Album Rescue Series: The Beastie Boys ‘License To Ill’

It’s 1986 and I am a fresh-faced skinny 23 year old. I’m working for Roadstar PA Systems of Sheffield who are located in the Socialist republic of South Yorkshire (sic) in the UK. Roadstar are the new upstart audio hire company supplying large concert PA systems to international rock ‘n roll bands like The Eurythmics, The Alarm, Runrig and a host of other bands that have long since disappeared into obscurity. I’d only worked for this company for 18 months when I’m told my next tour will be a Def Jam Record’s package ‘Raising Hell Tour’ of Europe featuring; Run DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. Back in 1986 very few people, me included, had heard of Def Jam Records and I remember being very disappointed that my boss at Roadstar had assigned me to this tour. I was bottom of the heap on the audio crew, my job was to set up and pack down the audio equipment and I didn’t even get to touch a mixing console, never mind mix a band. On paper this wasn’t a very appealing gig, in fact it sucked big time. The ‘bands’ weren’t actual bands but one bloke playing some records, with one or two, or in the case of The Beastie Boys’, three blokes shouting over the top of these beats. The first show was two nights at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on Friday 12th and Saturday 13th September 1986. Because I’d left school at the age of 16 my education was extremely limited and I didn’t know that the name Odeon was the name used to describe ancient Greek and Roman buildings built specifically for music; singing exercises, musical shows and poetry competitions. With 39 years of hindsight, and lots of expensive education behind me, the name seems very apt. In Europe, back in the mid 80s, Hip Hop music was a relatively new phenomenon, and as with anything new, it was largely misunderstood and mistreated by the media.

BB AAA Pass
Original backstage access all areas pass from the Raising Hell European tour. This was the first time I met the Beastie Boys.

Rap music’s antecedents lie in various story-telling forms of popular music such as talking blues, spoken passages in gospel music, and the call and response of field music. Its more direct formative influences came from the 1960s, with reggae DJs toasting over strong bass beats, and stripped down styles of funk music, most notably James Brown’s use of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ raps over elemental funk beats. Initially this was part of New York’s dance scene where it had morphed out of block parties at which DJs played percussive breaks of popular songs using two turntables to extend the breaks. Black and Hispanic kids would competitively ‘rap’ over these breaks to gain kudos in their neighbourhoods. You can see the appeal of this music in Thatcher’s unfair, unjust urban locations. Zeitgeist; there’s that word again; it appears in almost every Album Rescue Series entry. Two sold out nights at London’s 3,500 capacity rock venue; the Hammersmith Odeon, was pretty impressive by four new unheard of New York ‘bands’ signed to an unknown obscure niche record label. Due to trouble outside the venue before and after these shows, Hammersmith Odeon refused to host any more rap groups for several years afterwards. This is a pattern of events would follow us around the world for the next few years.

At the production rehearsal, held early afternoon before the first show, we had a pretty big problem. Last band on the bill, The Beastie Boys, had taken an instant dislike to Roger ‘the Hippy’ who was supposed to be mixing their front of house sound. Roger came with the PA system and had a pretty impressive track record of mixing bands like Nils Lofgren and Katrina and The Waves. This palmares did not impress the Beastie Boys and it was obvious that Roger’s unfamiliarity of this new genre was problematic. Just before doors, the Beastie Boys hit the stage for their sound check. It was like a gigantic chaotic atom bomb going off. DJ Mix Master Mike was dropping some huge phat beats at a ridiculous high volume while the already sloppy drunk MCA, Ad Rock and Mike D start running around the stage screaming, “turn this shit up”. It was powerful, chaotic, and primeval, it was also kind of scary in an aggressive way and as a punk rocker I relished every single second of it. In complete opposition sound engineer Roger was not enjoying a single second of it and he tried to control this chaotic shambles by asking, “Could the lad in the red cap please give some level on the radio mic and the rest of you please shut up”?

I was stood at the side of the stage like a punk rock Aristotle watching this epic Greek tragedy unfold when Mike D (the lad in the red cap) grabs hold of me and screams “Yo homie, you know how to mix mutha-fucking sound right?” Indeed I mutha-fucking did and on the spot they tumultuously fire Roger and promote me to front of house engineer. Result! I’m only 23 and I’m now the front of house engineer for the most exciting band on the planet. A few months later, in 1987, I’m re-united with the Beastie Boys when we embark on their headline world tour to support the newly released debut album License To Ill. I guess these guys liked my attitude. I spent the next few years of my life touring the world as live sound engineer for The Beastie Boys and that made me very happy indeed. My personal mantra has always been “do what you love and love what you do”. It started that day and I’ve stuck to it.

