David Hepworth’s new book Never A Dull Moment claims that 1971 was the greatest year for popular music as it saw the release of more “monumental” albums than any year before or since. It’s an interesting claim and one that I will contest here. I also think it’s a really odd book title considering it’s the same as Rod Stewart’s superb 1972 album; why not give the book a namesake title from a “monumental” 1971 album? Granted 1971 saw an unprecedented number of album releases, but does that single metric make it the greatest album release year? Anyone who knows me will confirm that I love a good argument and so here it goes. Dave Hepworth is a fantastic music journalist but he got it completely wrong. His book should have been about the era from 1969 to 1981; the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.
Taste is a very slippery concept as Immanuel Kant proposed in his 1790 Critique Of Judgement. Kant calls aesthetic judgments “judgments of taste” and remarks that, though they are based in an individual’s subjective feelings, they also claim universal validity. It could be claimed that Hepworth’s book is an attempt to canvass some form of universal acceptance; or he might just be trying to sell more books. The viewing of an art form is anything but a passive activity. Art should rouse us to an intellectual involvement with the world in which it was created. Good art results in a discourse and the better the art the more tumultuous that discourse should be.
Only last year (2015) I published my own book, Album Rescue Series, in which I tried to show some love to mistreated, misunderstood and underrated albums. On page 129 of this book, I rescue Jim Ford’s excellent 1969 Southern funky rumpus album Harlan County. During this album rescue, I argue that this album was largely overlooked because of the year of its release: 1969. Harlan County was probably the strangest but most compelling release of 1969, but what a year for popular music. 1969 was the launching pad for an era of unparalleled creativity in popular music the likes of which we’ll never see again. Hepworth’s identification of 1971 should not be viewed as an isolated year but as part of the twelve-year continuum of popular music’s most prolific era, which ran from 1969 to its sad demise in 1981.
During the 12 months of 1969 we see releases from Bob Dylan (Nashville Skyline), The Beatles (Abbey Road), Tim Buckley (Blue Afternoon), Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin II), King Crimson (In The Court of King Crimson), The Who (Tommy), Captain Beefheart (Trout Mask Replica), Nick Drake (Pink Moon), Sly and the Family Stone (Stand), The Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed), The Band (The Band), The Stooges (The Stooges) and a host of other amazing albums. How on earth could Jim Ford, an unheard of artist from the back hills of Kentucky, with his unique blend of country, funk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll ever get noticed in the company of these esteemed artists? If you’ve never heard Harlan County then go out and buy this album and give it a spin; if you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back. I was seven years old for the majority of 1969, and didn’t turn eight until mid December, but all of these albums I distinctly remember. What I do remember is zeitgeist of 1969, the break up of The Beatles, the violent end of the peace and love generation presided over by Rolling Stones at Altamount and the white heat of new technology manifested by Neil Armstong standing on the moon. No wonder 1969 was such an epistemic year for popular music.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Hepworth when he cites some exquisite, delightful and ground-breaking albums of 1971. You cannot dispute Carole King (Tapestry), Badfinger (Straight Up), Rod Stewart (Every Picture Tells A Story), Emerson Lake & Palmer (Pictures At An Exhibition), Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers), John Lennon (Imagine), Paul McCartney (Ram) and George Harrison (All Things Must Pass); all of which I play on a regular basis. Back in 1971 record sales were growing too fast for the record companies to exert any kind of meaningful creative control. They threw an awful lot of shit at the wall and hoped some of it would stick; not the type of approach prescribed in the business manuals that would follow in the 1980s. Amongst all this shit though were the shining diamonds of perfection as listed above. Back in 1971 the record business was in an unprecedented boom period, profits were good and re-investment in product development (A&R) at an all time high.
For the next decade the music would be good until it died at the end of 1981. Even as a musically precious nine/ten year old I remember 1971 very distinctly mainly because of the music which I was already showing signs of being obsessed with. During this era it was de-rigour for acts to be signed to two albums a year recording contracts, which meant they were all extra productive at their most creative age. Everybody played live all the time. Neil Young wrote and recorded Harvest while on the road during 1971 in locations as far apart as Barking, East London and Nashville. The classic T. Rex singles were recorded at stops on their 1971 American tour. Pink Floyd spent weekdays recording Meddle and weekends playing colleges. Nobody took months off. Nobody dared. During this era, popular music was getting serious and corporate. The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, was their first album under the distinctive tongue ‘corporate’ logo and released on their own ‘independent’ label. I would argue (I like arguing) that this Stones album was almost as notable for its cover as its content. 1971 was the year Brown Sugar, the last truly great Rolling Stones single (but that’s another article for another day), went to number one.
While discussing this article at work last week with my boss (Gareth) he made the point, and a good point it is too, that 1981 was probably the last truly great year for popular music. In terms of this article/blog I am prepared to state that 1981 is the end of rock ‘n’ rolls’ most creative and productive era. 1981 is an interesting time as Modernism is all but dead and post modernism has well and truly taken hold. Consider the albums that were released during 1981: The Rolling Stones (Tattoo You), Stevie Nicks (Bella Donna), Motorhead (No Sleep Till Hammersmith), U2 (October), Human League (Dare), Miles Davis (Directions), New Order (Movement), The Cure (Faith), Simple Minds (Fascination/Sister Feeling Call), The Psychedelic Furs (Talk Talk Talk) and The Police (Ghost In The Machine). In many ways these albums signal then end of rock ’n’ rolls creative and profitable golden years and signal the start of a new era; a new way of conducting business.
Behind the scenes the creative, maverick, iconoclastic and entrepreneurial music managers were been driven out by the faceless beige suited office drones, obsessed by spread sheets and quadrant charts. By 1981, Thatcherism was starting to make its presence felt in the UK; the good times for a whole host of traditional industries was well and truly over. In the same year, Ronald Regan came to power in the USA. Between Regan and Thatcher, the traditional Anglo American power base of popular music was well and truly under attack from monetarism. How can any creative endeavour survive when it’s exposed to monetarism’s money growth rule? 1981 was the end of making lots of great records and the start of making a small number of profitable records. In a head on fight between creativity and commerciality, the one with the muscles is always going to win.
I hate to end this piece with such a downbeat message so here is some good news. Head down to your independent local record store as every album listed above will be for sale. Have a listen to these albums and test my argument. Record Store Day happens on Saturday 16th April this year, so why not head out on this special day and treat yourself to a classic piece of music. Not only will your purchase make you smile for many years to come but you will also have supported a local independent business and that’s a good thing. In the words of Mott The Hoople’s 1974 hit The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll
The golden age of rock ‘n’ roll will never die
As long as children feel the need to laugh and cry
Dont wanna smash, want a smash sensation
Dont wanna wreck, just recreation
Dont wanna fight, but if you turn us down
Were gonna turn you around, gonna mess with the sound
Ohh, ohh, ohh
Its good for body, its good for your soul
Ohh, ohh, ohh
Its the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll
By the mid 1980s, seminal punk rockers The Clash had disbanded. Founding member Joe Strummer fired lead guitarist and songwriting partner Mick Jones via public communiqué in 1983 and the hastily reconstituted Clash Mark II only managed to launch one final, misguided salvo before skulking off to die: 1985’s Cut The Crap which, for all the opprobrium heaped upon it, boasts the epic, defeatist state-of-the-nation address This Is England.
In the traditional rock ’n’ roll playbook there is a post-band-breakup ritual to be observed: after an appropriate grieving period the former members, having gone their separate ways, set about issuing solo albums. Tunes that were torpedoed, vetoed, or simply failed to pass muster finally see the light of day, at last immune to internecine wrangling. Mick Jones took this well-trodden path, forming Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D) in 1984. B.A.D.’s mix of sloganeering punk, electro pop, sampling, hip hop, dub reggae and funk seemed like an organic update of The Clash’s genre explorations and for a time the band enjoyed great success.
Joe Strummer’s solo career, on the other hand, presented as a classic case of Wilderness Years. He went off the reservation, sporadically popping his head above the parapet before promptly vanishing again. Unless one was a keen eyed aficionado of late 1980s independent film, it was a pretty effective disappearing act motivated by Strummer’s state of mind following the implosion of The Clash.
Having reached the summit of rock stardom, Strummer found himself isolated and riven with remorse. In his relentless pursuit of fame he had severed many significant human bonds, becoming the very thing he had once decried. In his own prophetic words:
“What’s the point in being one of the few? There’s nothing there. You can get all the Rolls Royces, all the country houses, all the servants, all the dope – and there’s nothing at the end of that road… no human life or nothing.”
– Joe Strummer, Rude Boy (1980)
Strummer’s ensuing period of itinerant soul-searching was contextualised within a redemptive narrative arc by Julien Temple, in his 2007 documentary The Future Is Unwritten. At the end of Temple’s film, Strummer devotes himself to rekindling the spark of camaraderie with those he had once spurned, around the flames of his legendary Glastonbury Festival campfires.
But back to the mid-1980s, before such reparations had been made. Whether consciously or not, Strummer made use of the years between 1986 and 1989 to systematically dismantle his iconic persona and scatter the fragments to the four winds. This was a strategy that, to a large extent, involved Strummer subsuming his ego and identity to the will of other artists.
The first was filmmaker Alex Cox, who invited Strummer to contribute two songs (Love Kills and Dum Dum Club) to the soundtrack of his 1986 film Sid & Nancy, which depicted the doomed romance between punk idols Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. In the first of several acting roles he would take on during this period, Strummer appeared in the music video for Love Kills (also directed by Cox), playing an incompetent Mexican Federale opposite Gary Oldman’s Vicious, in a prison-break superhero fantasy.
