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
Record Store Day Australia (RSDA) falls on Saturday 16th April this year. It’s the third year that I’ve been asked to be an ambassador, something I’m extremely proud of. Ever since I left school in 1979 at the age of 16, I’ve earned my living working in the music industry in one form or another. Physical formats such as records, tapes and CDs are almost part of me; in many ways they define me and who I am. I live in a house that has a whole room devoted to my music collection; rather metro-sexually I refer to this as the “media” room. This curated musical collection tells the story of my life, which hopefully is still a work in progress. Planning and writing about RSDA has got me reminiscing about the first record that I ever bought and about some of my favourite record stores that I’ve visited over the years. The first record that I ever bought was a 7” vinyl single of Son Of My Father by UK band Chicory Tip. I vividly remember budgeting 37 new pence (70 Australian cents) of my birthday money to buy this record from Shakespeare Records, located inside Paragon railway station in my birth city of Hull. The word ‘Paragon ‘ is an interesting choice here as the word means “a person or thing regarded as a perfect example of a particular quality”. The station actually took its name from the street it stands on, Paragon Street, but I still love the way the word is misappropriated.
Back in 1972 there were approximately 39 record stores in Hull city centre serving a population of around 200,000 people. This begs the question why did I choose Shakespeare Records and not Sydney Scarborough, Stardisc, Sheridan’s or one of the large department stores such as Hammonds or Debenhams or any of the other 39 stores? Paragon Station was a fabulous unmodernised Victorian building so much so that it has appeared in numerous feature films and TV shows. One attraction was that Shakespeare Records was a small building, more a pre-fab really, inside another enormous building. Subconsciously it could be the 11 year old me signalling that music and travel would forever be connected in my life.
Originally this record store was called Shakespeare Brothers but in a bid to move with the times in the early 1970’s they dropped the ‘Brothers’ and replaced it with ‘Records’, very hip and groovy. Mid December 1972 and it was a right of passage type day as my Dad drove me to Hull city centre in a tepid blue Vauxhall Viva to make my first ever purchase of what I now know would be many future records. I didn’t know it at the time, but this record is actually a cover of a Giorgio Moroder/Pete Bellotte tune that was released in 1971 under the name Giorgio. The 1972 Chicory Tip version features the very first top ten appearance of a Moog synthesizer in the UK. AIR studio manager Roger Easterby heard the Giorgio original and persuaded Chicory Tip to re-record their version, with additional lyrics added by vocalist Michael Holm, in a weekend. The Chicory Tip version was rush released where it went straight into the top ten and eventually hit number one. AIR’s resident record producer Chris Thomas played the dominating Moog synth part.
Released in February 1972, it took me almost 10 months to get around to purchasing this record. Listening back to this record I can see why I developed my lifelong love and obsession with synth pop. This record has all the DNA of 1980’s synth-pop, such as the synthesizer as the dominant musical instrument, which I came to love a decade later. For an 11-year-old kid from a cultural backwater like Hull, this record demonstrates a musical maturity way beyond my tender years.
This visit to Shakespeare Records set me on a course that would see me visit many record stores all over the world for both business and pleasure. Only 16 years after purchasing my first record I’d left school and was working in the music industry, albeit on the very bottom rung of the ladder. Over the next 36 years I was lucky enough to travel the world many times over and visit record stores in just about every major city that I’ve visited. One of the biggest stores I regularly made visits too was Tower Records at 1 Piccadilly Circus, London. This massive 2,300m2 store opened in 1986 and was their European flagship store. London also had the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road and that was also enormous. These enormo-dome type record stores ushered in the ear of the ‘in-store’ performance or as we called them in the USA music business “the shake and howdy”. If someone had told back then that this behemoth of a record store chain would completely disappear off the face of the planet within a few short years (along with all the other major high street retailers) I would have thought them completely insane.
In these big stores a small stage and PA could be incorporated onto the sales floor allowing for acoustic performances. These performances normally coincided with whatever touring band was in town playing at the local venue. The normal schedule would be an in-store early afternoon, sound check late afternoon and show on the evening; we liked to work our acts hard back then. These in-stores would pay a dividend in terms of record sales, through in some ‘specials’ some free nibbles/barrel of beer and significant sales would follow. In-stores are now a common component in the arsenal of engagement tools of the music retailer.
The sheer scale of some record stores is breath taking, such as Amoeba Music in LA, which is the world largest independent record store spread over 2,230m2 and holding over 100,000 titles. It’s the sheer variety of independent record stores that I love. Some are genre specific, some location specific but all of them love and know music. Some of my favourites, in no particular order, are: –
Aquarius Records in one of my favorite US cities San Francisco. This store has been a fixture of San Francisco’s music scene since 1970, making it one of the longest-running independent record shops in the United States. The store carries a wide range of stock, but is most famous for its extensive selection of psychedelic, metal, and drone music, as one would expect of a San Fran store.
Spacehall Records on Zossiener Straße in Berlin, which I first visited in the mid 1980s. You cannot even begin to talk techno or house or dub or any electronic music for that matter without bringing up Berlin’s Spacehall. The beautiful minimalist, modernist design of the store suits its refined, highly stylish musical aesthetic. It’s like a classic 1980’s BMW, stark, functional but never out of style.
Rough Trade East is the daddy of UK record shops. London’s Rough Trade East, which opened in 2007, may be the younger brother of Rough Trade West, but is also one of the biggest independents in the UK. The store sells predominantly new stock of vinyl and CDs, racked up across a huge 465m2 sales space, and has a handy cafe at the front. Rough Trade is more than just a shop, it’s also one of the most influential labels in the UK, and has put out influential records by The Smiths, The Fall, The Strokes, Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian and more. Rough Trade East also plays host to in-store gigs, film screenings, and talks on film, music and literature. This is more than a record store, it’s an institution and I can’t get enough of the place.
Probe Records, in a city where I lived for over a decade, Liverpool. In a city with such a fine musical pedigree, it takes a lot to stand out and Probe does that. Though it’s moved premises through the years, Liverpool’s Probe Records has been going strong since 1971. Established by legendary Twisted Wheel DJ Roger Eagle and music entrepreneur/producer Geoff Davis, it was more than a record store it, was the epicenter of a movement. Pete Burns of Dead or Alive and Paul Rutherford of Frankie Goes to Hollywood have both worked there along with countless other wannabes and rock stars. In the wake of punk, Probe Records became Liverpool’s go-to record shop, attracting clientele from Echo and the Bunnymen, The Lighting Seeds and OMD. The shop launched its own record label Probe Plus in 1981, which has released work by cult Merseyside act Half Man Half Biscuit.
Good Vibrations, Belfast. The film Good Vibrations named after the legendary Belfast record store of the same name and released last year, was brilliant. It told the story of local music lover Terri Hooley’s attempt to expand his store into a label that would go on to release DJ John Peel’s favorite record Teenage Kicks by The Undertones in 1979. But the film’s popularity also sparked the store back into life. Now in its 13th incarnation, and proclaiming itself as “Belfast’s poorest record shop”, shoppers can still bump into Hooley, now aged 65, working behind the till. Visit it soon as it has a history of going bust very quickly.
I know I’m very biased but my favorite of favorite record stores is Grimey’s in Nashville. Nashville is a town of institutions and Grimey’s is no exception. It’s a store beloved by the city’s residents, and has a sort of hometown family feel about it. I first Mike ‘Grimey’ Grimes when he played guitar with local rock band Bare Jr. who I was working with at the time. Grimey has an uncanny King Midas knack of turning whatever he touches into cool. When I lived there he took over a run down bar, The Slow Bar, in the very un-trendy East part of town and within a few weeks it became Nashville’s coolest, muso bar and late night hangout. It’s exactly the same with his record store. The store has a vast selection of new music, and next door at their “too” (sic) store they have an abundance of “pre-loved” music. They supply their consumers with all formats including CD, vinyl and cassettes. But what really makes them stand out is they do a lot of activities to bring artists into the stores and make them accessible to their patrons. They have many releases and after hour in-stores in ‘The Basement’ located obviously beneath the store. This is a cozy little live music bar to catch a local artist performance while drinking a beer. This is a very special kind of record store that I recommend to anyone that stops in Nashville. This place holds a special place in my heart just because it’s so damn cool. And who knows? Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll visit at the same time as locals like Taylor Swift, Steve Earle, Bobby Bare or Ke$ha.
In my now adopted hometown of the last three years of Melbourne I’m totally spoilt for choice. From recollection there are approximately 87 independent records stores, a number that grows each year, in the metropolitan area alone. There are some fine record stores in this city as there probably are in your city/town/suburb of residence. My suggestion is to go out on an adventure and find the one you like. Find the one that stocks the style and genre of music you like in the part of town that appeals to you. I’ll be out and about but it’s doubtful I’ll physically be able to visit every single independent record store in Melbourne on RSDA on 16th April. If you see me in an independent store around Melbourne on Saturday 16th April come up and say “Hi”, I might even show you what I’ve bought.
Record Store Day Australia (RSDA) takes place on April 16th this year and it is the third consecutive year that I’ve agreed to be an official ambassador. I’m very happy to join fellow RSD ambassador’s Ella Hooper and Adam Brand to support this wonderful day of music and fun. The purpose of RSD is to celebrate the culture and diversity of the independently owned record store. The Australian Music Retailers Association (AMRA) promotes RSDA and it has the unqualified support of record companies and Australian music icons that know the importance of supporting independent music stores. The day brings together fans, artists and thousands of independent record stores across the whole of Australia.