So why this album rescue; everybody loves this album and has fond memories of it? With over 10 million albums sold, it’s an undeniable retail success. Granted it took 30 years for the album to achieve its Diamond status, but that’s a considerable number of albums to shift by anyone’s standards. Not only did the punters buy it by the truckload, but the music press loved it too as did lots of radio stations. Licenced to Ill was the first rap album to reach number one on the USA’s billboard charts and it’s the eighth best selling [1] rap album of all time. This pattern repeated all over the world although huge sales do not constitute a great album alone.

Surely all of these metrics prove that this album is not in need of an album rescue? OK, I’m pushing the boundaries here. This is not so much an album rescue, as a critical reappraisal, which is a rescue of sorts. With this album Mike D, Ad Rock, the late MCA and their record company, Def Jam, pulled off the greatest post-modern Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle of all time. Licensed To Ill remains the most creative and intelligent post modern parody ever created in any creative medium. There I’ve said it. When the Beasties Boys rap about drinking, robbing, rhyming, partying, fighting, pillaging and brass monkeys, we should really contextualise this subject matter through the lens of situational ethics. The father of situational ethics, Joseph Fletcher (1966) stated, “all laws and rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love”. This album was definitely born out of love and I believe that it’s almost impossible to be critical of anything created out of love. In situation ethics, right and wrong depend upon the situation. There are no universal moral rules or rights, each case is unique and deserves a unique solution. As with other great parodies e.g. David Bowie’s (1967) The Laughing Gnome, a parody of Anthony Newley, the artist needs to fully understand and love the material that they are engaging with.

Maybe the correct way to rescue this album is to re-imagine, re-evaluate and re-contextualise it? Through this process we can construct an alternative discourse to the commonly misheld one. The buffoonery and cartoon controversy normally associated with this album can be dispelled and instead I’d like to reposition this album, as a deeply intelligent work of art, created by artists not fools. Granted the creators don’t do themselves any favours with their post-modern slapstick shtick parody. As with all post modern texts it’s all about surface, hedonism and fun devoid of any substantial meaning, which is why most people don’t fully appreciate this album. Licensed To Ill is a remarkable ironic marriage of heavy metal guitars, funk beats and edgy poetic rap lyrics. Hand crafted under the tutelage of producer and Def Jam founder Rick Rubin, this album is a substantial ground breaking piece of historical work.

Rap music was not supposed to be made by rich privileged upper class Jewish kids. Had they played by the rules then they would have become the stereotypical doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants or even presidential candidates. But their privilege and education provided the cultural capital fuel that ignites this album. Having an acute understanding and passion for different subcultures, pop culture, jokes, music, fashion and art all provided the foundational material on which this album was built. The traditional elements of rap, such as guns, ghettos, money, hoes, sex and drugs are largely eschewed or at least re-appropriated via intoxicating creative wordplay. Their parody was so impenetrable and utterly convincing that it wasn’t immediately apparent that their obnoxious, misogynistic, hedonistic patter was a consciously constructed part of their persona. Luckily for us the passing years have clarified that this album was a huge postmodern joke made all the funnier by those taken in by the joke or completely unaware of the joke.

This album is a classic example of what French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss termed “bricolage”. This album is the sound of the Beastie Boys acting as classic bricoleurs. They are taking some very specific symbolic objects such as music, language, clothing, appearance and forming a unified signifying system in which these ‘borrowed’ materials take on a new and more powerful significance. Not only is the notion of bricolage at play in their music, but it’s also at play (literally) in items such as VW car badges, clothing and even their language e.g. the use of the word “homie” as a shortened version of “home boy”. Criticism about the Beastie Boy’s lack of conviction and authenticity abounded at the time. They were unfairly compared to the punk rockers that a decade before them had taken to the streets to hurl bricks at the riot police. They consciously understood that punk rock had achieved zero and that the youth of the mid 1980s was not prepared to face the tear gas and baton charges. Instead the Beastie Boys instigated a much more effective covert semiotic guerrilla war and it was all expertly delivered under the cloaking device of extreme parody. Their work on this album and every other album they have made is intellectual, inter-textual, is constantly in dialogue with other forms of cultural expression and it can only be fully appreciated when it is located in its original context, which is in the mid 1980s.

Listening to the cajoling rhymes of this album in 2015, filled with clear parodies and absurdities, it’s difficult to imagine the offense that many people took back in the 1980s. This is one of the funniest and most infectious albums ever made and it’s all articulated via the gonzo literation of some posh bratty Jewish kids from New York who in all probability are much cleverer then we are. The parody of this album is not offensive to the traditional black rappers; instead it points its undercover barb at frat college jocks and lager louts; the people who bought the album. Their hedonistic beer soaked version of life was intoxicatingly aspirational, in an alternative way, and made to look very appealing via their gleeful delivery. The subject matter of this album is completely contradictory to the dominant mid 1980’s monetarist aspirations because it celebrates the very conditions of its enforced leisure; namely boredom, meaninglessness, dehumanisation, commodity fetishism, repetition, fragmentation and superficiality. Track seven, the huge worldwide mega hit of Fight For Your Right (To Party), is the personification of their new worldview.