Strummer already had some prior form as an actor, playing himself in Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s 1980 docu-drama Rude Boy. And it could, of course, be argued that “Joe Strummer” was a long-form role-play by the downwardly mobile, class-conscious John Mellor – one he was growing ever more weary of performing. Aside from the odd Travis Bickle-style Mohawk haircut, Strummer was never given to the chrysalis-like transformations of a Bowie or a Dylan – it was always about the music – but he would nevertheless don a variety of guises in the next few years, before emerging in his final incarnation at the turn of the century.
By 1986, the wounds sustained during the breakup of The Clash were already starting to heal: Strummer co-produced and co-wrote many of the songs on Big Audio Dynamite’s second (and strongest) album, No. 10 Upping St. His role in this case was essentially that of ‘Silent Partner’, lending artistic support to former band mate Mick Jones and his new crew.
In 1987 Strummer returned to acting, in Alex Cox’s next feature Straight To Hell. Surely one of the most bizarre Plan Bs ever conceived, the film came about after the collapse of a proposed Nicaraguan tour by Strummer, The Pogues and Elvis Costello, in support of the embattled Sandinista government. Augmented by an eclectic supporting cast (including Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones and Jim Jarmusch) the musicians and Cox relocated to Almeria, Spain, where they cooked up a genre-colliding heist film slash ‘Paella Western’ remake of Giulio Questi’s Django Kill. Roundly dismissed at the time as a self-indulgent piss-take, or a very expensive home movie, Straight To Hell endures as an often hilarious, anarchic, proto-Po-Mo hybrid (and quite possibly an unacknowledged influence on one Quentin Tarantino).
It was during the production of Straight To Hell that Strummer connected with a musician who would take on an increasingly significant role in his subsequent creative efforts: Zander Schloss, formerly from punk band the Circle Jerks. They bonded on-set: Strummer was playing one of the film’s protagonists, Simms, a member of a gang of thieves who hole up in a desert town only to run afoul of the caffeine-addicted McManus Gang (played by The Pogues); while Schloss was cast in the minor role of local hot dog vendor Karl The Weiner Boy. Further details of the film’s eccentric ‘plot’ are probably best omitted, though it is worth noting that Strummer fully immerses himself in the role of a brooding, sexually frustrated wannabe bank robber. In addition to contributing two songs of his own to the film’s soundtrack, Strummer teamed up with Schloss to co-write Karl’s theme song, Salsa Y Ketchup, a rousing, double-entendre-riddled paean to sausages. Thus an unlikely yet fruitful collaboration was born.
That same year Cox, on a creative roll, directed a second feature: his allegorical masterpiece Walker, penned by legendary screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid). Ostensibly an historical biopic about William Walker, the freebooter who invaded Nicaragua in the 1850s under the doctrine of manifest destiny, the film is a rabidly anti-American stab at President Ronald Reagan’s then-contemporary support for the counterrevolutionary Contras. The film is rendered all the more subversive by the fact that it was made with $800,000 of Universal Studio’s money. Confined to a furtive cameo on the periphery of the frame, all but unrecognizable beneath bushranger beard and straggly long hair, Strummer’s on-screen contribution to Walker is negligible. Off-screen, it’s another story.
No longer content with dashing off a few tunes for the soundtrack, Strummer expressed a desire to compose the entire score for the film. Duly afforded the opportunity by Cox, Strummer recorded a series of 4-track demos using only acoustic guitar and a rudimentary keyboard. These skeletal ideas were entrusted to the prodigiously talented Zander Schloss – a “show off” by his own admission – who fleshed them out into lush arrangements for stringed instruments, horns and percussion. Much inspiration was apparently taken from the local music Schloss and Strummer heard in the cantinas they frequented during the film’s Nicaragua shoot.
Walker’s resulting score blends folk and country with more distinctly Central American and Caribbean influences, at times echoing Bob Dylan’s minimalist soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, elsewhere evoking the strident dramatics of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western themes. The Clash often experimented with musical genres (dub, reggae, funk, rockabilly), assimilating their influences through a tight-knit filter. Out on his own, Strummer became an ever more inclusive musical polyglot, a twitchy World Music exponent (minus the Great White Saviour Complex). Strummer’s contribution to the actual recording is limited to lead vocals on a few lilting campfire ballads, demonstrating a remarkable degree of autonomy imparted to Schloss and his session musicians. It is sublime in its own right, but as the first full-length solo album by the former front man for The Clash, it understandably left many fans bewildered.
In 1988, Strummer was commissioned to compose the soundtrack for Marisa Silver’s independent film Permanent Record, a melancholy meditation on teenage suicide. An early test screening of the film reportedly moved Strummer to tears. The backing band assembled for this project, fittingly dubbed The Latino Rockabilly War, comprised the rhythm section of punk/jazz outfit Tupelo Chainsex – bassist Joey Altruda and drummer Willie MacNeil – augmented by the now ubiquitous Zander Schloss on lead guitar. The eight songs they recorded rank among Strummer’s best solo work and display a brash, one-take vitality, repetitive rave-up Trash City even featuring the film’s star, Keanu Reeves, guesting on scrappy rhythm guitar. A slightly altered line-up of this band would soon go on to create Earthquake Weather.
But before they did, Joe cropped up on screen once more, skulking around a Memphis bar playing a suicidal drunk in one of three intersecting storylines that comprise Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train. A role specifically written with Strummer in mind (as is Jarmusch’s casting modus operandi), his character’s repeated line: “Don’t call me Elvis!” is a succinct, significant statement of Joe’s desire to shrug off the ill-fitting rock star mantle.
Which brings us, finally, to 1989’s Earthquake Weather.
I recall buying this album eagerly upon its release – apparently one of only 7,000 people to do so, if my research is correct. Finally, a fully-fledged Joe Strummer solo album! After a few perplexed spins, it was thereafter consigned to some dark recess of my record collection. Reviews from the time vindicated my initial disdain.
Before we take the platter out for reconsideration, let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the front cover. As a tequila sun sets over Californian palm trees, an enigmatic silhouette stands on the edge of a swimming pool diving board, quiff hanging lank atop his uplifted head, cigarette dangling from his lower lip. A leather-jacketed, bow-legged, cowboy-booted guitar slinger, Telecaster slung like a rifle at his hip. A pomaded pirate poised to walk the plank. It’s simultaneously elegiac and defiant. Later adopted as the logo for The Joe Strummer Foundation and as Chris Salewicz notes in his biography Redemption Song, it’s “an iconic Strummer image ironically much better known than the music inside the record it was intended to herald.”
Off-mike, Joe bellows a war cry: “LET’S ROCK AGAIN!” and the album opener Gangsterville kicks off with no fanfare, the words and music coming thick and fast, rhythms wrestling. Strummer hollers urgently over the top of a reconfigured Latino Rockabilly War, now with Lonnie Marshall replacing Joey Altruda on bass:
The Revolution came, the Revolution went
Strummer summarises, with an abrupt sense of futility.
Wanted: one man to lead a crusade
Payment: a bullet on a big parade
Then, all at once: the pounding punk thunder flips to a tipsy Caribbean sway and we’re relocated to the titular ‘Gangsterville’. The effect on Strummer’s vocal also turns on a dime, switching from mighty slap-back echo to tinny, crackly filter, as if emanating from a cheap transistor radio in a broken down ’57 Chevrolet. The song continues in this schizoid fashion, alternating back and forth between two distinctly opposed feels, the effect unnerving yet undeniably cinematic: the abrupt transitions from verse to chorus are like scene cuts. The lyrics equivocate every bit as much as the music – Strummer is alarmed to discover common ground with both the victims and perpetrators of political crimes:
On the other hand, sitting next to an evil crew
They just got down from floor 82
Been selling Indian reservations
Comin’ in looking for some jazz and a little libations
I like the same kind of beer
I gotta get right out of here
If the first track speaks of political disillusionment, the second, King Of The Bayou, immediately contradicts this position with a hopeful salute to Phillipine President Corazon Aquino, elected in the wake of the 1986 People Power Revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos. Here, the optimism is infectiously anthemic:
Cory is the one
She’ll never ever die young
Next up is Slant Six, which comes on like a Keith Richards solo number, right down to Schloss’ wiry slide guitar licks. It’s apt, then, that the song critiques the decadent trappings of rock stardom – and their isolating effect – that Strummer himself was struggling to avoid:
You got Juan-Le-Pins
You got the needle and the deep cellar wine
You got the slow boat to China
You own part of South Carolina
What a fate: to be imprisoned at the height of your dreams
An abrupt climate change comes in the form of Island Hopping, whose lazy nylon-string lope, evocative of Jamaican folk, underpins a telling ode to the joys of shirking one’s duties and the lure of capitulating to wanderlust:
I don’t like to do a drop of work
Drive a cab, or paint the church
It’s been the same since I don’t know when
So I’m goin’ island hopping again
Throughout the album Strummer is preoccupied with rebellion, escapism and restlessness, topics that must have felt very dear to him during these “lost” years. Significantly, the majority of the song titles suggest movement, modes of transportation or destinations: Slant Six, Leopardskin Limousines, Ride Your Donkey, Island Hopping, Gangsterville, Sleepwalk, Highway One Zero Street, King Of The Bayou, Shouting Street, Passport To Detroit. The lyrics coalesce into a surreal, novelistic, globe-spanning travelogue, jumping to and from locations both real and fictional, rapidly juxtaposing rich and poor, cops and robbers, boardrooms and barrios, in imagery pitched somewhere between Bob Dylan’s Invisible Republic and William Burroughs’ nightmarish Interzone.
Earthquake Weather marks the point where Strummer’s laissez-faire approach to band leadership reached both its zenith and nadir. Evidently pleased with the result of recent collaborations, he allowed his co-conspirators great liberty to flesh out his foggy notions, bringing their diverse musical pedigrees to bear as they discovered the arrangements through intensive jamming. Zander Schloss, for his part, revels in this freedom, grandstanding on lead guitar, banjo and any other stringed instrument within reach as he navigates the hairpin genre curves. His hyperactive solos come off like Marc Ribot channeling J. Mascis. These musical explorations often took place with Strummer in absentia: he would take to the streets in search of real-life lyrical stimulus, or hunker down in a far corner of the studio in his notorious spliff bunker to pursue more inward inspirations.