Chris Brown, who was an employee of independent CD, DVD, games and book retailer Bull Moose, originated Record Store Day in the USA. The concept was loosely based around the idea of the already successful Free Comic Book Day. Inspiration came from a brainstorming session held during a record storeowners’ meeting in Baltimore resulting in Record Store Day being officially founded in 2007. It is now celebrated at stores throughout the world, with hundreds of recording and performing artists participating in the day by making special appearances, performances, meeting and greeting their fans, the holding of art exhibits, and the issuing of special vinyl and CD releases along with other promotional products to mark the occasion. Each store holds their own party for the day, to celebrate the unique individuality of each store, and the place it holds within its community. Although Record Store Day, the actual day, only occurs once a year, AMRA (the organisation) provides promotions, marketing, and other opportunities for stores throughout the year, maintaining a website, social media and other means of promulgating its views about the value of independent record stores.
The key word here is ‘independent’. RSDA is about celebrating this word ‘independence’, as in freedom, liberty and self-governance. I am well aware of the advantages of a globalised world economy; indeed I am an English man who now lives in Melbourne, Australia who also lived and worked in the USA. For the whole of my working life I was involved, directly and indirectly, in producing and selling mass appeal contemporary popular music to a global audience. So it may sound contrary when I pontificate about the virtues of independent retailers. But I believe that it is possible for independent retailers to exist in a globalized economy, adding value and variety to our otherwise over standardized lives. I come from a family of independent retailers, my brother Nick and his wife Annie, are proprietors of the UK’s coolest bicycle shop, East Coast Bicycles, my father owned a number of different retail operations and my grandfather ran a shoe repair business all of his life. Our retail spaces are now almost exclusively the preserve of trans national global corporations who view the entire planet as one large connected market place. This can work in the consumer’s favor e.g. economies of scale resulting in lower prices and standardization of products across the globe; I’m not anti-globalization per-say. The globalized retailers take care of the generic, standardized, bulk of products but with little deviation resulting in limited choice. Take globalized furniture retailer Ikea, as an example, each store throughout the world carries exactly the same lines. The world’s biggest music retailer, iTunes, is a truly global phenomenon even though it only exists virtually.
This is where independent retailers come in, no matter what they are selling be it recorded music, groceries, shoes, clothing, wine or bicycles. The independent retailers are the purveyors of choice and are more often-than-not the local arbiters of style and taste. It’s the independents that seek out the bizarre, unusual, quirky, sexy, individual, niche, local and personal items that we desperately need in our lives. Granted these ‘desire’ or ‘life style statement’ items may cost a little more but they are the artifacts that become family heirlooms, the items that we cherish, the ones we love, the items with a narrative attached to them. I for one think that’s worth the cash premium.
Go into any independent retailer of whatever variety and you will invariably find the owner or his family serving you as opposed to some minimum wage earning, polo shirted/fleece wearing, badged, robo-drone who has no interest in the item that you wish to purchase. With an independent you are getting the attention of an expert/enthusiast, someone who has invested countless hours in researching their stock line, they can point out the almost indistinguishable differences on what appears to be similar products. At my favourite record store I spend many hours of my Saturday afternoons flicking through the racks. More often than not the owner, lets call him Buddy, comes over and strikes up a conversation with me and discusses music, records, artists and gigs. He’s not ‘upselling’ rather he is genuinely interested in my musical taste and me. Try this approach in a giant, on-line, globalised music retail environment it’s not the same. Reading the on-line ‘customer reviews’ below a product on a web site is useful but its not like being there. My local store plays loud music on a great sounding system with the cover of the album that they are playing highlighted on a plinth with “Currently Playing” written on it. OK, this is upselling but its upselling of the kind caring type, the type I like. You can buy wine at the supermarket but isn’t it much better to chat with the independent retailer who can describe the characteristics of that particular wine and what dish it is best served with? It’s the same with recorded music.
RSDA is motived around a single day, 16th April this year. This is the day when we celebrate the independent music retailers. Bands, acts and artists release special limited runs of ‘product’ and often perform in store with a real party atmosphere. There is a misconception that RSDA is solely about vinyl sales, its not. RSDA is format agnostic, buy whatever you like on whatever format you like, but make sure that you buy it from an independent retailer. This is a use it or loose it deal. If people don’t support local independent retailers they will disappear. Indeed with the ‘long tail’ online globalised retailers increasingly colonising our leisure space it’s becoming even harder for independents to keep the lights on. At the most basic level, when you buy local more money stays in the community.
The New Economics Foundation (NEF), a UK based independent economic think tank who’s aim is to transform the economy so that it works for people and the planet rather than profits, recently compared what happens when people buy produce at a supermarket vs. a local farmer’s market or community supported agriculture (CSA) program. This research found that twice the money stayed in the community when customers bought locally. “That means those purchases are twice as efficient in terms of keeping the local economy alive,” says author and NEF researcher David Boyle. The local producer/retailer also adds creative elements that make either the product or materials used more appropriate to the location. For example in my adopted home city of Melbourne, RSDA will see local stores offering up some superb one off recordings of local bands. Check the lists of releases on the RSDA web site for what’s available in your city.
Another argument for buying locally and independently is that it enhances the ‘velocity’ of money, or circulation speed, in the area. The idea is that if currency circulates more quickly, the money passes through more hands, a greater number of people benefit from the money and what it has purchased for them. “If you’re buying local and not at a chain or branch store, chances are that store is not making a huge profit,” says David Morris, Vice President of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit economic research and development organisation based in the USA capital Washington, D.C. “That means more goes into input costs such as supplies and upkeep, printing, advertising, paying employees, which puts that money right back into the local community.“
By shopping at the independent record store, instead of the global online retailer, you can stop your community from becoming a ‘clone town’, where the Main Street now looks like every other Main Street in the world with the same fast-food and retail chains. This is a compelling argument for supporting RSDA and its fun too. Save some cash and get into those independent record stores on 16th April and spend, spend, spend. Not only will it give you a smug good all over glow feeling but you will also come away with some music in a tactile format that will stay with you for the rest of your life. That’s why I support Record Store Day Australia; I’ll see you in-store on 16th April?
It’s been a difficult few months in the world of rock ‘n’ roll because everyone seems to be dying. I know this is a new phenomenon (rock stars dying not death per-say). This is because the commercial music industry is relatively young when compared to other artistic endeavors. The early pioneers of this industry are now reaching their late 60s and early 70s, so I suppose death is inevitable. An often-repeated quote is, “the only certainties in life are death and taxes”. Although death is inevitable, it is no less of a shock. Sadness and shock were the first emotions I felt when I heard of Keith Emerson’s death early morning on Saturday 12th March 2016, Melbourne time.
I worked with Keith Emerson in 2002 for almost the entire year as his tour manager and his de-facto go-to guy; that’s how I earned my living back then. However, my connection to Keith goes way back to a childhood in Hull, East Yorkshire. My hippie parents, Karl and Jenny, always had a very eclectic taste in music and I remember in 1972 that they played the Emerson Lake and Palmer album Pictures At An Exhibition in heavy rotation with other weird and wonderful tunes. As a ten year old I found this a very difficult piece of music to comprehend. Indeed any ten year old that could fully fathom the testosterone fuelled butchery of this classic Mussorsky piece would probably be painfully precocious and end up pursuing a career as a popular music academic later on in life. But lets give credit where its due because ELP’s iteration has become one of the seminal documents of the progressive rock era, a record that made its way into the collections of millions of high-school kids who had never heard of Modest Mussorgsky and knew nothing of Russia’s Nationalist ‘Five’. At the time, it introduced the new genre of classical rock to millions of listeners, including the classical community, most of whose members regarded this record as something akin to an armed violent assault. Track four off this record really stuck in my mind, a short original Moog synthesiser interlude, which was never part of the original Mussorsky template. Little did my parents know they were hegemonically pre-programming me to love synth-based music that would stay with me for life. Philip Larkin was right about parents.
I left school in 1979 at the age of 16 to pursue a backstage career in rock ‘n’ roll. Initially this was as a sound engineer before I drifted inevitably into tour management and subsequently a variety of other roles; but that’s a different story. This career development was all done without any formal education; I didn’t complete my first degree until I was 30. I learned on the job as everyone did back then. One of my frequent places of work was a rehearsal studio complex, John Henry Enterprises (JHE), located on Brewery Road just behind Kings Cross railway station in a shabby part of North London. Kings Cross was my de-facto arrival point in London when I rode the East Coats mainline train down from Hull. JHE also had an excellent on site café and a pro shop, which was managed by an incredibly scary; take no shit, Scouser called Barrington ‘Bazz’ Ward. Bazz was king roadie, the roadie’s roadie and what he didn’t know about roadieing probably wasn’t worth knowing. Many a time I stood before Bazz in JHE’s Pro Shop knees trembling while I attempted to purchase all the supplies for a forthcoming tour. Initially I was a very green; know nothing, regional kid working with crap up-and-coming regional bands. Bazz verbally and very bluntly confirmed this fact whenever I met him. But over the next 20 plus years my knowledge base and standing grew and Bazz had obviously taken all this in from behind his shop counter.
Jump forward to mid 2001 and I received an unsolicited out-of-the blue phone call from Bazz Ward, who even over the telephone sounded angry and scary. During this call he summoned me to a meeting at The Balmoral pub on the corner of Caledonia and Brewery Road right opposite the notorious Pentonville prison. During this meeting I discovered two things: 1. Bazz’s bark was much worse than his bite and 2. he had a cunning plan. Bazz had spent many years working with Keith Emerson. Keith was restless out in Santa Monica, California and wanted to tour again. Bazz made it very clear that I had undergone a 21-year observation period and it was deemed that I was now capable enough to be the tour manager, though Bazz was still the boss. Bazz would handle all things technical and I would take care of budgets, staff, contractors, musicians, travel, logistics, accommodation and anything else. For the next few months I worked with Bazz and spoke to Keith many times over the phone while we planned the tour. The tour was to be billed as Keith Emerson and The Nice. The Nice was Keith’s pre ELP band formed in 1967 with Lee Jackson (bass), David O’List (guitar) and Brian Davison (drums) to back soul singer PP Arnold. When PP Arnold departed, the band carried on but with a sound focused on Emerson’s Hammond organ showmanship, and abuse of the instrument, and their radical rearrangements of classical music themes and Bob Dylan songs.
