which are credited to O’Hara, are intentionally sparse, comprising guitar, drums, bass with the occasional keyboards and violin. This is on purpose to give as much space as possible for O’Hara’s swooping, diving, twisting vocals. Everything is rigidly ‘on grid’. The current mode of production via a digital audio workstation (DAW), allows for the manipulation of the music and to place it precisely on grid. This variant of hyperreality was 20 years a head of its time, it simply just did not exist in 1988. This level of absolute millimeter precision came from spot on playing, hence its sparseness. If the playing were any more complex then it would be impossible, without DAW technology, to get it so perfectly on grid. If you listen to the album loud (I do) and on good speakers (I have) you can hear the click track bleeding through. The click track provides the rigid architectural skeleton on which this music is built upon. I’d go as far as to stay that Miss America was probably the last great structuralist record before the onset of post modernism.

The performances by O’Hara and band are sublime and it’s virtually impossible to fault. One reason why this record is worthy of reconsideration is because it captures these virtually faultless performances forever. The metric I use to judge audio engineering excellence is if it’s transparent then its good. According to this metric the engineering on this album is beyond good because it’s totally invisible. The mix adheres to the holy trinity, as instilled into all mix engineers, of PLACE, SPACE and BASS. Without an expansive explanation the mix on this album is as good as it gets hitting all three markers. Is this record timeless? Well I’m writing about it almost 30 years after it was released. Does this record have heart? Indeed it has a giant beating heart full of passion and emotion.

This record starts straightforwardly enough with To Cry About. O’Hara’s distinctive voice appears over super sparse ringing electric guitar and five-string bass. She sings passionately of love lost “There will be a timed disaster. There’s no you in my hereafter“. This song sets the scene for the whole album; it’s practically an advertisement for her voice. When the drums kick in on track two’s Year in Song it takes us to totally different unexpected territory. The drum sound on this track is pure 1980’s with super loud punchy kick drum, massive gated reverb snare, tom-toms that sound like cannons exploding and zingy cymbals. O’Hara begins the song with recognizable, but somewhat cryptic, lyrics and around halfway through she starts to free-associate, or to play with the lyrics in a way that a poststructuralist poet would envy. I am not sure what she is getting at or is trying to work out in this song; it’s an enigma. Indeed she sings “What iss [sic] the aim eh?… joy?” Possibly the aim is finding and going with the groove, letting the sense of the song take care of itself or of just getting lost in the music. By the time she’s barking about “ta-ta music” in lines too way difficult to decode without the printed lyrics, O’Hara seems to have created her own set of self-expressive language.

O’Hara’s songs twist logic, language, time and space to fit her own unique version of the world. It’s virtually impossible to know how much calculation went into these songs and performances; we just don’t know how much of the supposed spontaneity is planned or is organic. In Body’s in Trouble, track three, the body is both an object and a person and its also producing the sounds we are listening too. I’m sure Roland Barthes would love this track. O’Hara is not explicit about the dilemma; she just pushes and pulls and plays around with the idea of forces at work. Meanwhile, the music rises, dips, bends, and breaks. Far more grounded is track four, Dear Darling, a country styled ballad that addresses the classic themes of devotion and longing. In conveying “A thing of such beauty” that “Must be called love,” O’Hara proves that she’s the vocal and emotional equal of country legend Patsy Cline. By track five, she’s morphed into a French chanteuse fronting an English Ska band on the bouncy, piano driven A New Day, which advises “When your heart is sick with
 wonder
 at a long and lonely way
 walk in brightness
 ’cause it’s a new day”. Sounding like the previous song’s somber cousin, track five, When You Know Why You’re Happy is a slow vamp over which O’Hara meditates on knowingness and happiness. Next up is My Friends Have, which is propulsive, while Help Me Lift You Up is its gentle flip side. Keeping You in Mind transports us into slinky lounge-jazz, with a highly articulate and emotional violin solo. Then unexpectedly and from an entirely different universe comes the off-kilter but funky workout of Not Be Alright. This is the only track on the whole album that makes use of a synthesizer, a Yamaha DX7, which was known for the precision and flexibility of its bright, digital sounds. The lyrics of this track are insightful e.g. 4th verse “My tail, this tail, this tail is tall. This tale is tall. Innocent to a fault.” O’Hara makes it perfectly, inarguably clear that some unnamed situation will not “Just will not be alright”. Sometimes things do go wrong and everything does turn to shit and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. In the last track, a solitary bass accompanies her, while she offers us (or possibly herself?) the assurance that “You will be loved again” a truly beautiful sentiment on which to close the album. Miss America is not an easy listen by any means but like most difficult journeys in life the destination is worth it.

I once worked in the same London building as O’Hara’s European booking agent, Boswell, who introduced me to her music and I’m forever indebted. My first encounter with O’Hara was one evening as I was finishing work when Boswell burst into my office and skinned up a huge joint and threw a CD of Miss America onto my desk. While we smoked the joint together he gave me his agent’s spiel as though I was another gullible promoter and he persuaded me to accompany him to O’Hara’s first London show. I’m not completely sure what happened during the 20 minutes it took us to get from our offices in Islington to the Town and Country Club venue in Kentish Town but something meta-physical definitely happened. We walked into the auditorium just as the second track off the album The Year In Song kicked in. At the precise second that I first set eyes and ears on O’Hara the tetrahydrocannabinol flooded my body and overpowered my senses. The sheer power and pure emotion that this alabaster skinned, curly red haired siren with bright red lipstick was emitting was un-opposable. This dangerous beautiful creature had used her enchanting voice and music to lure Boswell and I onto the rocks. Like two shipwrecked sailors we were helpless and couldn’t fight her immense siren like powers. It was a full frontal 100% attack on all of our senses; it was an out-of-body catharsis experience. On this occasion Boswell had not sold this artist short, it was totally incredible and it’s a memory that I shall forever cherish.