It’s only around the middle of the album that this otherwise fruitful regime of organized chaos threatens to skip the rails: on Dizzy’s Goatee and Leopardskin Limousines the grooves are tentative, the vocals delivered in an unconvincing mumble, as if something hasn’t quite gelled. And Boogie With Your Children and Sikorsky Parts – which no amount of re-listening can fully redeem – bear unfortunate comparison to early Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is possibly due, in no small part, to the abrupt mid-session replacement of Willie MacNeil with drummer Jack Irons from the aforementioned Californian funkers.
Four songs on the album reveal that Strummer never fully transcended his Punk Rock Warlord persona. Nor perhaps, ultimately, did he truly wish to. Shouting Street drives like a madman, with Schloss rapid-firing Chuck Berry licks from the passenger seat (complete with a shout-out to Jim Jarmusch); Jewellers & Bums is an insistent thumper that could stack up against anything on The Clash’s flawless London Calling; Highway One Zero Street (with a title that’s pure Zimmerman) effortlessly shifts gears from Mariarchi-Waltz time to stabbing punk to anthem rock to popping funk, unfolding like a map of intersecting ethnic neighbourhoods; and Passport To Detroit rockets along an apocalyptic desert highway at midnight, headlights illuminating doomy portents.
The sole cover version on the album, Ride Your Donkey, is a relaxed rendition of The Tennors’ Rocksteady standard, which Strummer might have first heard at the Marquee Club in the early days of London’s punk scene. Its inclusion here suggests a nostalgic trawling through past influences, and is one of the few backward glances Strummer permitted himself in his relentless forward march to a new identity.
Some critics speculated that Earthquake Weather was a self-sabotaging attempt on Strummer’s part to wriggle out of his contract with EMI, but it’s far too complex a piece of work to have been conceived with such a cynical endgame in mind. Much was made at the time of the “muddiness” of the album’s production and it’s true there is a kitchen-sinky chaos to some of the mixes, but much like Strummer and Schloss’ soundtrack work the focus favours ambience over radio-friendly clarity. Several songs even feel like they’ve wandered in off the set of Walker: Island Hopping, Leopardskin Limousines and the album’s closer, Sleepwalk (originally written for Frank Sinatra), provide gentle acoustic oases of calm amid the urgent electrical storms that dominate elsewhere.
The album has a palpable sense of topography and geography, heavily populated by a multinational cast of heroes, villains and background extras, as if Strummer’s forays into film were feeding back into his songwriting. The cumulative effect of Earthquake Weather is akin to reading the screenplay and listening to the score for an unmade trans-national road movie, as an abstract but nonetheless coherent narrative plays out on the screen behind one’s eyes. The main character, of course, is Joe Strummer himself. No matter how hard he fought to submerge his stardom and defer to his creative associates, the resulting work bears his indelible imprint.
It took another decade for Strummer to finally emerge as a solo artist in the traditional sense. With new backing outfit The Mescaleros, he released a trio of increasingly decent albums in quick succession between 1999 and 2002. The last of these, Streetcore, was completed posthumously by band mates Martin Slattery and Scott Shields, Strummer having only recorded his rhythm guitar and vocal tracks before his sudden death at age 50.
And so, once again, responsibility for the realisation of Strummer’s vision fell to his collaborators – but this time out of heart-breaking necessity rather than trusting intent. As a result, Streetcore makes for bittersweet listening: it’s the solid solo album every fan had been waiting 13 long years for – but Joe was no longer around to hear it. Faced with the reality that we’ll never be graced with another, and freed from past prejudices a listener may have once brought to the material, the music Strummer made between 1986 and 1989, culminating in Earthquake Weather, now reveals itself to be richly rewarding and ripe for redemption…………….
Cox, A. (2013) Website of filmmaker Alex Cox (Retrieved from alexcox.com)
Hazan, J. & Mingay, D. (1980) Rude Boy (Buzzy Enterprises / Michael White Productions)
Jarmusch, J. (1989) Mystery Train (JVC Entertainment Networks / Mystery Train)
Pottker, N. (2014) In Conversation: Zander Schloss (Retrieved fromfiles.wordpress.com/2014/10)
Salewicz, C. (2006) Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography Of Joe Strummer (London, Harper Collins)
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Joe Strummer ‘Earthquake Weather’ is written by Adam Spellicy, one of ARS’s guest authors. Adam Spellicy is a screenwriter, filmmaker and an occasional musician based in Melbourne, Australia. (Follow Adam Spellicy on Twitter @AdamSpellicy )
One of my most regular and popular Master Classes that I deliver to early career music industry professionals is ‘The Art of A&R’. A&R spelt out is Artist and Repertoire. The A&R department of a record company is responsible for:
A. working with the talent who are already under contract, and:
B. finding new talent; that is seeking out new material and acts to sign in an attempt to develop a roster of artists for the company.
The A&R department’s staff are frequently involved in all aspects of an artists’ relationship with the record company, including the initial negotiations and the signing of the recording contract, the rehearsal arrangements and production, and promotion divisions of the record company. The training of new creative, entrepreneurial forward thinking and business savvy A&R managers is, I would argue, central to the very survival of the music industry.
In a time of crisis and collapsing sales of recorded music in the music industry, creative and entrepreneurial A&R workers are more important than ever. Only by continuing to create new products and value can record companies compete in this rapidly changing market. The reorientation of A&R instruments and strategies are critical to meeting the consumer’s needs in the present climate. The relationship between the product/artist and the fan has to become closer through the use of new marketing and production instruments and strategies. New tools like. for example, fan community contests, new gatekeeping functions, new financial opportunities and new technologies afford record labels the chance to rally against falling turnovers. Even if record companies concentrate on buying and selling copyrights and catalogues in the future, A&R departments will be important as a gatekeeper to maintain the company’s A&R guiding principles and policies. In other words, A&R managers and departments are there to ensure the quality of artists and content associated with the record company.
To be able to survive this crisis new challenges have to be conquered, new requirements fulfilled and new opportunities seized. As a result of collapsing sales in the music industry, recording labels have less capital at their disposal. Production and artist development budgets have been dramatically reduced. When I worked in A&R we had at our disposal lavish budgets. That said nothing stifles creativity more than wealth. As such, it has become harder for labels to invest in new artists and to develop their careers. However, the business of finding and recruiting new artists still operates as it has done for decades. There is no shortage of hard working, talented artists who want to become stars but it seems to have become harder for labels to earn money with the music they are producing, and as a result they have less budget for their development.
To withstand the drop in sales, new income streams have to be found to ensure the development of, and investment in, the careers of new artists. As long as record companies are developing, releasing and selling new artists, a turnover is guaranteed. A&R management not only involves the process of scouting for and finding new talent, but also acts as a gatekeeping tool allowing record labels to meet the company’s A&R guiding principles and policies, even if finished products are being signed to the label. Even if labels decide to concentrate more on buying, selling and monetizing copyrights rather than developing and producing new artists and/or products in the future, A&R management will remain one of the most important instruments. To be able to conquer the current crisis and to compete economically, record labels have to recalibrate the instruments of their A&R policy.
I recently gave my ‘TheArt of A&R’ Master Class in Sydney, Australia at the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) to a bunch of highly creative and motivated undergraduate students. During this session I realized that I was lacking some ‘takeaways’, so in order to re-address this gap, here are some possibilities and ideas:
Closer artist/fan relationship. Major labels in particular still have a very impersonal system of information distribution for fans and end-consumers. It has become more and more important to show ‘the person behind the star’. by revealing to fans and consumers the real lives of their idols and stars with all their strengths, weaknesses and mistakes, The product can gain an emotional value This personalisation evokes compassion (a Dalton Koss HQ key word). The fan feels bound to the star, both emotionally and personally. By being transparent about the recording process through daily or weekly updates, pictures and videos of the work in the studio on the artist’s website, blog, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts it is possible to show the fan how a record is made. Fans learn to appreciate the intrinsic value of music by seeing the intensive work required before a final product can be bought in the store. Its time to fully exploit social media and turn it into a powerful marketing tool.
Product development process. Fans could be actively engaged in the production and development process of artists via demo listening, remix contests and artwork contests. Demo listening would allow various versions of song demos that had been uploaded to the artist’s Bandcamp or SoundCloud accounts and fans could vote which songs should be produced as part of the next album. Modern young audiences are familiar with this format because of the numerous TV talent shows that exist. Remix contests are already a very popular means of creating a more personal relationship between artist and fan. Fans could download the audio stems of a song for free, or even for a fee, allowing them to create their own version of their favorite artist’s new song. By selling these audio stems another source of income could be generated. Their creators could upload these finished remixes and the fan community could vote for their favorites. Within the scope of a digital or physical release the most popular remixes could be sold guaranteeing a further income stream. For the re-release of the 1976 David Bowie single ‘Golden Years’ an iPhone app was created which allowed fans to create their own remix. The app was made available the same day that the EP ‘Golden Days’ was released, with remixes by well-known producers. For artwork contests , the fan community could be asked to upload pictures or graphics they associate with the artist or with the artist’s song. After a vote by the fan community, the most popular ones are then included in the booklet artwork or even as the cover.
Improvement of product policy. With the introduction of the compact disc (CD) from 1986 onwards, sonic quality reached a new high with the added bonus that CDs had more ‘space’ than a 12” vinyl record. To boost the income of successful singles, subsequent albums were often filled with inferior songs, of live or rehearsal versions, just to fill the empty space. Some of this material was of rather dubious quality and I’ve heard a number of my own live mixing board recordings end up as a ‘bonus track’ on records. It is important that the quality of the whole product is high and sadly this just hasn’t being the case. My main problem with digital dissemination is the poor sonic quality of MP3 and MP4 files; they sound awful. All the other creative media have moved into High Definition (HD) or Ultra High Definition (UHD) e.g. TV, Cinema, photography, yet music’s sonic quality has gone down the quantity over quality route. If music production moved into HD or UHD mode then the process of developing the product may take a little longer and be more costly but the product would be greatly improved and have more customer appeal. Who knows there may be an end consumer who is willing to pay a premium for an album of near perfect production and of a super high sonic quality?