Original member Lee Jackson and Brian Davison were augmented with seasoned session players Dave Kilminster on guitar, Phil Williams on bass and Pete Riley on drums. I hired a road crew, broke into Keith’s lock up, liberated his long retired equipment and commenced rehearsals at JHE. I hired and fired three sound engineers before I blackmailed an old colleague of mine to come out of retirement for the tour (it involved some graphic pictures of him and some strippers in Abilene, Texas that his wife wound not want to see).
It was day one of rehearsals when I got to meet Keith face-to-face for the first time. Soberly dressed in Prada he came across as a quiet successful businessman, which I suppose he was, as opposed to the show business exhibitionist. During these rehearsals I spent many hours discussing the tour with Keith. He was interested in all aspects of the tour including detailed scrutinising of my budgets, logistics, venue information, crew backgrounds and everything connected to the tour. I attended numerous meetings with his accountant in New Cavendish Street in London and even found myself sitting next to Bryan Ferry in reception on one of these occasions. I found the right coloured tour bus that met his very exacting requirements, made sure that hotels and transport details were precise.
I enjoyed my time with Keith as he was always polite, punctual, fair, humorous and strangely introverted often bordering on shy. On a personal level I found him annoying at times especially his inability to undertake everyday tasks such as opening a door, making a decision over mealtime menus or requesting “tepid water”. I guess that middle class upbringing and all those years of being a world famous, high-living rock star resulted in his aberrant behaviour. I hired one of my college students to work as his personal assistant during the tour to take care of these annoying shizzles; the best move I ever made. During the tour Keith would regularly throw me curve balls e.g. moments before departing on the carefully selected tour bus he’d announce that he wanted us to travel by train. Quite often the train option was a much slower, more expensive and more inconvenient then riding on the tour bus but he was the boss so I complied.
Off stage I found Keith very quiet; he spent almost every minute playing a small portable keyboard or harmonica. He’d sit on the train/tour bus with his headphones on ‘clacking’ away playing music (unheard by the other occupants) with a sly smile on his face. I often witnessed him playing his keyboard back-to-front just to make it more challenging. His offstage personality was in direct contrast to his stage persona. On stage he was a maniac and the audience loved it. He fought his Hammond organ every night, stabbed it with daggers until it howled with pain and forced weird and wonderful sounds from his ginormous six foot tall Moog synthesiser. I hated the music; I could not listen to Tarkus or Brain Salad Surgery but that was OK because once I’d put him on stage I would head to front of house to chat up the T-shirt girl while drinking tall glasses of Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic for the next two hours.
Our merchandising was as eclectic as the music. The biggest selling item was Keith’s self penned book Pictures of an Exhibitionist that we literally shifted by the truckload. Not many rock ‘n’ roll tours can claim that their biggest selling merchandise item was a high priced, 350 page piece of literature. He signed my copy “To Touringtim lots a luv careering Keith”. He knew of my love of Public Image Ltd album Metal Box and the single Careering. While on tour in Glasgow, we recorded a live album which turned into a three CD box set where I was credited ‘Executive Producer’; I really must add this to my CV. While on our way to the Croydon Fairfield Halls gig we stopped off to have afternoon tea and scones with his lovely elderly mum. Touring with Keith Emerson was full of these wonderful surprises.
Only last week I was stood in an open plan office taking the mickey out of Keith and doing my inept impression of him to a bewildered audience of wage slaves and office drones. Don’t let this mickey taking fool you. I was incredible fond of Keith Emerson, he made an indelible impression on me. I saw the vulnerable side of Keith and the last two nights have passed without much sleep thinking about his lonely violent suicide. His degenerative medical condition in his right hand, resulting in his inability to play keyboards, had taken to him to a very dark depressed place. Of course he could have bought a cheap plastic USB keyboard and smashed notes into a computer programme with a single finger and let some fruity loops software do all the work but that wasn’t Keith. He was a perfectionist. I remember when we were preparing for the tour, Keith absolutely insisted that we have a $150k Steinway 8’ 6” grand piano on tour with us. We found a piano, built the world’s biggest flight case and shipped the thing around the globe with us. The tour’s trucking company loved us because we had so much equipment; the bright blue pantechnicons with the eagle on the front sure made for an impressive sight outside of the loading bay each night.
My thoughts go out to Keith’s family, who he never discussed with me, and the fans that loved the man. I still feel shocked but not entirely surprised that he chose to take his own life in such a violent fashion. There’s another article to be written here about the absolutely appalling duty of care that the music industry has towards its participants, but that’s for another day. My memories of Keith are all pleasant ones, despite the mickey taking. He was a visionary musician who fused rock ‘n’ roll with classical, jazz and world music and he set a standard by which others would be judged. Thanks for the music and the memories Keith; to me you’ll always be the Dr Who of rock ‘n’ roll and part of my childhood past.
As a Partner at Dalton Koss HQ (DKHQ), I regularly visit educational institutions around the world to give Master Classes and lectures on careers in the audio, music and creative industries. Over the past 36 years I’ve earned my living as a live sound engineer, tour manager, studio engineer, record producer, artist manager, A&R consultant, rehearsal/recording studio owner, record label executive and more recently as an educator. Discussions with early career professionals always trigger the question, how did I get started on my 36-year career in the music industry? What was my personal journey? One of my most frequently asked questions is, “how do I become an audio engineer?” It’s an interesting question as there is no standard route into the profession. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever see a mainstream advertisement in the jobs pages of a newspaper for an audio engineer. I maintain that working in the audio production/music industry is not a job or even a career, but it’s actually a lifestyle, which requires a huge amount of personal commitment. If you are looking for high pay, hedonism and fame then a career in music and audio production definitely won’t be for you.
The music industry does an incredibly clever smoke and mirrors trick where it tries to make itself appear revolutionary and anti-establishment. In reality the music industry is probably the world’s most compliant, conservative and least revolutionary art form on the planet. If you want to be creatively cutting edge and revolutionary then try fine art, fashion or architecture as an art form. To help re-align perceptions of both employers and students, I have organised a number of speed dating with industry events in the UK, USA and Australia. At these very popular events students meet music industry managers and owners and speak to them one-to-one. Results are always positive from both sides of the table. Students start to realize that the product may be music, but ultimately, they will experience a very similar working life to everyone else. The job description may include activities that might seem like social occasions e.g. going to shows, visits to the studio, riding on a tour bus, but being involved in these activities from a work perspective is very different from hanging out with your mates.
The music industry is first and foremost a business and a very serious financially focused one at that. Whether you end up working in the independent music world or for a major international music label, you will be expected to work very long hours in a highly competitive work environment to achieve measurable successes often under difficult circumstances. You may get to wear skinny black jeans and Converse to work, but this doesn’t mean that you are working any less then your friends who have to wear a suit and tie to work in their office jobs. There will be long hours, with the potential for advancement if you perform well, the potential for dismissal if you don’t, good bosses, bad bosses, troublesome clients, all the standard workplace related experiences will apply. There will definitely be some cool perks, but trust my 36 years of experience, they will be very few and far between and they’ll definitely be hard earned. Anyone who is hard working, creative, passionate and motivated will fair extremely well in a music industry career. Here is my personal eight-step guide to become an audio engineer: –
Start working with sound equipment: Audio equipment has never been so cheap and much of it these days is software based. Get your hands on as much equipment as possible and practice your skills. If you believe Malcolm Gladwell’s theory (I do) then 10,000 hours is the magic number. Start clocking up those hours now. Audition microphones, recorders, effects, plug-ins; work out what they do and how they can be used creatively and correctively. Spend all day mucking about with audio equipment, discuss audio equipment with like-minded folk when you’re not mucking about with audio equipment and then when you go to sleep dream about audio equipment – it’s a lifestyle remember?
Enrol on an appropriate audio degree:There are a plethora of different degree options out there so find one that suits you. The role of audio engineer is a diverse one e.g. live audio, post-production, programming, maintenance, design installation, broadcast, mastering, music production, etc. Go and visit the different institutions, that’s what open days are for, and see what they have to offer in terms of degrees/diplomas structure, equipment, exit qualification and consider teaching staff experience. Ideally the educational institution that you choose will have lots and lots of project work (remember that 10,000 hour rule?) so you’ll get plenty of hands on time. A degree in audio production on its own will not be enough to secure you some work so in addition go to a recording studio, rehearsal room, music venue or local theatre and try to make friends with the sound crew. Tell them you’re interested in what they do, and ask if you can hang out and watch them work. Find out about the job and then work out what you want to do and start doing it.
Read some books:There are lots of books (I’m currently writing my third one), magazines and web sites out there. Read as much as possible about audio engineering, music production, mastering, equipment and everything connected to audio and music production. Audio engineering is an incredibly complex industry but the information is out there but it will require you to actively research the industry. By reading you’ll understand the history and context of the industry and that will make you a much better and more employable engineer. Become familiar with different kinds of sound equipment; do lots of research on the Internet, check out the websites of sound companies, studios, record companies, producers, etc.
Learn to use different audio software: You probably already have a favourite piece of software, which you love to use. As a professional you need to be confident in using all of the tools available. Find out about the other software packages available that you don’t use including: ProTools, Cubase, Reason, Cakewalk, Sibelius, Digital Performer, Live, Ableton and Logic.Most of the manufacturers of these products have free demos available on the Internet. Go on the different forums and speak to the audio gurus about issues that you are having. Watch lots of Youtube videos that show you the shortcuts and hacks.