The mid 1980s were a time of money, MTV, excess and spring break in warm sunny nirvanas such as Panama City and Daytona Beach. The interesting thing about Fight For Your Right To Party is that it was originally intended to be a parody of popular party rock songs of the time like Twisted Sister’s I Wanna Rock, although that intent was seemingly lost on the audience. It’s as if The Beastie Boys where insider dealers (something that was also popular in the mid 1980’s) and were poking fun at their own kind. Just sampling and scratching Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to hip-hop beats does not make for an automatically good record, though there is definitely a visceral thrill to hearing those muscular riffs put into super serious overdrive. Their artistry wasn’t just confined to the writing and recording of the album but also in their exceptional understanding of the media as a conduit or delivery system for their powerful message.

I vaguely remember visiting Scotland on the License to Ill world tour.
I vaguely remember visiting Scotland on the License to Ill world tour.

This debut album, and its subsequent tour, provoked moral panic and media outrage resulting in tabloid headlines across the world. The Beastie Boys instantaneously became the latest folk devils, the band that the media loved to hate. Popular myth would be fuelled by stories of the band’s controversial behaviour. The media and popular tabloid press amplified and greatly exaggerated events on this tour out of all proportion, which greatly increased album sales. In part this was due to the exuberant stage show that was purposefully designed to mimic the album. As a member of that tour, I saw none of this behaviour, what I saw was lots and lots of identical looking hotel rooms, airport lounges, venues and the inside of tour buses. I remember helping a very home sick MCA backstage in Germany make a collect call to his mum and dad back in New York. Album Rescue Series is no place for these antidotes but you will be able to read them in my forthcoming book Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. The Beastie Boys and their producer Rick Rubin had read Stephen Davis’ version of Led Zeppelin’s hotel destroying tour exploits, Hammer of the Gods (1985), and it had made a big impression on them all. Not only is the album’s lyrical content heavily influence by this book and lifestyle, but the album cover’s artwork is also highly inter-textual.

Just like a centre page fold out cartoon from a Mad comic, the fun is in the detail.
Just like a centre page fold out cartoon from a Mad comic, the fun is in the detail.

The smouldering aeroplane crashed into the side of a mountain cover illustration is a deceptively complex piece of work both artistically and semiotically. The image is darkly humorous, but not out of step with the times or the sonic content of the album. Artist David Gambale (aka World B. Omes) created a pre-Photoshop collage of various airplane parts then illustrated over it using water-soluble crayons. I’m not an artist but I’m guessing the process must have taken significant hours and the dramatic results are worth it. The plane on the album cover is an inter-textual reference to the legendary Starship, a Boeing 720 airliner owned by Bobby Shering and converted into a kitsch rock-star flying tour bus. Led Zeppelin were the Starship’s most famous occupants and even wrote the song Stairway To Heaven about their on board experience. The Starship would transport any rock band that could afford the exorbitant hire fee e.g. The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Allman Brothers. Stripped of it’s reference, an aeroplane is not glamorous, its merely an ecologically unsound, inefficient and very expensive form of transport. Ever since “the day the music died” (McLean D. 1972) back in 1959, when a chartered flight claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, plane crashes have ended the careers of some of music’s biggest names. Patsy Cline’s plane went down in 1963, silencing one of the greatest voices to ever crossover from country music to popular music. We lost the great Otis Redding to an airplane accident in 1967, and just a few years later, singer-songwriter Jim Croce’s career was terminated just as it was starting to take off. Perhaps none of the above was as startling as Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s horrific 1977 plane crash, which killed three members of the band, the assistant road manager, co-pilot and pilot. Airplanes are symbols of both extravagant rock star excess and sombre tragedy. What better way to announce a new young band to the world than to crash their jet into the side of a mountain before their career had even taken off? Just like a centre page fold out cartoon from the Mad comic, the fun is in the details. The plane’s tail number “3MTA3” spells “Eat Me” backwards. The Beastie Boys logo on the vertical stabilizer was intentionally designed to evoke the Harley-Davidson logo. Many people have commented about the connotations of how the smouldering plane resembles a stubbed out spliff. Via this album, the Beastie Boys are displaying an advanced understanding of semiotics that Roland or Ferdinand would be immensely proud of here.

Sitting in the cockpit of the Lisa Marie at Graceland.
Sitting in the cockpit of the Lisa Marie at Graceland.