A&R competence of imprints. To cover a lot of different music genres, major labels are forced to depend on the A&R competence of their imprints. Through imprints, which specialise in non-mainstream and niche music markets, major labels get the opportunity to uncover underground trends earlier and to develop them. As such, imprints are talent pools, experimental research and development laboratories for their parent companies. Not only do they develop the performing talent they also develop A&R management talent too. For this reason niche imprints need fostering and developing.
New strategies of market cultivation. According to record company marketing guru, Marcel Engh, A&R policy has to be the basic element of modern music marketing because it provides and produces the value of the value chain in the recording industry, the content is the strategic factor of success. As the developer of true value, A&R policy has to remain the foundation of record labels. A company’s turnover has to grow not only through artist copyright but also through comprehensive use of the 360-degree contract. Very controversial but worth considering?
The use of new technologies as instruments of A&R policy. With the rapid growth of the Internet, it has become easy for unknown artists and musicians to share their music over the World Wide Web. With Web 2.0 artists can present themselves with their biography, pictures, videos and their music. The challenge of using the Internet as an A&R instrument to find new talent is the access to vast numbers of new and unknown artists. Fan communities can act as gatekeepers to show A&R departments which artists are likely to appeal to potential customers. Relevant indications include the number of plays of uploaded songs, the number of profile views and the comments written on an artist’s wall, all very useful metrics. The popularity and media presence of casting shows helps record labels increase their income. But developing long-term careers with the winners doesn’t appear to work all the time. It is hard for the artists to compete against the following season’s participants and often the winners of one year disappear from the screen when the next show begins.
Public Subsidy. During the global financial and economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, automobile companies had recourse to financial support in several countries in order to be able to survive and avoid bankruptcy. Keeping these unprofitable automobile companies afloat translated into decreased job loss and maintaining industry activity until post-financial crisis. It’s very controversial but maybe something similar could also occur in the music industry? In a postindustrial service based economy, the creative industries, in which the music industry resides, employs significant numbers of people. Increasingly, governments are recognising that public subsidy may be part of the business model for the the creative industries.
Through the reorientation of instruments and strategies of A&R policy, record companies can overcome the recent sales collapse. However, the industry needs fresh ideas and creativity when it comes to selling new products and artists. The days of sitting back and waiting for the big money to roll in are long gone. It has become difficult for record companies and artists to promote and sell their music. Only with good ideas, extraordinary marketing tools and instruments can companies maintain the consumer’s interest in buying music. Major labels, in particular, need to return to developing long-term artist careers instead of relying on one-hit wonders and TV talent shows, even if these do provide some short-term increases in turnover. Successful long-term careers are the key here; the re-imagination of past business models, such, as the three or five album deal is probably the solution. Sign talent with a view of developing and growing it along with its audience over a significant period of time. In order to do that we need new, creative, entrepreneurial and media savvy A&R managers and workers.
I was born in 1962 in the city of Hull, or to give it its full name, Kingston upon Hull, which is located in East Yorkshire in the north east of the UK. The city of Hull sits on a vast flat barren clay wilderness called the Plain of Holderness. This Plain was one huge marsh up until 1240 when the Dominican monks established a Friary in the market town of Beverley. From across the North Sea, these Dominican monks brought in the Dutch to drain this large swathe of land to make it habitable and suitable for farming. To this day you can still see the ditches and dykes built by the Dutch to drain this great plain. Easily sourced fresh and clean water filtered through the chalk of the Yorkshire Wolds also made this area desirable for habitation. I can’t prove my theory but it’s my contention that something was added to this water during the late 1970s and 1980s. The result was a noticeable, unprecedented outbreak of artistic and musical creativity in Hull during this period the likes of which have not be seen since. Whatever was in the water during this period was obviously good stuff and did the trick.
From the mid 1970s through to the late 1980s, Hull, and in particular the Polar Bear pub, seemed to attract artists and musicians from all corners of the UK. The Polar Bear pub was on a road called Spring Bank so called because this road followed the course of the original conduit which brought fresh water from the Yorkshire Wolds’ springs into the city. One person I casually befriended during 1981/2 was art student Philip Diggle from Manchester, who was studying fine art at Hull College of Art and Design. At the time, Philip was a poor starving eccentric artist (he still is) who told me one night, after way too many beers in the Polar Bear pub, “I’m drawn to action painting and I’m going to make it my vocation”.
Back then this Victorian pub had a long public bar, a lounge and a very strange liminal space referred to as “the café bar”. This was a small wood paneled room that held approximately 20 odd people and was wedged between the bar and lounge. This was the city’s only arty bohemian safe spot and every night of the week it was filled with poor starving artists and musicians such as Roland Gift, Eric Golden aka Wreckless Eric, Lili-Marlene Premilovich who would later morph into Lene Lovich, her lover and musical partner Les Chappell and just about every other local indie band, would be record producer, fine artist, architect and other assorted creative wannabes. It was here that I made the connection that Philip Diggle was in fact the younger brother of Buzzcocks rock God guitarist Steve Diggle.
A few years earlier, I’d seen the Buzzcocks play a couple of times at the Wellington ‘Welly’ Club in Hull. Most punk bands at the time hailed from down south, specifically London. Buzzcocks were different as they came from Manchester, located a couple of hours away along the M62. Most southern punks bands that I saw live, more often than not at The ‘Welly’ club, were like peacocks e.g. lots of expensive bondage trousers, leather jackets with studs and other flamboyant touches. Bands from the north, and especially Manchester, dressed down; it was more second hand thrift shop punk as opposed to the highly stylized Vivian Westwood/Malcolm McLaren look. The northern look was much more accessible. An Oxfam or second hand thrift stores allowed the poor working class of Hull to emulate this dressed down punk look.
With their dressed down punk look, the Buzzcocks had the musical chops to match. Pete Shelley, the band’s lead singer, looked like the weedy kids at my school, the ones that got bullied and never got picked for the football team. His vocal style was quiet, limp, whiney, camp and often out of tune. It wasn’t the classic punk rock loud, proud, macho and shooty vocals you associate with this genre. Shelley was unique and he was certainly not a lead man in the classic punk rock mold like Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer or Dave Vanian. Northerners like myself loved the Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley; we identified with them and claimed them as our own.
Their 1977 Spiral Scratch EP was the first ever self-release punk record. It sounded fantastic and was 100% Punk Rock. Track one, side two; Boredom was a call to arms. For me it was this record, not The Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK, that signalled Punk Rock had arrived. This EP announced punk’s rebellion against the status quo whilst also providing the strident musical minimalism template (the Steve Diggle guitar ‘solo’ consisting of only two notes but repeated 66 times!) that all future punk records would measure themselves against. Martin ‘Zero’ Hannett quickly recorded and mixed the music in a single day and it was perfectly insistently repetitive and energetic. Jon Savage states in England Dreaming (2001: 298) that this record was instrumental in helping establish the small record labels and scenes in both Manchester and Liverpool. Following on from this EP, the Buzzcocks released three fantastic albums; Another Music In A Different Kitchen in 1978, the superb Love Bites also in 1978 and A Different Kind of Tension in 1979. Martin Rushent expertly produced all three albums, none of which need rescuing here.
For the traditional Buzzcock fans, Homosapien was a super-sad and disappointing event upon its release in 1981. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre maintained that the concepts of authenticity and individuality have to be earned but not learned. We need to experience “death consciousness” so as to wake up ourselves as to what is really important; the authentic in our lives which is life experience, not knowledge. As he wrote in Being And Nothingness (1943: 246), “We can act without being determined by our past which is always separated from us“. Many artists reach this point in their careers; this is the moment when Pablo Picasso swaps expressionism for abstract cubism. Sartre would probably concur that Pete Shelley experienced his ‘death consciousness’ moment when he recorded this album. Homosapien is the moment Shelley and Rushent swap electric guitars for synthesisers; they are both acting without being determined by their collective and individual Buzzcock pasts.
Much of the material contained on this album were songs originally intended for the Buzzcock’s fourth album. Some of the material on Homosapien even pre-dates the Buzzcocks and had been cryogenically stored for a number of years. This wasn’t Shelley’s first solo album as he had recorded, but not released, an album called Sky Yen way back in 1974. Some of this material was re-worked on Homosapien. The Buzzcocks had fully committed to recording a fourth album. It’s pure conjecture, but this album was probably set up to continue their intriguing, strange and powerful direction they had taken on their third 1979 album A Different Kind of Tension. Rehearsals for the fourth album were underway in Manchester when the record company (EMI/Fame) refused to advance the money needed to make the record. Tensions were running high, so producer Martin Rushent called a halt to rehearsals and returned to his newly built barn studio, Genetic, on his property near Reading in Berkshire.
Shelley followed Rushent down to Berkshire and the two settled into Genetic studios with the intent of working on Buzzcock demos. This was no ‘home’ studio; technologically it was cutting edge and years ahead of its time. Rushent had predicted the future of record production, investing a considerable sum of money on audio equipment such as a Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, Roland MC-8 Microcomposer and a Roland Jupiter 8 keyboard with the intent of teaching himself the new art of music programming. Once Rushent had confirmed that ‘sequencing’ was the future of record production, he equipped his Genetic Studio with the very best and most expensive audio equipment. This included a MCI console, one of the first Mitsubishi Digital multi-track records, at an eye popping £75,000 ($153,000), a Synclavier and a Fairlight digital synthesiser, where most people would buy one or the other.