Get familiar with lots of different types of music: As a music industry professional you’ll be working with music that may not be to your taste. It’s vital you critically listen to as many different types of music as possible. No one is asking you to like this music but you do need to understand the mechanics and how it operates. Spend lots of time critically analysing different musical genres that you wouldn’t normally listen too. This is probably the most single important skill you can train yourself to do. A good educational institution will have critical listening sessions as part of their program. When learning how to record, mix and edit music you should also know about the wide variety of music available in the world. Here are some of my learning principles:
Listen to different types of songs.
Analyse different types of sounds.
Try to catch each and every beat.
Think “how did they do that?”
Learn to create your favourite music and even the music you don’t like.
Be honest with your weaknesses and commit to improving yourself: After you have completed a project, look back and critically reflect on what went well and what didn’t. Critically discuss with your peers, employers, and teachers about what you have created and work out how you can make it better. Commit to being better next time by adjusting your workflow or being better prepared. Where necessary, make amends with the parties at the receiving end of your mistakes (e.g. musician, performers, a missed cue on stage or in the mix).
Expose yourself to the ever-changing audio technologies: Chances are, there’s a better way or better tools to get your job done today than there were 6 months ago. However, whatever technology you are considering to use needs to be thought through in the context of what your project actually needs. Technology should always serve what you are trying to achieve in the project, not the other way around. Think of technology as the tools of the trade but do not become technology obsessed because it should be about the music and not the tech. If you apply a piece of tech to a project ask yourself is it helping the artists express whatever it is they are trying to express? If the answer is NO then you probably don’t need that side chained, frequency sensitive plug-in gate ducking the out-of-phase room microphone in the mix.
Be entrepreneurial and become the CEO of your own brand. Just like Bonds sells upmarket underwear and JB HiFi sells electronics, you sell something that is unique — YOU. This includes your identity, personality, work ethic, goals, aspirations, fears and much more. Think of yourself as a brand, as your own public relations, sales and marketing department all in one, and you need to be the CEO of that brand. In the creative industries, self employment and working on short term contracts is the norm so know how to sell the best version of yourself and position your image that will be favourable to all. Your digital footprint (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Wikipedia, etc.) may be a huge factor in you getting that vital paying gig, so actively manage your brand.
Tim will be hosting the following music industry sessions over the next three weeks:
Tim Dalton is a Partner at Dalton Koss HQ with over 38 years of international experience as an audio engineer, record producer, record company executive, A&R consultant and educator. Originally from the UK, Tim has worked internationally with David Bowie, Sir Paul McCartney, Simple Minds, Elvis Costello, Faith No More, The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Transvision Vamp, Primus, De La Soul, and Atomic Kitten.
Dalton Koss HQ is excited to announce that the Album Rescue Series book is now available for sale! Order your copy via our online retailer Lulu.com
At Dalton Koss HQ we love to empower those around us. To accompany the Album Rescue Series book, the very talented SAE Institute audio students were asked to put together an album of songs reinterpreted from some of the rescued albums found in our book. Students put their Producer hats on and were given total freedom to scope their reinterpretation as they wished. The resulting record has some very interesting responses, many of which reflect the students’ area of passion or expertise. Have a listen while reading the Album Rescue Series book! (Note: language warning on some tracks). To hear this music, follow the SoundCloud link.
The early 90’s were a turbulent time. Just a few years after grunge turned the music scene on its head, so the sudden death of Kurt Cobain caused another seismic upheaval. With rock’s biggest bands still readjusting to this brave new world, and grunge’s superstars dazed and in mourning, rock badly needed an adrenaline shot.
Into the vacuum poured a new breed of bands and none more talented volatile, or unhinged, as The Wildhearts. Offering a noisy alternative to the mainstream ‘Brit-rock’ these disparate-sounding newcomers flawed both audiences and the music press with their first almighty sucker-punch.
The bands auburn haired front man/guitarist, known to all as Ginger, for reasons too obvious to explain, had been promising to make his presence felt for a number of years. Latterly the hard living guitarist with UK Rod and the Faces, sound-alike’s, The Quireboys, Ginger’s lifestyle and belligerent personality had seen him fall out with the band’s new management, Sharon Osborne. Cast adrift, just as the Quireboys were about to break into the mainstream, and tour the world as support act for The Rolling Stones, it’s fair to say that the volatile man with the flame hair decided to view the situation as a call to arms, rather than the knife between the shoulder blades that it undoubtedly was.
For months, the rumour mill turned with whispers of Gingers new band. Names were mentioned, line-ups confirmed, and still nothing happened. Then, just as the music press was about to consign all the speculation to the bin, rock radio came alive with the sound of Turning American, by The Wildhearts, and no one had expected it to sound as it did.
To say that Turning American was a thinly veiled attack on Ginger’s previous band would be doing it an injustice. There was nothing veiled about it. ‘The smell of easy money and you’d follow it to death – I can smell the shit upon your breath.’
As alluded to earlier, Ginger Wildheart had always found himself to be a Vegemite personality. People either loved him or hated him; and it is something that continues to this day. A belligerent, aggressive, and hugely unpredictable character, with a yo-yo penchant for some of the darker indulgences of life, made being in a band with Ginger Wildheart as exciting as it was dangerous. However, right from day one of The Wildhearts, it was obvious that Ginger had a talent that the majority of his contemporaries could only weep into their Jack Daniels about.
After testing the waters with the EP’s, ‘Mondo Akimbo a Go-Go’, and ‘Don’t Be Happy, Just Worry’, the band’s line up finally stabilized with the release of Earth Vs. The Wildhearts. Even the album’s title betrayed Ginger’s worldview that he was always the outsider and fully prepared to fight his corner.
Earth Vs. The Wildhearts hit the record stores on August 17th 1993, and it had jaws hitting the pavement from the get-go. From the opening of ‘Greetings from Shitsville’, to the fade out of, ‘Love U til I don’t’, eleven songs later, it left the listener in no doubt that there was never any chance of a compromise. We can all think of albums we own that slowly welcome you into their world. As the more radio friendly and melodic tracks become that bit over familiar, you discover the layers and intricacies of the hidden gems. They invite you to enjoy your own journey of discovery, at your own pace and in your own way, but Earth Vs. The Wildhearts was an album with very different ideas about your listening pleasure. Like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, you felt as if you had been strapped to a gurney with your eyes and ears pinned back, and then psychologically assaulted by the kind of chorus melodies and hooks we generally consider to be the preserve of Lennon and McCartney, or the best of the mid sixties Motown stock writers.
The UK’s New Musical Express (NME) reviewed it with the words; “Earth Vs. The Wildhearts is akin to being jumped by a gang of hells angels on your way home from the pub, and receiving the worst beating anyone would wish never to have; yet through the blood and exhaustion, you crawl away feeling utterly exhilarated and wanting it to happen again.”
So what made this album what it was? Of course it has to start with the songs. In the twenty plus years since its release, Ginger Wildheart has continued to fuel the opinion that, somewhere in the Cayman Islands he has an offshore safety deposit box, full of killer chorus melodies and crunching guitar riffs that he can dip into whenever the mood takes him. Another defining factor is what a hybrid it is; a true Frankenstein of an album. Diamond pop melodies, guitar riffs that bands like Metallica and Slipknot would cut off an arm to have composed, and all delivered in musical arrangements and time changes that have more in common with some early seventies prog-rock album. They are musical elements that, on the surface, are like oil and water; they seem to have no earthly business being in the same recording studio at the same time, yet the fusion is absolute, and without there ever being a musical moment where you can separate any of them.
What comes across is that Dr Gingerstein was never going to give a **** what you, me, or anyone else thought. In the song, ‘Miles Away Girl’, he sings, “You never seem to have any money, because the decent people never get paid.” The line is just one of the dozens of allegories within the lyrics, and a typical Ginger Wildheart statement that he really doesn’t care who you are, or how great your life has turned out; his world view is seated in the person, and not what you have.
Like many great albums, Earth Vs. The Wildhearts didn’t fulfil its potential until the band had imploded in a spectacular mess of booze, bar fights, and hallucinogenic fungi. No sooner was it claiming its plaudits, and starting to dent the music charts, the party was over; at least for a while. Just like Dr Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s book, Ginger Wildheart succumbed to the monster of his own making; famously carving his initials into the boardroom table of Mushroom Records with a flick knife, when signing the band’s deal with them. As the band’s lead guitarist once said to me, “Ginger is never happy; if he found a bar of gold in the street, he’d complain it was the wrong shape.”
Earth Vs. The Wildhearts was a true monster rock album. It broke so much new ground whilst raising its hat in respect to so much that had come before it. Nirvana had become the Khmer Rouge of rock music. They had drawn a line in the sand and stamped year zero on guitar music with a battered Converse. Just as punk rock had blazed a scorched earth policy over the self-indulgence of seventies progressive rock, you could argue that music needed Nirvana in much the same way. However, they heralded a period where rock music became insular and sometimes dark. Kurt Cobain, Layne Stayley, Andrew Wood; the Jim Morrison’s of Grunge, dead before their time, and buried in a t-shirt that says ‘Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead.’ The Wildhearts debut album was the first clarion call in returning rock music to what it had once been, and should always be. It said rock music should be fun again; it should be about having a great time with your mates, and not sitting in your room contemplating your navel over a big joint of weed. It was an album that gave the finger to those who refused to acknowledge the past; Nirvana B.C, and wore its influences boldly on its sleeve. It was Metallica covering the early Beatles, or Nirvana covering Lynard Skynard, and produced by Phil Spector with a gun.
Earth Vs. The Wildhearts is a lost gem, and its legacy is rooted in that very fact. I once heard it described, as like owning a piece of banned or subversive art. Only a select group are aware of it and understand its weight and significance. Occasionally its owners might trust it to new ears, having warned them of the consequences. As Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix, ‘Red pill or blue pill?’ There really is no turning back because you can never unhear it.