Virgin Records dropped O’Hara after the release of Miss America, partly due to poor sales and partly because they considered her material not commercial enough. Miss America is an incredible piece of work from an artist that shone incredibly brightly but only for a few minutes. Maybe she was just too creative? She wrote, performed, arranged, produced, mixed and even painted the album’s artwork. She sounds like a female harbinger of Jeff Buckley; you can fully understand why she enthralled Morrissey and Michael Stipe. This is a record that everyone who truly loves music should own; it has great melodies, twisted vocals, outstanding performance, and virtuoso musicianship and in CD format its sonically a near perfect audio artifact. Mary Margaret O’Hara once described herself as “an ancient baby whose cranium never quite fused together”.

Chapeau!

Mary Margaret O'Hara's own artwork adorns the front and back covers of her album Miss America.
Mary Margaret O’Hara’s own artwork adorns the front and back covers of her album Miss America.

Album Rescue Series: Big Audio Dynamite ‘This Is Big Audio Dynamite’

Its 1985: Ronald Regan is president; Margret Thatcher is Prime Minister, monetarism rules, capitalism is king, the miners are on strike and This Is Big Audio Dynamite. Despite what many people think, Joe Strummer wasn’t the perfect human being. Joe made some huge mistakes in life, no one’s perfect; probably the biggest one was firing Mick Jones from The Clash. Later in life Joe would admit that the one great regret he had in life was firing Mick Jones as he fully appreciated that this single action effectively finished the band. Like exiting any bad relationship the sense of release can be overwhelming and often results in extreme experimentation.

In Mick’s case this led to a very brief period with The Beat’s Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling’s new band General Public. My ex-class mate of Kelvin Hall High School (Hull), Roland Gift, was responsible for taking bassist David Steele and guitarist Andy Cox from The Beat to form his new band The Fine Young Cannibals. A classic case of one door closing, another one opening. The analogy here is that it’s very similar to dating a young inappropriate girlfriend after a long marriage. It’s great fun for a couple of hot dates but its certainly not going to constitute a long-term meaningful relationship. After this short affair Jones formed Top Risk Action Company (TRAC) with some former collaborators including former Clash drummer Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon. This collaboration soon fizzled out partly due to that old uninvited guest, heroin.

The antecedents of This Is Big Audio Dynamite’s (B.A.D.) experimental funk elements were beta tested on The Clash’s Sandinista and Combat Rock albums. Working collaboratively with Jones on B.A.D. were video artist and long time Clash associate, friend and filmmaker Don Letts (samples and vocals), Greg Roberts (drums), Dan Donovan (keyboards), and Leo ‘E-Zee Kill’ Williams (bass). Another important ingredient was Basing Street Studio’s sound engineer Paul ‘Groucho’ Smykle, B.A.D.’s very own ‘dread at the controls.’ Smykle had a serious dub mentality, having previously worked with the likes of Black Uhuru and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Adding samplers, dance tracks, and movie sounds to Jones’ concise pop songwriting, B.A.D. debuted on record with the single The Bottom Line in September 1985 and the album This Is Big Audio Dynamite later that year. The singles E=MC2 and Medicine Show became sizable hits in England, and reached the dance charts in America. The album did not sell well only reaching number 27 in the UK charts and a lowly 103 in the USA.

This Is Big Audio Dynamite is a futurist piece of modernist audio art terrorism. As is often the case with modernism, what was once forward-looking seems inextricably tied to its time. It had one foot in the present and the other firmly in the future. The clanking electro rhythms, Sergio Leone samples, chicken-scratch guitars, bleating synths, and six-minute songs of This Is Big Audio Dynamite evoke 1985 in a way few other records do. This is definitely not a criticism; on the contrary 1985 is a good year for me as my son was born, probably the greatest event of my life. Any record that captures the zeitgeist of 1985, by my reckoning, is a good one. Big Audio Dynamite’s boldness remains impressive, even visionary, pointing toward the cut-n-paste post-modern masterpieces of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Breaking new ground opens up the creative highway for other artists to follow.

One reason that this album took some flak is that it doesn’t sound like The Clash. There was a long shadow cast by The Clash that B.A.D. could never fully escape from. We shouldn’t think badly of this album for that reason. If anything Jones builds on the foundations that he laid with the Clash, he was prepared to move on and develop. At the time of its release This Is Big Audio Dynamite sounded like the future, it was a soothsayer for what to expect over the next two decades. B.A.D.’s philosophy was to utilize all the elements of the media to create a fuller sound and write songs that were about something. A combination of New York beats, Jamaican bass, English rock ‘n’ roll guitars and dialogue from spaghetti westerns and Nick Roeg films all found a place on this album. Mick Jones did not abandon his innate gift for hooks, if anything, he found new ways to create rhythmic hooks as well as melodic ones, it’s quite accessible for an album that is, at its core, a piece of modernist avant-garde rock. This Is Big Audio Dynamite is the album that The Clash should have released as the follow up to their last album Combat Rock but didn’t. It certainly stands as a monument to the times and as a musical signpost for the way things were heading.