Very quickly Shelley and Rushent fell in love with the sound of the ‘Linn Drum’ demos at the exact moment where mainstream electro-synth pop was just taking hold. Rushent used his studio as a research and development laboratory, perfecting his new way of producing records. Homosapien is the sound of one musician (Shelley), one record producer (Rushent) and lots of early, expensive computer technology. Visionary Island Records’ A&R Executive, Andrew Lauder, heard the early demos and instantly offered Shelley a solo deal. Tired of the Buzzcock’s near bankrupt financial state, Shelley abruptly disbanded the band via an insensitive lawyers’ letter mailed to his band-mates.
Virgin Records’ A&R Executive, Simon Draper, listened to the finished Homosapien album; he’d heard the future. Martin Rushent was instantly hired to produce the Human League’s 1981 hugely popular masterpiece album Dare. By the time Rushent set to work on Dare, he had perfected a new way of sequencing and programming synthesiser-based music. In this process, he had pioneered the technique of ‘sampling’, skills he first practiced on Homosapien. This, said Shelley, marked a departure from the baroque flourishes of the outdated progressive rock era: “Martin wasn’t content that synthesisers produced weird noises; he did his best to use them to convey musical ideas. These days when you listen to music you don’t even hear the synthesisers. That is due to Martin, who was at the vanguard of making electronics work for the music“.
The Buzzcock fans’ shock had barley dissipated from the unexpected news of the break up when Homosapien was released. A great number of Buzzcock fans were disappointed and disenchanted by what they perceived as Shelley jumping on to the Gary Numan synth-pop bandwagon. Shelley’s lyrics remained just as cold, disjointed and disgruntled as they ever were on a Buzzcocks’ album, only now they’re placed much more in the forefront of the soundstage instead of being just an afterthought. The album confirms that Shelley’s wry, witty, lovelorn pop songwriting ability was still perfectly intact. As you would deduce from the album’s title, this work is as narcissistic as anything that David Bowie could ever write, “Homosuperior in my interior“; it doesn’t get any more narcissistic than that.
Despite the new method of computer-sequenced production Rushent manages to retain the tight compressed, hard vocals of Shelley’s band work. The ten tracks on this album are magnificent, modernist abstract electronic works of art. The opening track and first single, Homosapien, was rejected by British radio due to the song’s apparent homosexual overtones, even though taken at face value, its controversial nature seems less evident. Regardless, it was a worldwide club hit, especially in gay clubs, and was the blueprint for many synth-pop dance tracks that followed. Tracks like the fabulous experimental I Generate A Feeling and the relentless I Don’t Know What It Is are confirmation of this testament. If this album was a painting it could easily be one of Philip Diggle’s modernist pieces of abstract expressionism. The similarity between this album and Diggle’s paintings are very similar i.e. Diggle’s paintings are complex 3-D abstractions, they go beyond texture, and some of them are inches thick as is Shelley’s music on this album.
With the lack of mainstream radio play, and poor reviews, this album was largely unloved upon its release. The NME said that “Homosapien is the first chance to examine the solo Shelley over the full range of interests and emotions but it is a disjointed album… the problem is the bulk of the raw material is too ineffectual, often embarrassing and half realised, to give the songs a focal point which binds, injects or drives them with the necessary conviction or resolution… It lacks energy, urgency and desperation, something to grab on to: the power to wake you or make you or shake you up. A shame because Shelley still has a lot to give”.
When Homosapien was originally released, it pushed the technological envelop on all fronts. As a cassette, there were ten tracks on one side, while the other side was a computer code that could be loaded onto your Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer. I often wonder how many people played the wrong side of the cassette on their HiFi system and heard the garbled cacophony of computer code, thinking this was the album? I bought the cassette version upon its release in January 1981, but could never get the computer graphics to work properly. My cassette version was quickly replaced by the sonically much superior CD version, which came out a few months later in June 1981.
I would also suggest that this album suffered from some unwarranted homophobia. Pete Shelley was punk’s version of heavy metal band Judas Priest’s lead singer Rob Halford. When both artists came out, the press had a field day resulting in many fans deserting both artists; not that it made one iota of difference to the music. Judas Priest was still a kick-ass heavy metal band no matter the lead singer’s sexual preference. The one positive of Shelley’s ‘coming out’ was the attention Homosapien received by a totally new demographic that never heard of the Buzzcocks. As a stupendous club dance track, the single Homosapien, was a huge success in gay clubs around the world even if it didn’t generate high retail sales.
In recent times, the genius of Philip Diggle’s modernist action paintings have been recognised by the American corporate business world who are buying his work as part of their investment portfolios. Diggle’s works can now be found hanging in the Rockefeller Centre and corporate headquarters of the Chase Manhattan Bank; both located in New York City. In many ways the Shelley/Rushent album Homosapien is similar to one of Diggle’s artworks. It can take thirty years or more for cutting edge works of art to be fully assimilated and accepted into the cultural landscape. This album was the work of two visionary artists who created a substantial work of art as opposed to an ephemeral standardised pop record. This album is evidence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory at work. The name of the studio, ‘Genetic’ and the name of the album ‘Homosapien’ are all not so coded semiotic clues as to how this album evolved from the punk rock of the Buzzcocks. Homosapien will forever be associated with the sexually charged gay scene, the smell of Amyl Nitrite and thumping bass of gay club dance floors. Too many homophobes made this album taboo and off limits. My suggestion is to get hold of the Homosapien CD, play it loud and just enjoy the fabulous music.
 The Telegraph 2/7/14 (Rocks Back Pages accessed 24/6/15)
NME 22/8/81 (Rocks Back Pages accessed 24/6/15).
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album.
These words begin Bowie’s second Tin Machine album, critically panned as ‘second rate’. This marks Bowie’s second attempt at equanimity within a band since heading up The King Bees as Davie Jones in the mid 1960s (Trynka, 2011). In the interim, he added the moniker ‘Bowie’ vying to outdo Mick Jagger (meaning ‘hunter’) by naming himself after a legendary hunting knife – although the story is still hotly debated and becoming a mega-star (Sandford, 1996). Was forming Tin Machine an act of sheer pretension or a genuine plea to return to his roots? Indeed, for the inimitable David Bowie, self-conscious pretension is an active part of his stagecraft and a key ingredient within his famous ‘personas’. This brings us to another quandary: where is his faithful, protective mask during the Tin Machine era? Did the 1980s, which saw him perform to audiences in the hundreds of thousands, selling albums in the tens of millions, see him emerge from behind the mask? Had he finally accepted his Reality as a household name without obfuscating his (dubious) ‘true’ self behind theatrical disguise? Or was he making Tin Machine, the band, his latest attempt at subterfuge; albeit in the guise of honest, grassroots rock ‘n’ roll? As band member, Hunt Sales, famously remarked, “this was presumably the only garage band in existence with a millionaire for a lead singer” (Leigh, 2014). How ironic that ‘Woody’ Woodmansey, the drummer of the Spiders from Mars, once declared Bowie as simply ‘one of the lads’ who became a star and a show-off and relinquished his duties lugging gear as he had done in the early days (Trynka, 2011).
An assessment of the Tin Machine album in hindsight, however, highlights the successful experiment it was: his image, though tainted, lived to see many more reinventions. Consequently, both Tin Machine albums can be seen as improvisations on themes and ideas which would take another decade to perfect with the emergence of his next manifestation of (flawed) genius in albums such as Outside (1995) and Heathen (2002). Fast forward yet another decade and The Next Day (2013) appears without warning; offering up songs of radical contrast from the heartbroken Where Are We Now? to the rock lament The Stars (Are Out Tonight). So the Tin Machine experiment represents a necessary pipeline through which Bowie’s creativity passed, surged, died and re-emerged. We might therefore consider Tin Machine’s second album from the point of view of the music; Bowie’s fandom; the Tin Machine band; the Bowie mask; the album itself and the individual tracks as a way of rescuing the album from damnation within the Bowie lexicon.
Arguably, all the libel against Tin Machine connotes the best part of the great man’s life: the music itself. The first Tin Machine album was lambasted as a work of garage band wall-of-noise and both garage devotees and Bowie fans alike seemed baffled. For my part, I confess to greeting the first album hoping to hell it would match his seminal works of the 1970s, and after a valiant period of evangelical apologism, I resolved (along with the rest of the enclave) that it was awful. This second album was released by Polygram in Australasia in 1991 and, despite its questionable merits, ushers in a new era in music – a time when the rock giants of the 1970s were truly gone (maybe not as ‘gone’ as Syd Barrett, but gone nonetheless). New rock supergroups such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana took up the mantle. Indeed, the 70s gods of rock returned in the guise of ‘old rockers’ two decades later (De Generis, 2007), (those that had not carked it, that is).
Certainly, the diehard Bowie fan really wants the second album to work, and listens intently for the expected sense of transcendence to rise. Alas, like their response Tin Machine one, the exemplary fan falls somewhere between disappointment and denial.
There is, however, much that this album promises and foreshadows, echoes and reinvents: both in Bowie’s music and that of his protégés – all commendably. With hallmark screaming guitars supplied strategically by Reeves Gabrels, who also co-wrote most of the material, the album provides a clarity and balance, which might betray a rookie breed of excellence… had it been anyone but Bowie in the co-driver’s seat. The reputedly telepathic Sales brothers, Hunt and Tony, fill out the basic line-up contributing some not-quite-dirty-enough tunes to the song list. According to biographer Paul Trynka, all three accompanying performers on Tin Machine toured with, befriended and did copious amounts of cocaine with Bowie in preparation for this album.