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Earth Vs. The Wildhearts is written by Ian Hunter who is a music industry A&R, artist manager, occasional novelist, magazine writer, mischief maker and general trouble causer. Ian is now based in Sydney, lectures at the Australian Institute of Music and is part of a globally successful artist management team. (Follow Ian Hunter on Twitter @IanHunterwriter )
In 1886, Vincent Van Gogh painted a pair of workman’s boots placed on a rustic table; a work of intimate beauty, which achieves transcendence where the subject matter appears so lacklustre (Hall, 2001). Similarly, Kate Bush’s Aerial (2005), complete with themes of washing machines, clothes wavering in the breeze, the movement of ocean tides and birdsong in scat scansion electrifies the domestic mundane. Aerial, the album whose release was ‘imminent’ from the year 2000 and whose opening track ‘King of the Mountain’ was composed as early as 1996 (Moy, 2007), manifests Kate Bush’s sophisticated musicality in a manner which exalts the commonplace. This she achieves: not through soaring themes of tragic love or Houdini-esque escapism, not through the microtonal discordance of the Bulgarian women’s choir nor her brother Paddy Bush’s teeth-jangling guitar riffs, not through threatening to swap places with god nor dancing to death in the same red shoes David Bowie decried, nor releasing a plethora of fiendish critters from underneath her skirts, but through the meditative beauty of domesticity and the natural world.
Like Van Gogh’s boots, the album elicits mysticism through simplicity rendering the material sublime. If anyone can grow up to sing airy odes to washing machines and to her tiny son Bertie (b. 1998), Kate can. If anyone can feature the didgeridoo-appropriating Rolf Harris on themes, which reference French impressionism and English pastoral music for a full six minutes about gentle rain smudging an artist’s canvas causing ‘all the colours [to] run’, Kate can (Bush, 2005). The album’s work is homespun organic (rather than rock extravaganza): transcendental (rather than chart topping) and delicately orgasmic (rather than attention-seeking pageantry as with Kate Bush prior to 2005). As Kate (2005) states in ‘Joanni’:
“All the banners stop waving
And the flags stop flying
And the silence comes over”
Thus, in Aerial, there is quietude and contemplation, even behind its rock anthems. Despite the demeaning claims of cynical reviewers, Aerial (her first album ‘doubling’ since Hounds of Love (1985)) represents the artistic maturation of Kate Bush, thereby re-emphasising her continuing relevance to the ‘adult’ market (Moy, 2007: p. 124).
Pete Townsend once dissented, “Stop judging us by what we did when we were stupid, stupid kids”. Although referring to The Who’s wild antics (culminating with the death of Keith Moon), Townsend’s protest applies to the band’s rock juvenilia as well, becoming the catch cry of ‘aging rocker[s]’ who survive the 1970s (Bowie in Parkinson, 2002). In the wake of 70s excess, performing greats such as Townsend, Bowie, Freddie Mercury (R.I.P.) and Suzi Quatro find themselves battling a public, which, while forgiving their transgressions, will not allow their musical acumen to evolve. Add to this the confronting reality of growing up astoundingly beautiful in the public eye and you have the indefatigable Kate Bush: as T.S. Eliot (1920) muses, “some infinitely gentle, Infinitely suffering thing”, but with a generous dollop of Lindsay Kemp-inspired sassiness. Like so many 70s/80s rock heroes, critics compare Kate’s more recent work to the ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1978) of her early career while simultaneously making no secret of their dirty obsession with her eccentric sexuality (Vermorel, 1983). As Ron Moy illustrates, these ‘over-deterministic’ analyses usually tell us more of the critics’ psyches than Kate Bush’s contribution to thematically insightful music (2007: p. 1). In the Freudian (1986) sense, Kate is championed and punished simultaneously: her very attractiveness entrapping her. As one (bombastic) biographer notes (Vermorel, 1983: p. 63):
“Kate Bush is our goddess Frig. And like the Saxons we both revere and fear her. Shroud her in the mystery of her power and the power of her mystery.”
These critics yearn for Kate’s peculiar mix of angry femme noir and high art with the same vehemence that schoolboys draw lascivious parallels from her surname. There is no doubt the Bexleyheath pariah, Kate Bush, known for pop, art rock and neo-baroque composition, creates fame partly based on her remarkable sensuality, but more importantly makes significant contribution to the progression of serious pop music. Aerial is a prime example of such artistry as evinced though: Kate’s sublimated sexuality; mysticism; repetition as motif; the pastoral tradition; and her pervasive musicality.
The finally released 2005 album, Aerial, went platinum the following year and was awarded a BRIT nomination for Best British Album. In examining Aerial, which sold 90,000 copies in its first week of release and peaked at number three in the British charts, we must also acknowledge Kate’s significance as sexualised female and the ways in which critics have positioned her in the decades leading up to this album (Bush, 2015). In modern (fourth wave) feminist vein, trading on sex appeal is not a transgression, but an asset. Indeed, even the 1978, neck-to-ankle-gowned Kate Bush strategically used her sexuality for notoriety and deserves due respect for doing so. To what degree Kate was able to control the rapid trajectory of her fame (as Sinead O’Connor, Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus decades later) is debatable.
In this age of pop-pornification, Kate Bush seems relatively tame, but no one forgets the carnal expressionism of ‘black widow’ doll making love to a double bass in ‘Babooshka’ (1980); no one forgets the skyrocketing voice effortlessly emerging from the willowy sensuality of ‘Wuthering Heights’ (an effect found contemporaneously in popular Bollywood theme songs rather than in Western pop music). The retiring, yet brazen and Elvin voice from the ghostly Goth who became ‘every schoolboy’s fantasy’: Kate Bush, the seventeen-year-old nymphette discovered and initially financed by Pink Floyd’s virtuoso guitarist Dave Gilmour, represents a mystical and mesmeric contradiction (Moy, 2007).
Kate is the quintessential English rose, whose sprightly face and lithe body arrest global attentions. Here lies one of the abiding prejudices of pop music: that the serious, female, pop composer must be vigorously objectified rather than appraised solely for her artistry. Even seasoned critics elide Kate’s phenomenal talent as they gaze into those magical eyes. Entire biographies have been dedicated to unravelling the shamanic mystery of Kate’s beauty, rather than serious studies of her groundbreaking musical experimentation.
This is where the problem with Aerial lies: not with Kate Bush’s visionary genius, but with shallow commentators insisting she perform pop music to a hard beat, which shows off the litheness of her body rather than her vision as an artist.
Those critics ought also acknowledge that in 1978 Kate Bush became the first woman ever to top the British charts with a self-written song (Thomson, 2010). This is no small achievement in the misogynist world of rock charting: “an industry that still largely conforms to stereotypes of patriarchy” (Moy, 2007: p. 3). In the U.K., an artist once championed for such a hit generally remains in the popular zeitgeist for the rest of their career (which is not the case in the USA or Australia, where tearing down icons becomes the norm). We should acknowledge, therefore, that while Kate Bush clearly earned the right to her sexualisation, her sexuality followed her artistic success.
We might also understand that Kate (like so many pop artists denied the opportunity) deserves the right to grow up, to mature: she has surely earned her capacity to say what she wishes in the manner she wished to say it. Curiously, it is not so much Kate’s fan-base who rebukes the impressionistic bricolage of Aerial, but the critics who make retroactive comparison to The Kick Inside (1978), Never For Ever (1980), The Dreaming (1982), Hounds of Love and The Sensual World (1989). As one commentator opines, in lambasting the 2005 album, the pop song requires intense build up of tension through verse and middle eight then explodes with the expected ‘orgasm’ of sound into the chorus. Bowie knew this in ‘Starman’(1973), Queen knew it in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’(1975): just as Kate knew in ‘Wuthering Heights’. In this career-defining song, inspired by the 1967 BBC mini-series based on Emily Brontë’s eponymous novel, the screaming passion of, “Cathy, it’s Heathcliff, I’ve come home now, so co-ho-ho-hold, let me in your windo-ho-ho-ow”, leads to the repeated intoning of, “Wuthering, Wuthering, Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff!” which climaxes the chorus bringing shivers to the spine some four decades later. In ‘Babooshka’, the simmering tension of clandestine infidelity, “She signed the letter…” literally busts into the vengeful refrain: “Aye-yi, Babooshka, Babooshka, Babooshka, yi-yi!” (Bush, 1980). The augmentation of such pop clichés in Aerial represents the album’s point of difference, its strength as impressionistic musing and the fruition of a significant artist.
Trading as her newly formed company, Noble and Brite, under EMI Records Ltd., Aerial includes long-time collaborators Del Palmer, Paddy Bush, Stuart Elliott and Michael Kamen (R.I.P.) conducting the London Metropolitan Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios. The album exploits musical mesmerism, which dovetail into the soundscape with bridging passages between songs and features rhythmic, human laughter and scat singing paralleled with birdsong harmonies. In a lyrical echo of this, the prologue opens with a voice recording of Kate’s son Bertie inquiring, “Mummy? Daddy? The day is full of birds. Sounds like they’re saying words,” followed by Kate musing, “We’re going to be laughing about this” (as subsequently she does with characteristic bird-like capriciousness).
The inner cover design by Kate and Peacock proscribes washing blowing vigorously in the wind before rows of redbrick two-up/two-downs: patterns forming at the interface of domesticity and sensuality as they merge with the near indiscernible doves flapping in their midst thanks to John Calder-Bush’s decisive photography. On closer inspection, the inner sleeve reveals Kate’s famous ‘Elvis’ suit pegged up and blowing about on the clothesline: a visual joke, which also betrays an ingrained sadness: the performative mask rejected, the histrionics passed, the pop icon hung out to dry, but also a musing on the nature of celebrity (Moy, 2007: p. 124). The design work is littered with clouds, pigeons, blackbirds, seagulls, gannets with eyes under their wings, Randy Olson’s Indus Bird Mask and digital sonic waveforms. These visuals promise the listener a collage of musical secrets: a message to her fans and reference to past songs as if pleading, “Please, let me off the commercial hook.”