Mick Jones and film/documentary maker Don Letts are both visual artists to varying degrees. Jones always had a keen eye for fashion and visuals, his influence upon The Clash, and in particular the notoriously scruffy Joe Strummer, was instrumental in their look. Letts’ scopophilic regime was to view the world as though it was through a movie camera lens. In an article for The Sabotage Times (1/10/11), Letts recounts that during the writing of the album (and with Jones’ guidance) he had thrown himself into co-writing lyrics, which he approached in the same way as writing a script or treatment for a film. With Jones’ wide-screen vision for the band, the songs soon took on a cinematic quality. The songs featured heavy sampling of film dialogue. A good example is the 6 minute 31 second opening track Medicine Show which effectively sets the scene for the rest of the album “Wanted in fourteen counties of this State, the condemned is found guilty of crimes of murder, armed robbery of citizens, state banks and post offices, the theft of sacred objects, arson in a state prison, perjury, bigamy, deserting his wife and children, inciting prostitution, kidnapping, extortion, receiving stolen goods, selling stolen goods, passing counterfeit money, and contrary to the laws of this State, the condemned is guilty of using marked cards. . . Therefore, according to the powers vested in us, we sentence the accused before us, Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (‘Known as The Rat’) and any other aliases he might have, to hang by the neck until dead. May God have mercy on his soul. . . Proceed“. This whole scene is re-appropriated from the 1966 film The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. As writer, arranger and producer of this album, Jones is aware that the songs must be able to support this heavy use of sampling. Songs on this album are constructed in such a way that in the words of Bob Dylan “they have legs and can stand up and walk”.

Jones brings at least one Clash track with him; track four, The Bottom Line. In its Clash form this song was called Trans Clash Free Pay One, much better with it’s re-titling. Rick Rubin loved this track so much that he produced a 12” re-mix, which was released on his Def Jam label. I am sure that The Clash’s 1981 17-day residency in support of their Sandinista album at Bonds Warehouse in New York City provided Jones with material aplenty. Jones is the classic autodidactic, someone who has learned a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education. Jones took much of the same raw material that influenced hip-hop artists, such as The Beastie Boys, and processed it in his own special way. I don’t think there’s anyone who would dispute the claim that the Clash where musical pioneers. This Is Big Audio Dynamite could be offered as evidence in support of the argument that B.A.D. were far more forward thinking, cutting edge and perhaps more of their time, than Jones’s previous band. They were much less confined by the Stalinist constraints of punk rock and were determined to try and shake off the Clash’s formidable legacy. Mick Jones, the member who brought hip-hop beats into the Clash’s repertoire and wrote their sole No 1 hit single, set out to create a new sound that employed the emerging technologies used by dance and rap music. He could have simply formed a crap Clash cover band, like Joe Strummer did, but he made a decisive decision not too. Spoken in the best spaghetti western voice of Clint Eastwood “For this reason, consider this album well and truly rescued”.

Album Rescue Series: Marianne Faithful ‘Broken English’

Like a lot of people, my earliest recollections of Marianne Faithful is of a 17-year-old pale waif princess singing the Jagger/Richards 1964 composition of When Tears Go By on a flickering black and white TV. Marianne Faithfull was one of the most photographed women in the world during her youth. With her angelic English looks, large breasts and long legs, she was the physical embodiment of the sexiest part of the 1960s, particularly when draped around the rock stars who made up her inner circle of lovers David Bowie, Gene Pitney, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. She was the 60’s quintessential rock star girlfriend, the beautiful young exotic woman envied by everyone, men wanted to fuck her, and women wanted to be her.

Marianne Faithfull was born the daughter of an idealistic British gentleman, army officer and professor of English literature Major Robert Glynn Faithful. Her mother was Eva von Sacher-Masoch, the Baroness Erisso, whose family had originally hailed from Vienna. During the 2nd World War the von Sacher-Masoch family had secretly opposed the Nazi regime in Vienna and helped to save the lives of many Jews. This is the same family line as Leopold von Sacher-Mascoh who lends his name to the Masochism part of Sadomasochism. Major Faithfull’s work as an Intelligence Officer for the British Army brought him into contact with the von Sacher-Masoch family where he met Eva. A family background that reads like a combination of narratives from Blackadder meets the Von Trapp family. Faithful is probably the only daughter of an Austro-Hungarian Baroness to ever spend time in Ormskirk, west Lancashire while her father undertook his PhD in English Literature at the nearby University of Liverpool. She was largely schooled at a north London Catholic convent that temporarily sheltered her from the outside world. With such a family background, Faithful’s life should have being one of middle class privilege, comfort and free of celebrity notoriety. All that went out the window when she was sucked into the blossoming rock ‘n’ roll scene via the irrepressible gravitational pull of the Rolling Stones.

Andrew Loog Oldham is one of last century’s most radical and mysterious musical Svengali icons. His pivotal role and contribution to creating the popular culture in which we live cannot be underestimated. He was only 19 years old in 1963 when he commenced his four year tenure managing the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band. The Rolling Stones are shrouded in myth and legend, which makes it virtually impossible to identify what is fact and truth. According to Loog Oldham’s 2001 autobiography Stoned, he understood that the Stones would not get rich as an R&B covers band. So he took the radical and unconventional step of locking the glimmer twins into their kitchen and would not let them out until they had penned some original material. His instructions where “I want a song with brick walls all around it, high windows and no sex” and the Glimmer Twins delivered to specification with As Tears Go By. Originally it was called As Time Goes By but Loog Oldham changed its title and probably claimed a writing credit in the process. It may be pure conjecture but it’s quite possible that Loog Oldham had an inferiority complex and as such he measured himself harshly against people like The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstien. Epstien had a stable of talent to whom the Beatles contributed material to e.g. Cilla Black. When Loog Oldham re-titles and re-appropriates As Tears Go By and sends it in Marianne’s direction he gives it a totally new meaning; genius.

Once Faithful had entered the orbit of the Rolling Stones it proved almost impossible to break free. Originally the girlfriend of Stones guitarist Brian Jones, Faithfull moved her allegiance to Mick Jagger in 1966, then had a very brief fling with Keith Richards, before a well publicized split with Mick in 1970. Her life went into a nosedive with heroin addiction, anorexia nervosa and her son (Nicholas), from her first husband (John Dunbar), was taken into care. Rock ‘n’ roll always had a non-existent duty of care policy with no support network. She lived rough on the streets of Soho, London for a few years. This lifestyle of heroin addiction and ill health irreparably changed and damaged her voice. Her career was resurrected in the late 1970s when she met and then married Ben Brierly, the guitarist of punk band The Vibrators. Between 1970 and 1979 Faithful made a few attempts to return to music including an album with producer Mike Leander, Rich Kid Blue, started in 1971 but not completed until 1985. There was also a country sounding single Dreamin’ My Dream.