Produced by Tim Palmer (& Tin Machine) and mixed at Studio 301 in Sydney, Australia, this album prefigures the simple rock line-up of the Reality tour (2003). But the cookie-cutter mentality to songs does not quite have that ring of authenticity, nor does Bowie adequately disappear in the background. Had Bowie read too much Marxism during his performance of the titular role in Berthold Brecht’s polemic play Baal (1982)? Did he look back in anger to find his teacher lounging in his overalls? Or was he simply in denial of his status as mega-star? As forerunner to much of Bowie’s subsequent work with virtuoso guitarist Reeves Gabrels, the album promises a burgeoning style, which subsequently shape-shifted all the way to Outside. But where The Spider’s lead guitarist Mick Ronson had been the exemplary axeman for the glam rock era and ‘crafty’ guitarist Robert Fripp had all but created Scary Monsters’ keystone, inimitable, psychotic rock, Gabrels virtuosity just becomes annoyed, annoying and overweening.
The cover art provides a first glimpse of the material to come, while simultaneously causing a cringe of trepidation. Bowie’s languid stare at the camera on the inner cover of the CD seems to deny the contrasting cover depicting four circumspect (and circumcised) Egyptian male nudes (banned in some countries). Bowie glowers with a touch of suppressed charisma as if subsuming himself in the (dubious) mentality of band solidarity were just a private joke he had not let the others in on. His look seems to say: ‘I am just visiting here’, like the space traveller Thomas Jerome Newton of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975) or the escapee from worldly oppression, Major Tom.
Once the album is in the player, the scrutiny begins in earnest: as does our attempt to recover the gems hidden in the detritus. With yet another reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Baby Universal kicks the album off with a techno-fetishist repetition of the word: “baby, baby, baby…” The hook is excellent and reeks of self-referentiality: space, star babies, alien voices and a reversal of the haunting ending of Diamond Dog (“bra, bra, bra, bra, bra…”). Baby Universal’s theme curiously collides two of Bowie’s notable obsessions: space and mental telepathy. Yes, Sir David, we can hear you thinking: do ‘think’ us some more. For a moment there’s real potential in this album.
One Shot, written with Tony Sales, produced, mixed and engineered by Hugh Padgham (retuning for another crack after Loving the Alien). There is a touch of The Labyrinth in the song’s simplicity and screaming guitar lead (not mixed so far back as to obscure its pretensions to garage band). And yes, Gabrels peels off an awesome arpeggio or two, but does it add up to a unique song? Here the listener is privileged to hear fine musicianship hitching a ride on a less than satisfactory vehicle, which only goes to prepare us (dejection beginning to set in) for the pedestrian song: You Belong in Rock n Roll. Yet, this next track, with the whispered, haunting, low crooner tones of Bowie at his best, promises to impress. However, the song proves a mere practice-run for the far superior Where Are we Now? on The Next Day. If this is rock ‘n’ roll, then it ain’t the 60s anymore. And if this is garage, they ain’t waking up the neighbours. Yet, the song actually sits nicely in the set: well arranged; some inventive SFX mixing, which creates a rush of insight for the listener; and some fine restraint on Bowie and Gabrels’ part (although seemingly vying for attention). Just when the album might have become odious, If There Is Something (written exclusively by Chuck Ferry) arrests Gabrels’ guitars from competing with Bowie’s voice and the two elements dovetail melodiously and effectively.
Amlapura: trippy, deliberately messed up, like coming off cocaine – which according to Wendy Leigh (2014), Bowie was snorting copiously at the time of this album, having claimed to have ‘kicked’ the habit previously. The dream-life represented in the appropriately titled Amlapura, couched in a sound-reverb shell, which echoes Pink Floyd (less satisfactorily). The song also prefigures psychedelic revival bands such as The Dandy Warhols and Tame Impala, invents upon the past, only to leave us hankering for the future.
And so to Betty Wrong. Scrap the tedious guitar clichés and play this on half speed and the incisive sheering chords cut through with the delightful weirdness of a David Lynch film. Indeed, the title sounds like a character from Twin Peaks (this is not such an improbable simile when you consider that in 1992, Bowie acted for Lynch in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and provided the title track for Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), I’m Deranged (1995). Perhaps that’s what Betty Wrong lacks – the essential ‘derangement’, which comes to fruition on Outside years later. Betty Wrong’s curiously switching bass, all-too-squeaky-clean, yet muffled riffs counterpoising Bowie’s smacked-out lyricism and affectedly exhausted vocal delivery contributes to a song, which is tonally satisfying, if not fully congealing. However, by this stage we are aching for the quintessential Bowie: the genius that invents (even steals) melodies such as Somewhere Over the Rainbow for sublime songs like Starman (1974) (Trynka, 2011).
So with You Can’t Talk (again written with Tony Sales), the messy grunge guitar, the driving, steam-train beat propels us through lyrics, which should be worth listening to, but somehow, Somewhere Over the Rainbow just isn’t manifesting here. Is it that Bowie’s invention is too good in the chorus to deliver a sense of the holistic song – especially a garage (w)hole? Embarrassingly, the lyrics seem lazy and teenage, yet without the prerequisite youthful anger, which ought to accompany such garage fare: the genuine, raw-power rage, which underpinned works like Scary Monsters (1979) and Ziggy Stardust (1972) is simply saddened by impending middle age; nor does it bear the inspired improvisations of Heroes’ (1977) lyricism. When the tired, clichéd fade out announces a sheer lack of creativity at the song’s ending, we are left wondering where Bowie’s mask is? Is he emerging from behind the disguise to a disappointing response? Should he simply venture back behind the personas we love so much?
The next track Stateside is: Iggy Pop meets Screaming Jay Hawkins. The Hammond organ and slick lead guitar (both played by Gabrels) seems merely an excuse to scramble up the fret-board for a good old-fashioned ‘rave up’ ending (with a dash of Steve Vye xxx).
Shopping for Girls bears a taste of Lodger (1977) or Blackout from the Heroes album with its inspired hatred of the world. Unfortunately, with none of the edge, nor the concessions to feminism, which shone from Lodger (‘I guess the bruises won’t show, If she wears long sleeves, (Don’t hit her)’) (Bowie, 1979). For all its noise, the song somehow seems tame, as if washed by an all too generic chorus. Here, we observe a concession toward Bowie auteurism: we fall, yet again, into the trap of comparing this wanting album to the master’s former greats.
A Big Hurt: could that be Suzy Quatro sneaking into his influences (an ironic reference to the one girl in glam rock who dressed as a boy instead of vice versa)? Perhaps only Oz-centricity recognises this similarity? In any case, the Sprechgesang in A Big Hurt is palpably self-conscious. Yet, even this is understandable for an artist such as Bowie: always deliberately self-conscious compared to the ‘organic’ Rolling Stones. Bowie always more interested in conveying ideas, intellectual narcissism, interplanetary tin cans and lost, remote screaming style than unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps this is why both Tin Machine albums suffer so: without music as vehicle for ideas, Tin Machine is just bad rock.
Speaking of which, his next track, Sorry (bearing no resemblance to The Easybeats or even The McCoy’s Sorrow (for which Bowie recorded the definitive version) demonstrates that Bowie and Gabrels have a deft capacity for clashing styles against each another while retaining the essential ‘sense of the song’ and still rendering it as garage. The welcome acoustic twelve-string guitar, which opens and concludes this track, makes us wish the writers really were sorry, rather than just crooning about it.
Goodbye Mr Ed (written with Hunt Sales) sports lyrics, which again promise the Bowie that was and will be again, particularly with pop references to 1960s U.S. TV shows and classical Greek mythology alike. The parallel voices (albeit missing Bowie’s backing up his own lead: ‘the many Bowies’ as Shaar Murray put it (1981)). This track foreshadows the bleak, ironic lament of Better Future off the Heathen album, but without the messed up innocence of Bowie’s infamous ‘Baby Grace’ vocal delivery or the bleak entropy of its strikingly accurate witness to our evolving reality post 9/11.
With unwarranted feedback to finish off, Bowie improvises a screaming sax line, as if to announce, like Monty Python: “I’m not dead yet!” At the conclusion of Tin Machine’s second album, the listener concedes that it is definitely an improvement on the first. But, was Bowie really ever satisfied to reside in the background? Or was it doomed from the start, implying that it simply could not be done? Indeed, there in the foldout photograph of the band, beams Bowie’s impish, wry testament: his knowing refusal at anonymity.
Look, can’t we just let Bowie off the hook (so to speak?). Just because he has provided us with genius in so many forms over so many decades, must we expect him to conquer every genre in existence? Indeed, Tin Machine II is an experiment in garage rock, which, although questionable in its own right, still gestated many an experiment to come – and with admirable delivery. The albums which stem from this one – Gabrels Bowie’s Outside, Heathen, Reality, The Next Day all bear the hallmarks of Bowie’s relinquishing genius, but then again there was a time when Bowie cut and ran from the highpoints of the past. It is, of course, the self-righteous indulgence of Bowie fandom to make comparisons to his former glories. Fans must therefore concede that, compared the travesties of Tonight and Never Let me Down (which for many fans spelled the death knell), it is an album with a balance of the pragmatic and the trippy; the hard-edged and the gilt-edged, the beery dance halls just a tad too sober and clean for genuine garage. Indeed, the album is a bottleneck of talent still waiting to flow and fills the hard-core fan with sorrow (complete with string quartet backing track). Yet, surely the clarity of Tin Machine’s production and the slick, riffing rock ‘n’ roll style (even as we cannot help our judgement) is only to be admired (if I still sound like an apologist – I am).
Biographer Wendy Leigh argues this is not true and that Bowie fashioned himself on entrepreneur Norman Bowie.
Where Kiss had theatricalised even the act of unmasking (1983-1996) after their 1980 album Kiss: Unmasked, heralded a change, Bowie, in this same era had merely neglected the mask until it stuck firm in place (Shaar Murray, 1981).