The boat named ‘Aerial’, from James Southall’s painting ‘Fisherman’ in the album’s centrefold, is forced into the ocean: a delightful visual paradox playing upon the elements of water and air; sea and sky resonant within the music. With this image, Kate Bush invites us to muse upon the definition of the word ‘Aerial’ as ‘existing, happening, or operating in the air’, ‘performed mid-air’ (Oxford Dictionary, 2015). The double album is appropriately divided into two parts: A Sea of Honey and A Sky of Honey. With Aerial, the surging inevitable of ‘Wuthering Heights’ crowd-pleasing chorus is mostly usurped by simple, melodious poetry. Indeed, Aerial bears more in common with Brian Eno’s ambient music and the themes of House and Garden than with Emily Brontë’s gothic word-scape.
Aerial features finessed lyrical observations drawing comparisons to painterly colours and the night sky in Italy. Like the painter in An Architect’s Dream, “Yes, I need to get that tone a little bit lighter there, maybe with some dark accents coming in from the side there” (Rolf Harris in Bush, 2005). Kate Bush muses upon the infinitesimally small separation between thoughts: a hypnagogic, Zen-like appreciation of organic life. As Rod McKie (2014) opines, “somewhere in between… an inner-space, like a vast landscape in some computer game, which seems to be timeless”. In fact, the album culminates Kate’s abiding thematic collapsing of opposing binaries: you/me; object/I; Other/self; empathetic references to, “I could feel what he was feeling” and multiple “in between” states (2005):
“Somewhere in between
The waxing and the waning wave
Somewhere in between
What the song and the silence say
Somewhere in between
The ticking and the tocking clock
Somewhere in a dream between
Sleep and waking up
Somewhere in between
Breathing out and breathing in,
Like twilight is neither night nor morning.”
Indeed, somewhere in between the pastoral and impressionistic lies Kate Bush’s Aerial; somewhere in between art rock and tonal poetry. Kate Bush’s musicality steps from the nineteenth century folk song and English traditions of pastoral poetry, but no one has synthesised them into palatable art pop quite like Kate. Her earthiness and spiritual nature steps from a sadly antiquated world, bringing strains of occultism and romance in its wake. Her sensibilities visit subjects elided by rock music’s current obsession with hard porn: as delicate as a poem or washing on a clothesline or the ‘flick’ of an artist’s wrists and hips (Bush, 2005).
Famously incorporating English and Irish folk music in her music, Kate evokes mysticism in her music: in particular English eccentricity and bird imagery described in Shakespeare’s (1595) Midsummer Night’s Dream as:
“Every elf and fairy sprite,
Hop as light as bird from brier,
And this ditty after me,
Sing and dance it trippingly.”
Apart from literary references, numerous tonal and lyrical references to Irish Banshees abound throughout her milieu and Aerial is no exception. Citation of British, early twentieth century composer Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’ might seem pretentious coming from less accomplished pop artists, but the simmering Kate, manages the reference both musically and lyrically with utter panache. The pastoral muse is the tradition, which truly couches this album. From Beethoven’s pastoral symphony (no. 6) to Vaughan Williams’ improvisations on themes from Thomas Tallis, the European obsession with the ‘innocent’ countryside is infused within this album. Formalism may be a lesser known quantity in pop music, but as the album cover for Aerial betrays with its digital sound wave forming the dividing horizon between the two elements of the album the sky of honey and the sea of honey, the lush unfolding of long time collaborator Del Palmer’s “trademark slithering fretless bass” (Dwyer, 2005), the rhythms undulate like a lapping tide; and this is but one of the many references to water, ocean and rain in the album.
As ‘An Architect’s Dream’ spills mellifluously into ‘The Painter’s Link’, Kate Bush has provided a sumptuous pastoral meditation: Bosco D’Oliveira’s percussion unfolding like the wheels of a country squire’s cart. The album is positively dripping with British jingoism: Kate’s personal Lionheart (1978).
Sunset announces that ‘all the colours run’ as the texture literally melts thematically, lyrically and musically from one statement into the next. Gone is the R & B formula and screaming nightmare of ‘Hounds of Love’; gone the unbridled passion of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and as ‘The Kick Inside’ morphs into the birth of her son, Bertie (a child Kate clearly cherishes). Indeed, the adulation of innocence in the form of children harks back to former compositions, ‘The Infant Kiss’ (1980) and ‘The Man With the Child in his Eyes’(1978) (the latter reputedly written when Kate was just thirteen (Moy, 2007)).
In ‘A Sea of Honey’ Kate’s voice wavers like lapping water. The elemental creeps from the dulcet tones and characteristic soft ‘R’s of her eccentric pronunciation. She sings of colours and makes biblical references: “Where sands sing in crimson red and rust, then climb into bed and turn to dust.” Like Bowie, Kate Bush represents shamanic and animistic proportions (Hunt, 2014). Through projected religiosity with Celtic proportions and fascination for nature, Kate invokes the natural world: a near psychotic projection of animism in the significance of the inanimate, like washing machines and the serendipity of rain on oil painting. Indeed, in reference to Aerial, it should be noted that poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, proves more popular with youth audiences than his protégé William Wordsworth, mainly due to the latter’s sublimation of sexual imagery within nature (as Freudian (1990) analysis illustrates): a practice the later Victorian poets knew well. How much like Kate Bush’s lyrics does Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott (1832) seem? Especially regarding the mourning maidens of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Man with The Child in his Eyes’? Indeed, the absence of palpable sexuality might explain the lesser success of the singles from Aerial than the album (Moy, 2007), given youth culture’s fascination with the single market.
Indeed, sublimated sexuality also explains the preponderance of repetition in the album. While R & B formula (and Kate herself) is no stranger to repetition, Aerial embraces a gentle Freudian ‘compulsion to repeat’ in numerous ways (1983). Where ‘Wuthering Heights’ repeats the eponymous title in a mantra, which batters our sensibilities, ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’s’ gentle, non-pop repetition, “Washing machine… Washing machine…” allows the phrase and music to die and resonate between iterations. The effect is mesmeric. The music itself, rather than constantly announcing noise, announces a right to gentility and silence as in the repetition of ‘π’s’ numeric formula (Bush, 2005):
“Sweet and gentle and sensitive man
With an obsessive nature and deep fascination
In a circle of infinity
The song, like so many others on the album, evokes an animistic joy in things unseen, but uncannily perceived as Freud (1986) illustrates in Totem and Taboo. Further, Kate allows repetition to enhance her experience of the ‘panoramic’ divine (Bush, 2005): that contradiction Kristeva (1982) describes as sublime, the awe of mountainous beauty combined with ingrained fear of the divine (Bush, 2005):
“We went up to the top of the highest hill
It was just so beautiful
It was just so beautiful
It was just so beautiful.”
The repetition sung in her upper register infuses with an awe-inspired timbre of delicacy; Kate Bush at her most divine, which invites the listener to gaze through the eyes of the artist, effecting greater agency than pop and rock’s mind-battering insurgence (which Kate still demonstrates unique aptitude for). Poetic repetition echoes in ‘Prelude’, where the keyboard matches the cooing of pigeons and ends on the dominant rather than resolving the chord structure as the birds repeat their meditative phrase. The final song (as if to remind audiences that she can still generate a rock anthem wall of sound), Aerial, rises to a repetitive climax then instantly ends with the gentle cooing of pigeons, bringing the album to a close with both an unexpectedly orgasmic ‘bang’ and a repetitive ‘whimper’ (Eliot, 1925).
In Aerial, Kate’s lifelong fascination for themes such as innocence, nature, the divine, the Celtic and mystical, breathing, dreaming and romantic passion all repeat in this album in tandem with a new experience of the world: maturity – both artistic and personal. Decline this invitation at your peril, critics.
Where detractors see only imitation and pretension, Kate Bush’s soaring talent as gentle musing in Aerial sits proudly within her established lexicon. Aerial represents the maturation of Kate Bush, which compliments and outgrows her mesmerising, youthful compositions. Aerial celebrates simplicity in domesticity as only a true master such as Van Gogh might render it. It would be fair for critics and fans alike to allow Kate Bush’s sexuality to evolve also: from mystical nymphette to maternal recluse. The stigmas of the past do not pass easily, especially in British pop where, once exalted, the star remains on the pedestal for the duration of their lives and beyond. It seems the flipside of this convention is to tear them down with cold, judgemental ownership. Kate Bush, the critics declare, has no right to experiment, no right to grow and supersede rock cliché. To the contrary, the investigative artistry of Aerial should be considered a significant contribution to the canon of Kate Bush and to the progression of popular music: through simplicity rather than histrionic excess. Kate has created a textual smorgasbord with this album; served to a rarefied palette. Thank-you Kate. The album is breathtaking. Mwah!
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Kate Bush ‘Aerial‘ is written by Dr Ian Dixon, one of ARS’ guest academics. Dr Ian Dixon is a well known Melbourne-based film and television director who is also one of the world’s most eminent David Bowie scholars. (Follow Dr Ian Dixon on Twitter @IanIandixon66)
Manchester is regarded as the UK’s second city after London, despite the unsubstantiated counter claims from Birmingham, and is one of the world’s greatest industrial cities. The city is famous for driving the industrial revolution, cotton production, a 36 mile (58km) long ship canal, TV broadcasting, art, music and even providing the world with the standardisation for screws via the Whitworth Thread standard in 1841. Despite all of these great inventions and innovations, Manchester is usually known throughout the world for its two football teams Manchester United and Manchester City.