After a lengthy absence, Faithfull resurfaced in 1979 with the album Broken English, which took the edgy and brittle sound of punk rock and mixed it with a shot of studio-smooth fusion disco. Marianne had lost all but her diehards audience long before Broken English’s release; hence it was never a commercial success only achieving number 75 in the UK and 83 in the USA charts. She had been a hit-making folk-pop singer with beautiful good looks and an angelic singing voice, but who quickly became a washed-up junkie, largely due to the Rolling Stones. The Stones have this devastating effect on people e.g. Gram Parson, Mick Taylor, Jimmy Miller, Bobby Keys, Andrew Loog Oldham and the death of the Peace and Love generation at Altamont. Years of heavy drinking, smoking and drug taking had taken their toll on her once frail voice. Of Marianne’s key personal traits are being able to adapt and survive, she has the knack of turning disadvantages to her advantage. On Broken English, her voice was very different from the pre-Stones records; it was far stronger, dirtier, harsher, worldly and capable of expressing her inner being.

Probably one of the perceived issues with this album is one of authorship. In essence this is a multi-authored piece and many consumers consider that Faithful is not the auteur of Broken English. Of course I would dispute this. Just because Marianne only co-wrote three of the eight tracks doesn’t mean that this isn’t a great album. Her role on this record is as interlocutor, as the voice positioned within the narrative. This is a narrative record, disjointed and unconnected narrative, but a collection of narratives that works to express her inner most feeling. She may not posses the expressive tool of being a writer but she still manages to make herself heard through what tools she did have at her disposal. Essentially on this record Faithful is a curator of other people’s material ranging from Shel Silversteins The Ballard Of Lucy Jordan, originally recorded by Dr Hook in 1974, Heathcote Williams’ Why D’Ya Do It? and John Lennon’s Working Class Hero. These days, curators of other people’s material are celebrated e.g. DJ’s such as David Guetta, Skrillex, Deadmau5 and Moby. I guess curating musical material was not a valid metric back in 1979?

Faithful’s role as interlocutor makes this album great. In each song, Faithful takes on the role of the lead character. She does this so well that it feels like she owns each and every song. Her sneering cover of John Lennon’s anthem Working Class Hero, which is sang as though she lived through it personally is totally convincing. As I’ve mentioned above Faithful cannot be described as working class by any stretch of the imagination. Every song here stands out in it’s own right, because there are simply no fillers. Read Shel Silverstein’s original poem The Ballard of Lucy Jordan, or Jordon as he wrote it. Then compare it to Faithful’s version; she delivers a totally absorbing, believable performance.

I’ve always adored the outrageous Why’d Ya Do It? which sees Marianne playing a bitter pissed off harpy who is delivering a fierce, graphic rant to her husband’s infidelities. The lyrics were far too rude for radio and caused a walk out by female packing staff at the EMI pressing plant. In Dave Dalton’s 1994 book Faithful, there’s a great account of how Faithful went to visit poet Heathcote Williams to claim this song. Williams came from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, a perfect match for Faithful. Record producer Denny Cordell claims this song was originally destined for Tina Turner; I really can’t see Tina taking ownership of this song as convincingly as Faithful does.

Faithful was married to guitarist Ben Brierly of English punk band The Vibrators during the making of Broken English. In Dalton’s book she claims it was the affair that Brierly was having that drove her to seek out this song and record it. The opening track, Broken English, comments upon the rise of the German 70’s terrorist group Baader Meinhof, forerunner of the Red Army Faction, and their leader Ulrike Meinhof. I also like the idea that this track is a self referenced comment upon the bastardization and purposely distressing of her own voice through the negative lifestyle choices of the last decade.

Part of the credit for this album must go to Chris Blackwell who signed Faithful to his Island record label. Blackwell has a knack for sniffing out the bizarre, unusual and off-kilter artists. Only a label like Island would release a record such as Broken English and be comfortable with it. Just as George Harrison’s Handmade Films had a sort of house style, so does Island Records. There’s always this implied reggae feel or beat. Compare Broken English to Grace Jones’ Island Life, another record that only Island would and could release. Sonically this album is superb, its a testament to the quality of Matrix Studios in North London which had the most up-to-date recording equipment available. The arrangements and production work by Mark Miller Mundy is impeccable. I don’t know how much time was spent recording and mixing this album but my educated guess is a lot.

A sound engineer friend of mine once provided some very vocal opposition to me playing this album over the PA while I was sound checking the system. His objection was it sounded like “its music to slit your wrists too”. He was totally wrong, this is an album NOT to slit your wrists to; it is an album that celebrates surviving not dying. I often say to my audio students that you know when a record is well produced because you can’t hear the production it becomes transparent. According to my own metric, the studio production and arrangement by Mark Miller Mundy is spot on. The Dennis Morris album cover of Faithful as the ravishing, disheveled wreck is perfect. It’s a strong image and according to Morris it’s a shot that took considerable time, red wine, cigarettes and self-restraint to produce. The husky croak of Broken English rescued Faithfull’s image from legends of fur coats, Mars bars and as a background figure in the history of the Rolling Stones. This album put her back into contention as a solo artist. OK this record is sloppy but I find Faithfull worth listening to even when she’s sloppy, or maybe because she’s sloppy, like Dylan when he’s at his best.