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. Tin Machine ‘Tin Machine’ is written by Dr Ian Dixon, one of ARS’s 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)
Beverly Lucas is the CEO for Knight Composites a global company designing and manufacturing high performance wheels for the cycling and triathlon industries. Originally hailing from Sheffield, Yorkshire, UK, Beverly is the true definition of a multinational company leader. Like many CEOs of international companies, Beverly’s hard working pragmatism and dedication has led her to global success.
Beverly explains to Dalton Koss HQthe importance of being politely pushy andwhy it is easier to run a global company when you are living and/or working in a number of countries across different time zones.
I started racing when I was 9 for my local club, the Rutland Cycling Club, the oldest UK cycling club. Riding and racing your bike against your twin sister instils an independent spirit. My mum still tells me today that she knew when I was 4 years old that I would be the one in the family to fly the nest and go abroad to become an amazing leader. My mother’s support has been the one constant in my career for which I am continuously thankful.
I like to think that I have my mum’s dedication. She has always pushed and encouraged me. If I am honest, my leadership journey has been relatively easy. I never experienced sexism in the cycling industry; I have only been treated with the upmost respect. I think this is because I always maintain my ground, fighting for what I believe in. It stems from having determination, fire and passion and making it clear that I will not be trodden on. I have never let my gender get in the way of what I wanted to do.
My leadership journey started at Felt bicycles. In addition to having a strong work ethic, I had a brilliant boss by the name of Bill Duehring. He always steered me in the right direction and is the great-uncle I never had. Bill shaped my career, giving me advice to become the great leader I am today. If I can be half the person Bill is, then I would be happy. Bill encourages his staff to succeed. He was and still is my mentor.
When I moved to Bend, USA, in 2005 I became one of their first telecommuters. Bill had faith in me to continue my job no matter where I travelled. It takes a certain individual to work from home in a management role for another company. It requires work life balance. Felt was a real success story for me. I was one of the few women in the cycling industry in a management position and I’m proud to say I helped put Felt on the map with its first Tour De France team. It was wonderful to do this for Bill and he still thanks me today.
In 2007, I became pregnant with my second child Cameron and my husband and I decided to buy a bike shop in June/July of the same year. I just finished working for Felt, I was within three weeks of delivering and I was the volunteer coordinator for the Cascade Cycling Classic. Simultaneously, I was consulting for elite athletes, managing their contracts. It was at this time that Jim Pfeil came to me with (then) Edge Composites wheels and told me that the company needed some guidance. Jim called me and asked if I would consider speaking to Edge’s CEO about product globalisation.
I started to research Edge and I was impressed with their product considering they were a small company, but I uncovered that Edge didn’t own their own name or IP and a Chinese company was ripping them off, so I knew they needed help and I started to work for them from Bend. We then relaunched the company under a new name the following year at Eurobike and it was incredibly successful. I also took ENVE to their first wind tunnel tests using my connections at Felt. The results were less than spectacular and I recommended that they needed an aerodynamicist to assist their composites engineers with a much faster design.
At that time, the Australian cycling team, Fly Virgin Australia, was sponsored by, and using, ENVE composites. As an avid Formula 1 fan, it caught my attention whilst watching the Melbourne (Australia) Gran Prix back in 2009, that Jenson Button’s F1 team, then Brawn GP, were also sponsored by Branson’s outfit. I used this connection to basically blag my way into the Brawn GP compound in Brackley, UK, to discuss the potential of having Brawn GP aerodynamicists help with our wheel designs. An alliance with Brawn GP would have been massively expensive, but their Head of Trackside Aerodynamics told me about Simon Smart, who had an engineering background with Red Bull and was also a big cycling fan. At the time, he was already involved with a couple of brands in the bicycle frame industry and was rapidly becoming renowned as one of the top aerodynamicists. I had a beer with Simon and we got along like a couple of old mates.
We started working with Simon and before we knew it, we had the Smart ENVE System. It is about having the courage to believe in what you think is ground breaking and pursuing that thought. This courage sets you apart from others and is essential in being a leader. It was watching the Melbourne Grand Prix at 5am that I had the light bulb moment of gaining better aerodynamics via Formula 1 race engineering. It is about trusting your instincts. I went after the Brawn GP to work on wheel dynamics and a successful partnership was borne out of that. It was fun!
After working for ENVE and spending a couple of years – ironically – working in the bicycle industry in Melbourne, I was approached by Jim Pfeil and Kevin Quan and asked me to join their quest to create the world’s fastest bicycle wheel. I immediately responded with yes! Initially we didn’t have a brand name and tossed around some ideas. It was my partner Sean who approached me and suggested to call the brand Knight, my dad’s surname. Taking on this name was sentimental for me. My dad passed away when I was young. He introduced me to cycling, sharing his love and passion for the bike with me from a very young age.
I was asked to be the company’s CEO by our investors. This proposition took a little longer to agree to. Heading up a new company is a huge risk, especially as a parent with the responsibilities of two children. It takes a lot of courage and faith to move out of a regular job with a regular paycheque to owning your own manufacturing company. Unyielding hard work, devilishly long hours and very little sleep – it’s hardly a glamorous role and certainly not one for the faint hearted.
However, this risk has paid off with Knight Composites comprising of an amazing team of people creating fantastic results. Each person is 100% committed to our brand and products. The whole team works incredibly hard, but we all love what we do. Like any cycling team, to make it to the top you have to be prepared to sweat and work with your teammates; you’re in the race together. I’m incredibly proud of what we do, who we are, where we are going and how much fun we will have in getting there. Being the team leader – or CEO – is just the small print.
Some key words I use to describe effective and successful leadership include:
Dedication; a large quantity is needed.
Courage; you have to have faith in your own ideas and courage to see them through.
Face-to-face conversations and relationships; building trust, confidence and integrity across all your professional relationships is necessary to build a successful career.
Confidence; it is important to believe in yourself and see any program of work through to the end.
Humility; it is important to understand the perspective of others and what it is like in their shoes. I am lucky that I have worked at the global level with different cultures so I find it easier to get on with a diversity of people at multiple levels. I always love to help people, getting them where they need to be. I thrive on other people getting a kick out of what we do.
Creativity; be creative in how you make things happen, identify the gaps and see the synergies.
Build strong partnerships; each partner will bring something to the table. I have amazing staff here in Bend and you need to trust and empower your staff. I am not full of my own self-importance.
Face-to-face communication, whether on Skype or flying to meetings, is the best way to communicate. This is incredibly important in Europe and Asia, where discussions around a table are still far more respected than emails and phone calls. This human side to a working relationship is incredibly important, something that emails and phone calls cannot replace. Cycling is a business, but most of us are in this industry because we love it! There’s nothing better than getting to know your business partners in and out of the conference room by putting a ride together after work or going for a swift one down to the local pub! That’s the difference between business travel being a chore and actually becoming an opportunity to experience other ways of life. It was a lot easier to travel when I was young and single. It’s difficult to leave your kids when you have an important job to do but I have never missed Molly and Cam’s birthdays yet!. It is really hard to keep a work life balance of being a good mum and employee. Most of the time I think I am pretty good at this, but it does require hard work.
I attribute a lot of my success to my mum. She taught me dedication and instilled a sense of just keep going; basically resilience and strength. I am fortunate to have amazing people in my life that I can count on. They provide a great support network and will be honest with me, calling me out when required. In essence, it’s actually easier to run a global company when you are experienced in living and/or working in a number of countries and across different time zones. I think you have to be prepared to put in the hard yards and make the effort to travel to other countries to really understand the mechanics of global business.
I don’t subscribe to the view that you can be a rounded leader by only ever working from one desk in one city – for example, how can you possibly head up global sales or global marketing if you only have a one-sided geographical and cultural perception of how industry and commerce work in other countries if you don’t actually live it? You can’t be parochial about business matters and equally you have to learn to empathise with the people you’re working with. I have such phenomenal friendships with past business partners because I spend time getting to know them.
My health and wellbeing is central to functioning across multiple time zones. I don’t do yoga because I can’t spend more than ten minutes in a group setting without laughing. My back yard comprises of 350miles of off-road trails. I don’t ride as much as I would like to, but I often choose to ride and run on my own, avoiding groups, so I can think and plan accordingly. My personal time is pretty haphazard anyhow and I can’t stick to a daily regime. The only constant in my life is school pick up and drop off. If I need to clear my head, I take a break and go for a run or ride.
I am totally dedicated to what I do. I am a research junkie. I am a tech geek. I am not a TV watcher as I don’t really have time for TV. This time researching keeps me ahead of the game and my competitors. I am lucky to have a lot of common sense and find the time to talk to a lot of people. I look at what other companies are doing. It is mind blowing as to what is out there. I love my job. I do have a sincere passion for what I do but I also care about what everyone is doing.
For those who want to create their own business or product within the cycling industry, my advice is to reach out to knowledgeable people even if you don’t know them. Ask people to help you. For the most part, 90% of people in the cycling industry are in it because they love it and they are happy to help you. Across any industry, there will be handfuls of people who don’t care and will not give you the time of day. You will quickly learn who they are. Don’t be afraid to reach out. LinkedIn has been an amazing tool for me that I use daily; ultimately you need to learn how to communicate yourself to the greater professional world. Don’t be afraid to be politely pushy.
To learn more about Beverly and Knight Composites, please click on the links below:
Discovering new music is always great fun and one of life’s greatest pleasures. It gets even better when you are pointed towards or discover an album totally unexpectedly. This is how I found out about Jim Ford’s wonderful, but largely ignored album, Harlan County. I received an out of the blue email from my good friend and professional cycling team manager John Herety who directed me towards this record with the explicit instructions that “you must listen to this album, it will kick your ass and blow your mind”. Thanks John for pointing me towards this superb, but largely forgotten, gem of Southern funky rumpus. Music is similar to a giant wilderness, it’s there for us to explore. Intentionally limiting yourself to one, two, or three genres is akin to self-enforced segregation at its very worst. This expansive musical wilderness is a gigantic history lesson. If you are a true music fan or a musician, you should explore as much of it as humanly possible. In these times, it’s never been so easy to source and purchase seriously cool music cheaply. This is a phenomenon that should be extensively exploited and I do.