I am pretty lucky. Since the mid 1980s I have travelled the world extensively with my backstage rock ‘n’ roll career and everywhere I go I see people who have never been to Manchester wearing football shirts of these two teams/brands. A quick search on the Internet lists over fifty active football teams in the Greater Manchester area. The problem with this style of binary reductionism is that great teams that are neither United nor City are not represented. I am not a football fan or expert by any stretch of the imagination but I’d hazard a guess that there are some great games being played by teams like Bury Football Club or Bolton Wanderers.
This is the major problem with Northside’s 1991 release Chicken Rhythms on Factory Records (FAC310). Northside are in effect Accrington Stanley to The Stone Roses’ Manchester City or The Happy Mondays’ Manchester United and as such do not attract the attention they so well deserved. In the music scene, this scene became known as Madchester; there were so many bands present during this period that it was fairly obvious that some would fall between the cracks. I am absolutely sure the same thing happens in any great musical movement; think the San Francisco Sound of the late 1960s early 1970s and the two major players of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but what about Stoneground? Don’t worry, Stoneground’s 1971 eponymous album is going to feature in Album Rescue Series volume II.
Manchester, and its new sound Madchester, was the dominant sound in British popular music during the late ’80s and early ’90s and I almost missed it. From 1985 onwards I spent very little time in my home country (the UK) as I was travelling the world as a live sound engineer with a host of well-known international acts. Luckily for me I had a day off in Manchester during a world tour with New York alternate jazz rappers De La Soul and so I was able to hook up with my old mate Gary ‘Mani’ Mountfield. I’d met Mani a few years earlier when he was on the stage crew at various Manchester venues ‘humping’ band’s equipment. We were only 20 days apart in age and we took an instant liking to each other. As I’d spent so much time away from the UK with my touring activities, I had no idea that Mani had joined the band The Stones Roses as their bass player, in fact, I had no idea that he could even play bass. On this occasion I hooked up with Mani and we found ourselves in an old knackered ‘borrowed’ car heading to the town of Failsworth, famous for the production of felt hats in the 1850s, to purchase marijuana . It was during this 3.7mile (6km) trip, that Mani gave me the details of the new Manchester music scene that I didn’t even know existed; it was known as Madchester. Once we arrived in Failsworth, our hosts sold us dope at a greatly inflated price (due mainly to Mani’s recently found celebrity status) and then proceeded to smoke it with us. It was at this point that I first heard the album that is the subject of this album rescue: Northside’s Chicken Rhythms. Presumably, the album name comes from the use of funky, chicken-scratch guitars, which the band weaves into its abstract, aloof, slightly quirky brand of alternative psyche pop/rock?
A major album issue is that Northside were late arrivals to the Madchester party with their debut album release in 1991. The Happy Mondays had their first album out in 1987, The Stone Roses in 1989, Inspiral Carpets in 1990 and even fake Madchester band, The Charlatans, had released an album in 1990. The genesis of Northside came in 1990; it occurred in the North Manchester districts of Blackley and Moston by Manchester United fan Warren ‘Dermo’ Dermody (vocals) and Manchester City fan Cliff Orgier (bass). Soon joined by Michael ‘Upo’ Upton (guitar) and Paul ‘Wal’ Walsh (drums); the band was complete. The formation of Northside is the classic story of Thatcher battered austere Northern Britain: young people indulging in hedonism in hard times. The band’s formation dovetails perfectly with the introduction of the new recreational drug of Ecstasy that was sweeping the country. Up until the late 1980s, Saturday afternoons were a time of football violence. All this changed with the introduction of ‘E’ and Acid House. I am pretty sure that the Thatcher government of the time did not release that it was the introduction of cheap Ecstasy into working class areas that stopped football hooliganism dead in its tracks rather than their out of touch laws.
This new regional musical movement of Madchester was a heady fusion of Acid House dance rhythms and melodic pop distinguished by its loping beats, psychedelic flourishes, and hooky choruses. Song structureswere familiar, the arrangements and attitude were modern, and even the retro-pop jangling guitars, swirling organs, and sharp pop sense, functioned as postmodern collages. There were two different binary approaches to constructing these collages, as evidenced by Mani’s band, The Stone Roses, on one side and the Happy Mondays on the other. The Stone Roses were a traditional guitar-pop band, and their songs were straight-ahead pop tunes, bolstered by infectious beats; it was modernised classic 1960s pop music. The other approach was the one adopted by the Happy Mondays who cut and pasted samples like rappers, taking choruses from the likes of the Beatles and LaBelle and putting them into a context of dark psychedelic dance. Despite their different approaches, both bands shared a love for Acid House music and culture, Ecstasy and their hometown of Manchester. As the name would suggest, this music was very geographically specific. It was the British press that labelled this style of music Madchester after a Happy Mondays song. It was also termed as “baggy” by the popular press, after the baggy loose fitting clothing worn by the bands and fans, in particular bell-bottomed jeans, tie-dyed or fluorescent coloured oversized sweatshirts all finished off with a fishing hat. This style of clothing mirrored the music e.g. the mix of 60s psychedelic rock with 70s funk but all within the context of late 80s Acid House. The clothing was rooted in leisure (hence the fishing hat) and was designed to be loose and easy to dance in, by makers such as Manchester’s legendary Joe Bloggs. Northside sat in the liminal space between these two schools of creativity though they did lean heavily to the Stone Roses style of production.
As Factory Records had so much talent at its disposal, and because of the sheer volume of material it was releasing, there were going to be casualties. Some albums were bound to slide by without making a dent. All Factory Records releases had a unique identification number including Tony Wilson’s coffin (FAC501). Chicken Rhythms was number FAC310 and that’s a lot of releases by a small cash strapped regional record company. Not for the first time in an Album Rescue do we see a superb piece of music slide into obscurity because of poor marketing. Factory Records had lots of previous form in this department. Tony Wilson and his colleagues at Factory Records always aimed at the stars but continually only just managed to hit the moon. As a creative entity, Factory Records was world class and iconic, but as a business it was a financial disaster: an abject lesson in how NOT to operate a creative business.
It’s also possible that as a Factory Records act you needed the patronage of its head Tony Wilson, or as he liked to call himself later on in life, “Anthony H. Wilson”. Without Tony’s direct supervision, his favorites included e.g. Joy Division/New Order, Happy Mondays, Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio, you didn’t get the attention you deserved. As Wilson often pointed out “I went to fucking Cambridge University you know?” he favored the bands that displayed a high level of political intellectualism and/or high art. Northside failed in both departments and this was to their detriment. Factory Record’s artists are known for some of the most iconic cover art in the history of popular music e.g. Joy Divisions Unknown Pleasure. Peter Saville, Factory Records’ in house style guru, art director and designer was not involved with Chicken Rhythms. Instead the cover was farmed out to the second division graphic design company Central Station. The cover was an insipid, uninspired, weak collage of old birthday cards reformed as an apple. The only way to describe this album cover is appalling; it worked against the material contained on the audio recording held within. This is akin to packaging a tasty morsel of delicious food in a wrapper with a picture of dog shit on it. The old adage “never judge a book by its cover” should ring true, and this cover sucked and it definitely contributed to Chicken Rhythms disappearing into relative obscurity. Factory Records even managed to botch up the barcode on the album so that any sales recorded in a chart return shop didn’t register.
Northside deserve to be celebrated because they took some chances and dared to dream. One has to admire their desire to strive for some form of originality. The Lightening Seeds’ lead man, Ian Broudie, who obviously had compassion for the band and their music, expertly handled production on the album. Recorded at the residential Rockfield Studios in rural Wales the change of scenery was beneficial and provided them with some much needed fresh air. Stand out songs from the album are the infectious ‘Take 5’ with the “64-46 BMW” refrain directly lifted from reggae superstar Yellowman’s Nobody Move, the silly ‘Funky Munky’ and the anthem ‘Shall We Take A Trip’. Broudie and Northside form the perfect creative premier division team to produce a wonderfully dynamic album of space, place and bass. Though the material is delivered through a lens of happy up-tempo pop, the lyrics are somber and essentially about hoping to hope in what were desperate times. These were very hard times in Britain with the end of Thatcherism still five long years away.
Through this album, Northside articulated the anxious postindustrial panic of working class youth that was sweeping the country. Mindless hedonism was portrayed as the new culture of a disenfranchised youth. Northside were a band that came along with an album that struck a cord, celebrating that era for the youth of the day. Album tracks such as ‘Shall We Take A Trip’, ‘A Change Is On Its Way’ and ‘Who’s To Blame?’ are all wonderfully optimistic. Though ‘Shall We Take A Trip’ proved to be a problematic track and single, it was immediately banned by most radio stations because of its obvious drug reference. However, it resonated with kids because of these obvious drug references. Most youngsters experiment with and/or are intrigued by drugs to some extent, it is all part of growing up. The lyrics take their inspiration from Lennon’s ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and LSD. The chorus line of “answers come in dreams”, clearly spell out the initials A.C.I.D. This track is full of double entendre and was possibly a nod to Lennon’s great lyrical genius, wordplay and warped way of thinking?
Damage was also inflicted to this album by what was missed off of it. Out of the Rockfield recording session were the tracks ‘Moody Place’, ‘Tour De World’ and ‘Rising Star’ all superb tracks but not collated onto the album for various reasons. ‘Moody Place’ has got one of the best bass lines ever right up there with Public Image Ltd.’s track ‘Public Image’. It’s a great song and the subject matter is about hope and trying to stay strong when it seems everyone around you is slowly going down. The lyrics are mostly about hoping for hope in desperate times, which was a common theme in the late 80s and early 90s. Most of the blame can surely be firmly placed with Factory Records for not fully understanding how the curating of this album’s material would affect sales? Imagine what this album could have achieved had it been released with a more sympathetic record company, one that could have afforded a marketing campaign and some decent cover artwork?