Album Rescue Series: Johnny Thunders ‘So Alone’

One of the beauties of music is that it’s impossible to hear it all; no matter how long you live. Despite being a life long addict to perfect pop tunes, I still come across pieces of music that stop me dead in my tracks. Earlier this week my niece Amber posted the Johnny Thunders’ song You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory on her Facebook page; this was one of those stop dead in your tracks moment. Hearing this track again after so many years made me realize that if ever an album needed a rescue its Johnny Thunders and his 1978 release So Alone. It’s about the only thing I can do for Johnny and boy does he need it. The title of the album says it all – So Alone.

Johnny died 24 years ago on April 23rd April 1991. Gone but never forgotten. The cause of death was recorded as “drug related causes”. Rather ironically huge amounts of LSD where found in his system despite rumors that he’d quit the smack. But this does not explain the many rumors surrounding Thunders’ death at St. Peter’s Guest House in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Fellow kindred spirit and troubled troubadour Willy DeVille lived in the hotel room next door to the one Johnny died in and described it thus in Dee Dee Ramone’s 2009 book ‘Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones’, “I don’t know how the word got out that I lived next door, but all of a sudden the phone started ringing and ringing. Rolling Stone was calling, the Village Voice called, his family called, and then his guitar player called. I felt bad for all of them. It was a tragic end, and I mean, he went out in a blaze of glory, ha ha ha, so I thought I might as well make it look real good, you know, out of respect, so I just told everybody that when Johnny died he was laying down on the floor with his guitar in his hands. I made that up. When he came out of the St. Peter’s Guest House, rigor mortis had set in to such an extent that his body was in a U shape. When you’re laying on the floor in a fetal position, doubled over – well, when the body bag came out, it was in a U. It was pretty fucking awful”. Apparently his place was ransacked, what few belongings he had all gone including his passport, makeup and clothes. There was also talk of him having acute leukemia. Whatever the true story there’s no denying it was a very sad and lonely end.

The really simple and lazy way to tell this story is to deliver the archetypal rock star drugs story. You know the troubled misunderstood genius, blah blah blah. Such lives tend to be littered with self-destruction and the concept of rock ‘n’ roll may indeed be defined by variable degrees of self-destruction. This is already well-trodden territory, and by far more qualified people then I. Take a look at Nick Kent’s 1995 book The Dark Stuff where he does an excellent job of de-glamourizing the drug cult heroes of rock ‘n’ roll. Kent provides a sobering insight into the tortured lives, dysfunction and general unpleasantness of many key figures of popular music. Anyone with a voyeuristic interest in the self-destructive lives of rock ‘n’ rollers will love this book. There is no denying that Johnny’s story is a heroin related one. But please don’t judge heroin addicts unless you’ve lived it yourself, have an open mind. If you haven’t lived it yourself then good job, you definitely made the right decision. Heroin eats up your soul, destroys creativity and spits you out; things are never quite the same again after you’ve lived your life with heroin. Heroin is a solitary friend and when it’s gone your life is empty and worthless, you’re so alone. Its pure conjecture but its highly unlikely that Thunders ever conquered his drug addiction. What is up for discussion is that he did leave us with some incredible music and that will last forever.

In 1790 the German founding father of modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant, wrote Critique of Judgement, where he investigates the possibility and logical status of “judgments of taste”. In the chapter Analytic of the Beautiful Kant states that beauty is not a property of an artwork or natural phenomenon, but is instead a consciousness of the pleasure that attends the ‘free play’ of the imagination and the understanding. So is So Alone an artifact of beauty, worthy of critical reappraisal? Even though it appears that we are using reason to decide what is beautiful, that judgment is not a cognitive judgment, and is consequently not logical, but is aesthetical? I would argue that our objective judgment is impaired or swayed here. This album is heavily tarnished because of who made it and not because of what it is, which is a thing of beauty and passion. I believe that anything made out of passion or love must be inherently good.

The wreckage that peers out of the front cover of So Alone suggests Thunders is a man on the edge, both mischievous and vulnerable. The music contained therein seems to confirm this. An incendiary cover of The Chantays’ instrumental, Pipeline, mixes with the grind of Daddy Rollin’ Stone, the Pistol-punk of London Boys and the nonsense of the Spector girl-group, Great Big Kiss. The standout track is the fragile You Can’t Put Your Arms Round A Memory. The title was taken from a line in the Better Living Through TV episode of the sitcom The Honeymooners, and was written for his close friend Fabienne Shine. Considered by many to be his signature song, the ballad is said to be about Thunders’ heroin addiction. However, according to Nina Antonia’s 2000 biography, Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood, the song was written before he was even a member of the New York Dolls, and years before he became addicted to the dark stuff.

But back to Kant and how can we objectively measure if this song is any good or not? How about some scientific comparative analysis here, an item-by-item comparison of two or more comparable alternatives? Compare the original to versions by the Manic Street Preachers, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Giant Sand, Blondie or the sublime version by Ronnie Spector on her 2006 album The Last of the Rock Stars, now that’s definitely a good tune. I’ve never met Sopranos TV series producer Todd A. Kessler but he must have a similar music taste to me. He uses You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory to great effect on the closing scene and titles of episode 11 (House Of Arrest). This is not the first song from one of my album rescues series that Kessler has used. As a point of reference check out how Martin Scorsese also uses this song on his 1999 film Bringing Out The Dead; it’s superb.

Thunders wanders from one style to another, sometimes shambolic, very often with a Jaggeresque vocal. Sometimes energetic and often melodic, Thunders’ music is always a little wayward but it could never be described as dull. It isn’t perfect; his duet with the Only Ones’ (definitely a future album rescue) lead singer Peter Perrett, for instance, is an absolute shambles. Throughout this album rescue series I continually use the metric of who plays on this record to measure if its any good or not e.g. lots of great players equals a great album. So Alone is not so different as there are some superb players on this record. Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy) on bass, Paul Cook (Sex Pistols) on drums, Steve Jones (Sex Pistols) on guitar, Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Steve Marriott (Small Face & Humble Pie) on guitar and vocal, Walter Lure and Billy Ruth of the Heartbreakers and all pulled together by super-star producer Steve Lillywhite. This is an album that should appeal to anyone with a penchant for the basics of rock ‘n’ roll. This album is one of the loosest, coolest, sounding rock n’ roll records I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to.