Almost twenty years ago I worked for a small Nashville record company and on our payroll we had a couple of part time workers listed as “rack monkeys”. It turned out this role was filled by two young women who went out to the local record stores to make sure our CDs and vinyl records where in the right genre racks e.g. ‘Rock’, ‘Country’ or ‘Soul’. But more importantly they made sure that our releases sat right at the front of these racks. People will only buy what they can see and we made sure, via our rack monkeys, that our artists where the first ones a potential buyer would spot in the store. Occasionally we had a new release that didn’t neatly fit into a single genre, this would result in one of the rack monkeys calling the office and asking which genre rack to place it in. Normally this would be resolved fairly quickly but occasionally it would require extensive dialogue to define and classify the exact genre of the release. To quote Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard from the book Sygdommen til Døden (The Sickness Unto Death) (1849), “what labels me, negates me”. Kierkegaard’s position was that once you label someone or something, it cancels out its individuality and places it within the confines of the applied label. This is definitely one of the biggest problems with Jim Ford’s 1969 release Harlan County; it does not fit neatly into one, two or even three specific genres; in fact it never adopts a label, and that’s a big problem for some people. The other major issue facing this album was the year it was released.
1969 was an exceptional year, if not the best ever, for album releases; The Beatles Revolver, Led Zeppelin II, King Crimson In The Court of King Crimson, The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Who Who’s Next, Captain Beefheart Trout Mask Replica, The Band, Nick Drake Pink Moon, Sly and the Family Stone Stand and The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, the list goes on. Harlan County was arguably the strangest but most compelling album of 1969 and was Jim Ford’s first and only album. How on earth could Jim Ford, an un-heard of artist from the back hills of Kentucky, with this unique blend of country, funk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll ever get noticed in the company of these esteemed artists? At his best, Jim Ford was a clever songwriter, capable of reworking rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, soul and country clichés into fresh, funny, funky southern swamp rock. At his worst Ford was cutesy and unfocused, pulling great songs into awkward, contorted inaccessible genre defying shapes. In part this was due to his overuse of mind-altering drugs and excessive alcohol abuse; well it was 1969. Harlan County captures Ford at both of these extremes.
The laid-back, rootsy, gleeful sound of Harlan County comprising equal parts country-rock, soul, funk and rock ‘n’ roll, is an unlikely catalyst for igniting the 1970’s British pub rock scene. Early pioneers Brinsley Schwarz recorded excellent cover versions of Ford’s JuJu Man and Niki Hoeke Speedway. Brinsley Schwarz’s chief songwriter, vocalist and bass player, Nick Lowe, later recorded Ford’s 36 Inches High. These three songs don’t appear on the Harlan County album; they’re from an aborted 1971 UK recording session that featured Brinsley Schwarz as Ford’s backing band. These three songs would deservedly become classic pub rock staples, which can be still heard belting out of UK pubs to this day.
Harlan County sounds fantastically dynamic with its crazy energetic full-on performances by Ford and his associated ‘A list’ session musicians (including James Burton on guitar, Dr John on keys, Gerry McGee on bass and drum ace Jim Kiltner). Ford produced the record himself; his production techniques are crude but effective and wholly appropriate. The ten songs captured on this album are superbly written paeans to the Deep South of America. These are songs of dirt roads, love, corn bread, truck driving, extended family, honest hard manual work and leaving the Deep South for a better life out west. If this album were a classic American novel, it would be John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath (1939). This album’s music occupies a landscape where R&B meets country, Kentucky meets Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta meets Appalachia. It’s a geographical album of songs as much rooted in its landscape, as it is in the author’s journey through life.
Zeitgeist, a frequently employed word in Album Rescue Series, can also be applied here as this album unequivocally catches the spirit of the times. Forty years later all of the above themes would be adopted by the genre that we now call Americana. The lyrical keynote of this album, hitting the road and leaving home behind for a brighter better place, is well traversed territory by artists such Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark. Ford’s versions of these narratives are grim but they do give a unique, if somewhat raw, account of his experience. Maybe Ford was a southern soothsayer whose cathartic music was simply forty years ahead of its time?
The masterpiece of this album is the opening title track and album theme setter, Harlan Country. This track in particular is a semi-autobiographical story of leaving Kentucky and seeking out a better life out west in California. This song could easily be considered the signature tune of Ford’s entire career, if you could classify it as a ‘career’? The moment this track kicks in with its stunning but unconventional arrangement of rib breaking fat beats, snaky guitar riffs, swampy piano lines, honking funky horns and all topped off with Ford’s Hillbilly soul vocals you know what’s in store from the rest of the album. The wonderful off-kilter second track I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me (Till The Cows Come Home) is a song of sharp humor and hooks pointy enough to catch a Southern catfish. Ford bears his soul for all to see against a greasy rock ‘n’ roll beat that’s high as a kite and as tasty as fried chicken.
Up next is Changing Colors, which is a soulful ballad where we can clearly hear Ford’s voice nearly quivering with naked sincerity and self-awareness against a gentle rhythm and slow building beautiful orchestral arrangement. In hindsight the lyrics are hauntingly prophetic “What makes you think that I won’t ever make it, when the chips are down?” It’s well over 3,000 arduous miles from Kentucky to California but track six; Long Road Ahead makes it sound like the archetypal great American road trip and something to embrace. As Jack Kerouac quite rightly noted in On The Road (1957:p.183) “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road”. If you didn’t know better then this track could easily be mistaken for a Rolling Stones track from their 1971 Sticky Fingers album, with its parping Bobby Keys Texan styled horns, southern funky guitar riff, gospel driven piano and loud three part soul backing vocals.
The central theme of travelling and finding oneself is heavily reinforced on track eight’s Working My Way To LA. This is a song full of optimism, heading for California, and in equal part regret in leaving the beloved family home in Harlan County, Kentucky. One can only guess at the mixed emotions Ford was feeling during the writing and recording of this song. One of only two songs not authored by Ford on this album is track nine’s blues standard Spoonful. This is stark and haunting tune penned by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Howlin Wolf in 1960. Unlike the 1966 insipid and uninspired dirge recorded by overrated UK ‘blues’ merchants Cream, Ford’s version is a proud and blatant reaffirmation of his Southern roots. Ford takes complete ownership of this song and confidently de-constructs it before he re-constructs it in a new(ish) form. It breathes, it sweats, its bumps drunkenly into honkytonk walls and yet like every other song on this album it’s wonderfully chaotic and loose, yet it never unravels. This version of the song knows where it’s going, it’s aspirational, and the place it’s heading is out west to the drug friendly, free loving haze and sunshine of 1969 southern Californian Nirvana. The closing tearjerker ballad is a cover of Thomas ‘Alex’ Harvey’s 1959 song, To Make My Life Beautiful. Ford, and studio band, treat this song with the respect it deserves and deliver a subtle, a word not normally associated with this album, and respectful rendition. It’s an appropriate choice and serves as a calming influence, like a cold beer, to herald the end of the journey. The words of John Steinbeck’s travelogue Travels With Charley (1962:p.4) ring very true here, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us”.
There are a couple of possible factors that contributed to this album almost disappearing into complete obscurity. One of those was Ford’s difficult artistic personality and lifestyle choices; the other was because he signed to the wrong record company. Sundown Records was a small-underfunded southern Californian outfit, which was formed in partnership with White Whale Records specifically to release this album. White Whale Records was home to The Turtles, a few coveted psych rock records, but not much else, and it wasn’t really fit for purpose to market Harlan County. Legend has it that if Jim Ford had waited a day or two before signing this record deal, he would have been on Ahmet Ertegün’s Atlantic Records and produced by Jerry Wexler. That might not have guaranteed him success, but it would have put him somewhere a little more secure and loaded the cards heavily in his favor. Atlantic Records would have definitely provided the financial and marketing clout to ensure this album had the best possible chance of mass sales instead of the Viking funeral that it actually awaited. With Atlantic, there was also the possible opportunity of Ford becoming a pop, soul, or country singer or carving out a career as an often-recorded songwriter. Ford had a good track record as a writer having contributed songs to Motown Records for The Temptations and solo artists such as PJ Proby, Bobbie Gentry and most famously the 1973 hit Harry The Hippie for Bobby Womack. In the 2011 re-issue liner notes there’s an enlightening quote from Bobby Womack “Jimmy was a beautiful cat, one of the most creative people that I’ve ever met”. Those royalties would have certainly made Ford’s life a lot more comfortable in later life. By the early 1980s, Ford had completely disappeared into a haze of drug abuse and erratic behavior.
Jim Ford definitely walked it like he talked it, a singer-songwriter who found his inner talents through the hardships of abject poverty and economically conscripted labor. If he hadn’t escaped this kind of life his future would have being one of hard toil and possible pneumoconiosis like his former coal miner colleagues. His early life bears a striking resemblance to Loretta Lynn’s, as portrayed in the 2003 film Coal Miner’s Daughter. Ford’s roots are in the coal mining villages in the hills of Harlan County, Kentucky, and those early years of poverty and hardship definitely shaped his worldview as expressed through his music. When you expect that life will hand you absolutely nothing and your favor turns around, even if it is only temporary, then intuitively you grab the opportunity like it’s never coming back.
Jim Ford didn’t lead a very glamorous life, he saw out his days until his lonely death on 18th November 2007 in a Californian trailer park in Mendocino County. At least he did fulfil his ultimate dream and make it out of Harlan County. As an album, Harlan Country is evidence that Jim Ford had no equal in his day, he sat on his own cloud in the great American wilderness, cross-legged, wild-eyed and wiry, a figure too dangerous to approach but much too alluring to be ignored. Jack Kerouac captured his type of spirit in On The Road (1957:p.5) when he wrote “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”.