As mentioned earlier, Northside came to the party very late, in fact, they arrived when the party was virtually over. Factory Records was overstretched financially and mismanaged operationally. Tony Wilson was now more interested in investing in his own legacy rather than facilitating decent music. Also the zeitgeist had shifted over night, it’s a moving target at the best of times. The year 1991 saw a shift in what was seen as cool both sub-culturally and geographically. It’s ironic that just as the economic hard times of North West of England were abating the music upped and left. The two star teams of the Madchester scene, The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays, had become fat and lazy with success and were more interested in recreational drug use then making music. To be precisely correct their profession was now drug use interspersed with occasional recreational music making.
Into the North West British void came the sound of North West America; grunge. This new musical genre de-emphasized appearance, drug use and polished technique in favor of raw, angry, passionate songs that articulated the pessimism and anxiety of its young angry audience. Lyrics were no longer hedonistic and forward-looking but pessimistic and angry. The look was no longer baggy Joe Bloggs casuals with glow sticks and Acid House smiley faces rather it was opportunity shop, make-do and mend austere attire. All optimism and hedonism was stopped dead in its tracks, as was Northside’s career. Instantly the world’s music press’s front covers had pictures of Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and other Seattle area grunge bands. No longer was this about hedonism in hard times it was about self-enforced austerity in good times. Northside’s Chicken Rhythms caught and reflected the fragile moribund zeitgeist of Madchester, though this album is long since deleted it remains a valuable artifact of political and social history. If you can lay your hands on a copy then it’s well worth listening to this forgotten Madchester gem.
 Please note that I no longer condone the recreational use of marijuana though I do understand and fully support the use of medically prescribed marijuana.
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. ‘Chicken Rhythms’ Northside is authored by Tim Dalton. (Follow Tim on Twitter @Touringtim)
It’s the mid-eighties. I am ten years old and my teenage sister plays a song over and over; a mysterious, miraculous song that catches me instantly by its sheer beauty. Since she is the mature teenager and I am the baby sister, I’m not allowed in her room of course. So I cower in front of her door, waiting for that wonderful voice to sing and talk to me in a language I don’t know but understand right away. Melancholic that voice seems to me, soft and sad. No doubt what makes the singer so miserable: Olamu. This person, this Olamu, must have caused his bitter-sweet pain, I figure. I am sorry for his desolation, still I can’t wait to hear him sing of Olamu again and again. And then, when I am absolutely sure that nobody can see me, I begin to dance: slowly and hesitantly, swaying to the rhythm, more confident with every step. The tale of Olamu, its sound and feel, has set me in motion. “Pop is physical, sensual, of the body rather than the mind, and in some ways it is anti-intellectual; let yourself go, don’t think – feel“, writes Hanif Kureshi (1995: p.19). In this enchanted moment, I purely sense the heart of the matter. I have experienced something special: my entrance into wonderland.
Wonderland, Erasure’s debut album was a miserable flop in 1986. ‘Oh l’Amour’, my magical song, turned out to be the third consecutive commercial failure for the band. Just like the two preceding single releases, ‘Who Needs Love Like That’ and ‘Heavenly Action’. These songs didn’t crack the Top 50 in the UK, nor the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, ‘Oh l’Amour’ only reached number 85 in the UK single charts (but fared better in Germany, where it was a Top 20 success). Considering the album’s disappointing chart performance, it seemed clear that this new pop duo was not supposed to have a bright future. However, Wonderland hinted at what would become central to Erasure’s appeal. As a sparkling collection of catchy and soulful pop tunes, seemingly simple at first hearing, but increasingly fascinating because of their profound craftiness, Wonderland formed the nucleus of the band’s gorgeous, glorious, and glamourous pop career.
When Vince Clarke and Andy Bell met in 1985, their musical pasts and paths could not have been more different. Clarke had been the founding member of two paramount new wave bands and was an experienced and successful electro pop song writer. Starting with Depeche Mode, Clarke was the sole writer of their first three singles, including the breakthrough Top 10 hit ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. After leaving the band in late 1981, Clarke built an equally prominent career by forming the duo Yazoo with Alison Moyet. Both albums, 1982’s Upstairs at Eric’s and 1983’s You and Me Both, are regarded as new wave essentials, and their hit ‘Don’t Go’ became an electro pop classic. A succeeding short-lived project, The Assembly, with producer Eric Radcliffe initiated a UK number four hit single, ‘Never Never’, featuring Feargal Sharkey on vocals. As an electro master-mind, Vince Clarke had created a whole range of synth pop hymns, all of them vibrant and vital even in today’s standards.
Concurrently, Andy Bell had just begun to take his first musical steps. While selling women’s shoes in Debenhams and performing in a band called The Void, Bell’s first attempt to pursue a musical career was not promising. Fameless and nameless as he was, Bell responded to an advertisement in Melody Maker looking for a vocalist to take part in a new musical project. He auditioned. Clarke was searching for the perfect pop beat and pop group, and selected Bell to be his musical other half. His choice wasn’t instantly applauded. When Wonderland was released, some critics felt that there was no artistic progression from Clarke’s past, finding fault with Bell’s too shrill vocals and rejecting him as a bad copy of Alison Moyet. Others were appalled by the songs’ lyrics, finding them flat or banal and bemoaning a missing concept. Still others would hint at Bell’s effeminate dancing style, which, in their view, lacked any sense of coolness or confidence.
In a certain sense, the critics were right. Erasure is all about imitation, surface and artifice, about exaggeration and exaltation – deliberately so. Wonderland refuses any subtleties and intricacies; its tracks are either chirpy tunes (‘March Down The Line’, ‘Say What’, ‘Heavenly Action’) or overloaded tear jerkers (‘Cry So Easy’, ‘Reunion’, ‘My Heart… So Blue’) – no deep philosophy intended. The chorus of ‘Senseless’, a wonderfully self-referential song, expresses this state of being as, “It’s alright to feel the mood/ it’s alright, so good, so far/ Babe it’s alright“. Does it make any sense? Probably not. Does it have to make any sense? Definitely not.
Seen in this way, all that Wonderland comes to stand for, its plastic pop sounds, its simplistic dance rhythms and electronic beats, its ebullient melodies, its corny cover art work, its bubble gum synth pop pleasure, are not deep flaws but a statement. Wonderland is the champ of camp. In her famous Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag (1964) defines the term as “a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Camp, according to Sontag (1964), is characterized by audacious extravagance and ostentatious theatricality. Its quality as a form, style or expression lies in its capacity to ironically comment on any notion of normality, parodying it through an aesthetic sensibility that inverts the relation of surface to depth.
While Sontag (1964) developed her observations in the mid-sixties, Erasure’s stance to camp is inextricably linked with the pop cultural media universe of the mid-eighties. This can be seen most clearly in the band’s music videos. Not until the age of cable and satellite and, notably, the emergence of MTV, did video evolve as a significant pop cultural form. Erasure’s first music videos demonstrate a specific pleasure for this new kind of visual aesthetics, bringing together a whole range of audiovisual styles and modes of performance by drawing on drag and dance, televisual imagery and commercial superficiality. The music video for the debut single ‘Who Needs Love Like That?’ takes place in a mock western setting featuring Clarke and Bell in dual roles: both of them are dressed as cowboys but appear in woman’s drag as well. In what looks like a garish mixture of B-movie location and cartoon-like situation, everything we perceive is a masquerade that is in excess of itself. This overplay of style also informs Erasure’s second music video ‘Heavenly Action’, an outrageous science fiction parody complete with a toy-like spaceship, gaudy space flying suits, fantastic landscapes of planet cupid, and a bunch of child actors appearing as pink putti. Using the western and the science fiction genre as entry points, both videos revolve around a playful exposition of the fabrication of spectacle, which then becomes a self-conscious spectacle in its own right.
The most interesting and self-reflexive of Wonderland‘s videos is ‘Oh l’Amour’. Not as flashy and flamboyant as the former clips, this video concentrates on a studio performance of Erasure, featuring not only musicians Clarke and Bell but also what lies at the heart of their synth pop endeavor, i.e. computerized sounds and aesthetics. The lead part is played by the BBC Micro, a computer system which Clarke used to compose ‘Oh l’Amour’, featuring prominently in the video to provide the song’s text and graphics. The video begins with a computer screen displaying the UMI music sequencer, ready to play the music we are about to hear. In what follows, a pixelated font delivers not only the song’s lyrics but also command lines of the computer program itself, resulting in a kind of hybrid poetry of sound and system. Further, the digital elements that were confined to the screen in the beginning spread through the studio’s scenery as the video progresses. Bit by bit and byte by byte, the computer code seems to emancipate itself from its purely functional destination, dancing around the band or waving like a digital curtain in the background. The video lays bare the ways in which configurations of technology, music text and context take shape in specific arrangements. Programmability and pre-fabricated sounds are not presented as cold machinery lacking emotion and melody but appear in perfect harmony with Bell’s vocals and movements as well as with Erasure’s overall sensations and sentiments.
At the end of the piece, a blinking cursor erases the refrain’s line ‘Oh l’Amour’ to replace it with ‘What Now?’ articulating a moment of hesitancy, an instant of tentativeness when a formation is still groping with its own limitations. What now, in 1986? A new pop duo demonstrates a specific kind of innovative strength, enabling novel developments both within synth pop sound culture and the music video form. It wouldn’t take long until Erasure’s energy poured over the airwaves right into their fans’ hearts; including that of a ten-year old girl stepping into wonderland.
Kureishi, H. 1995. That’s how good it was. Page 19. In: Hanif Kureishi and John Savage (Eds). The Faber Book of Pop. Faber and Faber. London UK and Boston USA.
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Erasure ‘Wonderland’ is written by Professor Lisa Gotto, one of ARS’s guest authors. Lisa Gotto is a film professor at the International Film School in Cologne, Germany. (Follow Professor Lisa Gotto on Twitter @lisagottolisa)