The last time I saw Johnny Thunders play live was at The Marquee Club in Soho, London. I turned up with the rest of the voyeuristic ghouls mainly to see if Johnny could make it through the show without dying on stage. Painfully thin, even by my standards, with a ridiculous amount of eyeliner, Thunders chain-smoked throughout the gig. He was truly fucking awesome; I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. This boy looked at Johnny and was truly mesmerized. If I remember correctly he closed the set with a raucous version of the classic Heartbreakers’ song Born To Lose. Thunders was a unique songwriter who drew upon real life experience and sang from personal experience. Granted this was material of the darkest type but it made for a great album. If you haven’t heard So Alone, you need to because it’s a great post-punk masterpiece.

Album Rescue Series: Mike & Lal Waterson ‘Bright Phoebus’

My hometown of Hull, or more correctly Kingston upon Hull, is set become the UK’s City of Culture in 2017. Let the jokes and underhand jibes fly, but this is not as daft as it first seems. Phil Larkin famously described Hull as “a city that is in the world yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance”. I adore liminal places, places on the edge, places that survive in the in-between spaces. Creativity has a knack of finding a foothold in these crevices. These unusual places, often deprived of the usual mainstream cultural influences, produce some of the most creative pieces of work. More often than not these pieces of great art go un-noticed, un-appreciated, un-loved and often sink without a trace. Hull is one of those places. If you can make it in Hull you can make it anywhere.

I left Hull many years ago to pursue a backstage career in rock ‘n’ roll music, that took me around the world a number of times. But don’t mistake this for an act of hatred of the city and its surroundings, its not. Growing up in Hull during the 1970’s and 80’s was a unique and fantastic experience and I would not have swapped the location for anywhere else on the planet. I grew up in a creative, left wing bohemian household in the northern suburbs of Hull. My parents frequented Hull’s folk clubs on their bicycles on a weekly basis, mainly the ones held at city center pubs such as The Rugby and The Blue Bell. My earliest memories are a home filled with strange but beautiful sounds of music. While my school friends argued their case for bands like Mud, Showaddywaddy, David Essex and Alvin Stardust I was left contemplating Bob Dylan, The Albion Band, Martin Carthy, Bob Davenport and The Watersons. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I am now eternally thankful to my parents for this offbeat, off-kilter musical education.

A stand out from this era is the Hull band The Watersons, comprising of siblings Mike, Lal, Norma and their cousin John Harrison. Their stark, unaccompanied closely woven traditional harmonies of their first album Frost and Fire (1965) could be heard regularly playing in the Dalton’s Strathmore Avenue household. Their greatness was recognized when the Melody Maker awarded it their Album of the Year, a rarity for a debut ‘folk’ album. A year later they followed this debut up with their second release A Yorkshire Garland, an album that contains the wonderful song Willy Went To Westerdale. I remember a cycling holiday in the North Yorkshire Moors, staying at a Youth Hostel in Westerdale and singing this song during the whole trip. On the back of these two records The Watersons toured the UK folk club circuit. In 1968, The Watersons split up, when Norma went to work as a disc jockey for a radio station on Montserrat.

My exposure to The Watersons went further than records. My parents were friends, drinking buddies and sometimes employers of the band, not as musicians but as trade’s people. Despite their critical success The Watersons, and Mike in particular, had to carry on working their ‘day jobs’. Mike was a painter, decorator and builder by trade, a true ragged trousered philanthropist. I once came home from school to find Mike Waterson and my father inserting a 2nd hand re-claimed wooden beam into the rear of the house to form an opening where a kitchen wall had once been.

According to Mike, on a BBC Radio 4 interview, he was painting the inside of a bay window of a very large Victoria house in the ‘Avenues’ area of west Hull when the sunlight suddenly streamed though the windows “like a bright Phoebus”. This record isn’t a Watersons’ record, its Mike and Lal with a stella cast of musicians including Martin Carthy (guitar and vocals), Richard Thompson (guitar), Ashley ‘Tiger’ Hutchens (bass), Dave Mattacks (drums), Maddy Prior (vocals), Tim Heart (vocals and tambourine), Bob Davenport (vocals) and Norma Waterson (vocals). The inactivity of The Watersons allowed Mike and Lal the freedom to think outside of the box and break free of the Stalinist confines of traditional folk music. At the time this record was dismissed by folk’s staunch traditionalist rearguard, which saw the record as going against the very ethos of the traditional folk scene.

The album’s opening Beatlesque track (Rubber Band) shows that it’s not all serious here. Mike’s silly side is brought out, as experienced in one of the corniest lines ever written: “Just like margarine our fame is spreading“. But don’t be fooled, this isn’t some throwaway number; it’s as musically strong as any other composition on this record. Winifer Odd (track four) tells the tale of an unlucky soul who is ultimately saved when she expects death to be imminent. It’s a song that really highlights Lal’s songwriting ability: “Winifer Odd Was born on one cold May morning in June, In her grandmother’s bedroom, And they waited all that day for last May to come back again, But it never came“.

Track two, The Scarecrow, is one of the greatest compositions of modern times. Its only because the subject matter is so dark and scary that 100s of artists haven’t covered this song. This song tells the tale of the poor neglected East Yorkshire scarecrow, who witnesses the changing seasons. The song has always been renowned for its references to the dark rituals of old days, namely a child being sacrificed in return for a heavy crop yield: “As I rode out one fine spring day, I saw twelve jolly dons dressed out in the blue and the gold so gay; And to a stake they tied a child newborn, And the songs were sung, the bells was rung, and they sowed their corn“. It’s possible that inspiration was taken from the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds fields and their long forgotten ghoulish secrets.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars many bushels of bones were landed at the Hull docks from the battlefields of Dresden and Waterloo. The bone mills of Hull converted these phosphate rich human remains into fertilizer, which was then spread over the Yorkshire Wold’s green and pleasant fields. In 1822, The Observer noted that: “It is now ascertained beyond a doubt, by actual experiment on an extensive scale, that a dead soldier is a most valuable article of commerce; and, for aught known to the contrary, the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread.”

Not only did Mike and Lal push the boundaries with their writing, arrangements and performance of their material but also in its recording. During the late 1960’s the UK had the most advanced recording studios in the world with some of the best producers and engineers available. For some unknown reason Bright Phoebus was recorded at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance & Song Society, in a make shift studio with producer and record label owner Bill Leader. Strange that such a groundbreaking record would be recorded at an institution founded in strict historical tradition. This may be a groundbreaking record but it certainly did not make use of groundbreaking audio technology.

The completed album is nothing short of a masterpiece, on a par with Sargent Peppers, Pet Sounds or Three Feet High and Rising. It nips in and out of styles, country, rock & roll, blues, jazz, folk, pop and even has its psychedelic moments on the wry Magical Man. It’s a record of many standouts, from the shear tortured beauty of Child Among the Weeds to the rock & roll blues of Danny Rose and the haunting Fine Horseman. There’s a fabulous country twang to Shady Lady, a song that features the vocals of all three Waterson siblings plus the sublime intertwined guitar work of Richard Thopmson and Martin Carthy. The sad story of a drunken Lal falling down in the rain is recalled in the beautiful Red Wine Promises, which features the warm vocals of their sister Norma. This is an absolutely awesome, gob-smacker of a record.

It’s hard to imagine why this record received such a poor reception upon its release back in September 1972. Mike and Lal, and all involved in the album, believed that this record would be a huge success, the album they’d all one day be remembered for. However, due to the record’s poor reception in the media the album would end up failing to break even. Only 1,000 copies wherever pressed and a good number of these where pressed off center making these copies ‘warble’. Due to the tightness of finances the off center records made it into the record shops and are now a much prized collectors item. In fact, due to the particulars of the contract, none of the artists on the album made any money from this venture and pretty soon the album slipped into obscurity. But things were to get worse. Mainstream interest in folk music dropped off in the mid 1970s and with Trailer Record’s owner Bill Leader struggling to make ends meet he was forced to sell the rights to Bright Phoebus, as well as those of other records on his label. The rights were eventually sold on again, where they ended up in the hands of the record’s original distributor Dave Bulmer.

In an age of postmodern revisionism why hasn’t this record received the update it so rightly deserves? An inferior CD version was re-issued in 2000, but this was cut from a vinyl album recording complete with crackle and pop. This record is similar to a Dutch master painting by Pieter Bruegel, albeit a long forgotten badly damaged one in an obscure gallery covered in soot and grime. Maybe Hull, the 2017 UK City of Culture, will rescue this record and restore it to its rightful place? Late in life Mike Waterson gave clues that he knew where the master tape to Bright Phoebus was, and that he would like to see a re-mastered version made available. Just in case I’ve not made myself 100% clear, this record is a masterpiece that is in dire need of some audio surgery to return it to its original sonic condition. This is probably one of the greatest records you’ve never heard and it comes from my hometown of Hull.

Record Store Day 2015

Record Store Day Australia (RSDA) falls on the 18th April this year and it’s the second year that I (Tim Dalton) am an ambassador, something I’m quite proud of. Planning for RSDA has got me reminiscing about the first record that I ever bought and about some of my favourite record stores that I’ve visited. The first record that I ever bought was a 7” vinyl single of Son Of My Father by UK band Chicory Tip. I vividly remember saving all of my birthday money to buy this record from Shakespeare Records, located inside Paragon railway station in my birth city of Hull. The word ‘Paragon ‘ is an interesting choice here as the word means “a person or thing regarded as a perfect example of a particular quality”. The station actually took its name from the street it stands on, Paragon Street, but still the use of this word is misappropriated.

Back in 1972 there were approximately 39 record stores in Hull city centre serving a population of around 200,000. This begs the question why Shakespeare Records and not Sydney Scarborough, Stardisc, Sheridan’s or one of the large department stores such as Hammonds or Debenhams or any of the other 39 stores I could have chosen? Paragon Station was a fabulous unmodernised Victorian building so much so that it has appeared in numerous feature films and TV shows. One attraction was that Shakespeare Records was a small building, more a pre-fab really, inside another enormous building. Subconsciously it could be the 11 year old me signalling that music and travel would be forever connected in my life.

Originally this record store was called Shakespeare Brothers but in a bid to move with the times in the early 1970’s they dropped the ‘Brothers’ and replaced it with ‘Records’. Mid December 1972 and it was a right of passage type day as my Dad drove me to Hull city centre in a tepid blue Vauxhall Viva to make my first ever purchase of many future records. I didn’t know it at the time, but this record is actually a cover of a Giorgio Moroder/Pete Bellotte tune that was released in 1971 under the name Giorgio. The 1972 Chicory Tip version features the very first top ten appearance of a Moog synthesizer in the UK. AIR studio manager Roger Easterby heard the Giorgio original and persuaded Chicory Tip to re-recorded their version, with additional lyrics added by vocalist Michael Holm, in a weekend. The Chicory Tip version was rush released where it went straight into the top ten and eventually hit number one. AIR’s resident record producer Chris Thomas played the dominating Moog synth part.

Released in February 1972, it took me almost 10 months to get around to purchasing this record. Listening back to this record I can see why I developed my lifelong love of synth pop. This record has all the DNA of 1980’s synth-pop, such as the synthesizer as the dominant musical instrument, which I came to love a decade later. For an 11-year-old kid from a cultural backwater like Hull, this record demonstrates a musical maturity way beyond my tender years.

This visit to Shakespeare Records set me on a course that would see me visit many record stores all over the world for both business and pleasure. Only 16 years after purchasing my first record I’d left school and was working in the music industry, albeit on the very bottom rung of the ladder. Over the next 34 years I was lucky enough to travel the world many times over and visit record stores in just about every city that I’ve visited. One of the biggest stores I regularly made visits too was Tower Records at 1 Piccadilly Circus, London. This massive 2,300 m2 store opened in 1986 and was their European flagship store. London also had the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road and that was also enormous. These enrmo-dome type record stores ushered in the ear of the ‘in-store’ performance or as we called them in the USA ‘the shake and howdy’.

In these big stores a small stage and PA could be incorporated onto the sales floor allowing for acoustic performances. These performances normally coincided with whatever touring band was in town playing at the local venue. The normal schedule would be an in-store early afternoon, sound check late afternoon and show on the evening; we liked to work our acts hard back then. These in-stores would pay a dividend in terms of record sales, through in some ‘specials’ some free nibbles/barrel of beer and significant sales would follow. In-stores are now a common component in the arsenal of engagement tools of the music retailer.

Though the sheer scale of some record stores is breath taking, such as Amoeba Music in LA, which is the world largest independent record store spread over 2,230m2 and holding over 100,000 titles. It’s the sheer variety of independent record stores that I love. Some are genre specific, some location specific but all of them love and know music. Some of my favourites, in no particular order, are: –

  • Aquarius Records in one of my favorite US cities San Francisco. This store has been a fixture of San Francisco’s music scene since 1970, making it one of the longest-running independent record shops in the United States. The store carries a wide range of stock, but is most famous for its extensive selection of psychedelic, metal, and drone music, as one would expect of a San Fran store.
  • Spacehall Records on Zossiener Straße in Berlin, which I first visited in the late 1980s. You cannot even begin to talk techno or house or dub or any electronic music for that matter without bringing up Berlin’s Spacehall. The beautiful minimalist, modernist design of the store suits its refined, highly stylish musical aesthetic. It’s like a classic 1980’s BMW, never out of style.
  • Rough Trade East is the daddy of UK record shops. London’s Rough Trade East, which opened in 2007, may be the younger brother of Rough Trade West, but is also one of the biggest independents in the UK. The store sells predominantly new stock of vinyl and CDs, racked up across a huge 465m2 sales space, and has a handy cafe at the front. Rough Trade is more than just a shop, it’s also one of the most influential labels in the UK, and has put out influential records by The Smiths, The Fall, The Strokes, Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian and more. Rough Trade East also plays host to in-store gigs, film screenings, and talks on film, music and literature. This is more than a record store, it’s an institution.
  • Probe Records in a city where I lived for over a decade, Liverpool. In a city with such a fine musical pedigree, it takes a lot to stand out and Probe does that. Though it’s moved premises through the years, Liverpool’s Probe Records has been going strong since 1971. Established by legendary Twisted Wheel DJ Roger Eagle and music entrepreneur/producer Geoff Davis, it was more than a record store it, was the center of a movement. Pete Burns of Dead or Alive and Paul Rutherford of Frankie Goes to Hollywood have both worked there. In the wake of punk, Probe Records became Liverpool’s go-to record shop, attracting clientele from Echo and the Bunnymen, The Lighting Seeds and OMD. The shop launched its own record label Probe Plus in 1981, which has released work by cult Merseyside act Half Man Half Biscuit.
  • Good Vibrations, Belfast. The film Good Vibrations named after the legendary Belfast record store of the same name and released last year, was brilliant. It told the story of local music lover Terri Hooley’s attempt to expand his store into a label that would go on to release DJ John Peel’s favorite record Teenage Kicks by The Undertones in 1979. But the film’s popularity also sparked the store back into life. Now in its 13th incarnation, and proclaiming itself as “Belfast’s poorest record shop”, shoppers can still bump into Hooley, now aged 65, working behind the till. Visit it soon as it has a history of going bust very quickly.
  • I know I’m very biased but my favorite of favorite record stores is Grimey’s of Nashville. Nashville is a town of institutions and Grimey’s is no exception. It’s a store beloved by the city’s residents, and has a sort of hometown family feel. I first Mike ‘Grimey’ Grimes when he played guitar with local rock band Bare Jr. who I was working with at the time. Grimey has an uncanny King Midas knack of turning whatever he touches into cool. When I lived there he took over a run down bar, The Slow Bar, in the very un-trendy East part of town and within a few weeks it became Nashville’s coolest, muso bar and hangout. It’s the same with his record store. They have a vast selection of new music, and next door at their “too” store they have an abundance of “pre-loved” music. They supply their consumers with all formats including CD, vinyl and cassettes. But what really makes them stand out is they do a lot of activities to bring artists into the stores and make them accessible to their patrons. They have many releases and after hour in-stores in “The Basement” located obviously beneath the store. This is a cozy little live music bar to catch a local artist performance while drinking a beer. This is a very special kind of record store that I recommend to anyone that stops in Nashville. This place holds a special place in my heart just because it’s so damn cool. And who knows? Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll visit at the same time as locals like Taylor Swift, Steve Earle or Ke$ha.

In my now adopted hometown of Melbourne I’m totally spoilt for choice. There are some fine record stores in this city and my suggestion is to go out and find the one you like. The one that stocks the style and genre of music you like in the part of town that appeals to you. Personally I’ll be down at Basement Discs in the Laneways on RSDA on 18th April, see you down there?