I am quite prepared to stick my neck out here and argue that the Beastie Boys have never made a bad record: Paul’s Boutique (1989), Check Your Head (1992), Ill Communication (1994), Hello Nasty (1998), To The 5 Boroughs (2004), The Mix-up (2007) and Hot Sauce Committee Part 2 (2011) are all masterpieces in their own right. Even their other parody record, The In Sound From Way Back (1998), which precisely parodies Perrey and Kingsley’s 1966 album of the same name, is another masterpiece. If we ignore the 10 million copies sold of License To Ill and listen to it minus the filter of parody then we are getting very close to rescuing this album. It isn’t only the music or the rhymes that translate beyond the parody crime scene. License To Ill clearly shows the Beastie Boys didn’t give a fuck at exactly the time when the world desperately needed to be shown how not to give a fuck. Flying in the face of rampant yuppie materialistic capitalism they demonstrated that you could be ground-breaking, cutting edge, important, creative and relevant all at the same time yet still have no goals beyond getting drunk and partying hard.

Licensed To Ill marks the turning point in cultural history when the slacker generation (the three members of band are born 1964, 65 & 66) start making music for the millennial generation. This album proved that you could live life as one giant inside joke, speaking in tongues and making hilarious obscure references to Chef Boyardee or Olde English 800 and no one outside your circle of jerks would be any the wiser. Oh how we laughed. License To Ill accurately predicted the future to the Millennials upon its release in 1986. The mantra bestowed on them was “follow your dreams” and because they were constantly being told they were special, this cohort tends to be over confident. While largely a positive trait, the Millennial’s confidence has been known to spill over into the realms of entitlement and narcissism. They are the first generation since the Second World War that is expected to be less economically successful than their parents. The Millennial’s optimism is founded in unrealistic expectations, which often leads to disillusionment. Most Millennials went through post-secondary education only to find themselves employed in low paid dead end jobs in unrelated fields to the ones they studied or underemployed and job-hopping more frequently than any previous generation. License To Ill soothsaid this bleak scenario but then also gave us a not too cryptic optimistic answer, which was “Fight for your right to party”. I rest my case.

[1] http://www.musictimes.com accessed 11th August 2015

The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. This week’s Album Rescue is by Tim Dalton. (Follow Tim on Twitter: @touringtim)

Jazz Summers – A Big Life: A Tribute

I know everyone has to die, but it still comes as a shock when one of the great names in rock ‘n’ roll passes away. Jazz Summers was one of the greats, born in 1944 and passing away only a few days ago at the age of 71 from lung cancer. I first met Jazz in the mid 1980s when he was managing up and coming Northern soul singer Lisa Stansfield, who I tour managed all too briefly. Our paths crossed again when his record company, Big Life Records, was the UK record company for De La Soul who I tour managed on their Three Feet High and Rising tour. In 2003, Jazz published his enthralling autobiography Big Life. I love any book that contributes to the myth and legend of rock ‘n’ roll. Big Life tracks his transportation from the monsoon drains of sixties Boogie Street to the smoke-filled folk clubs of seventies New York. He became a soldier and formed a band. Smoked lots of dope in Malacca and attended meetings in the coke-sprinkled boardrooms of eighties Los Angeles. Managed the band Wham! Drank expensive wine. Wore ridiculous primary coloured baggy suits. Ate at uptight banquets in pre-Tiananmen Square Beijing. Heard Punk’s first screech. Drunk heavily. Wore make-up. In the year of Acid House, he managed Yazz and her Plastic Population. Married Yazz. Met Roy Orbison. Outstared Puff Daddy. Lobbied the Rolling Stones for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’. Managed: Snow Patrol, The Verve, La Roux. X-Rayed an Egyptian princess. Witnessed Jazz Summers reflect, with shocking and inspirational candour, on his search for music and balance. Big Life is a hysterical and heartbreaking account of one man’s struggle with the Universe, his riotous dance to the music of time. Boy this book would make a great screenplay.

Jazz Summers was a soldier, who became a musician, who became a radiographer, who became a musician (again) and who became one of the music industry’s most successful artist managers. Jazz managed Wham!, Lisa Stansfield, Yazz, Soul ll Soul, the Verve, Badly Drawn Boy, Snow Patrol, Klaxons, La Roux, Scissor Sisters and London Grammar, among many others. His artists have sold over sixty million albums and seventy-two million singles around the world, including over one hundred Top 40 hits in the past thirty years. In 2003, Jazz was awarded the prestigious Peter Grant Award and, in 2007, the Strat Award at the Music Week Awards, UK. Summers’ was an active campaigner for artists’ rights. As chairman of the Music Managers’ Forum (MMF) he was vocal on many issues affecting artists, including the extension of copyright, secondary ticketing, and VPL. He was also prominent in setting up the Featured Artists’ Coalition and Julie’s Bicycle, a not-for-profit organisation working on sustainability in the creative industries. Jazz was one of the most important names in music management and its sad to see him depart this world.

ALBUM RESCUE SERIES: JOE STRUMMER ‘EARTHQUAKE WEATHER’ BY ADAM SPELLICY

THE FUTURE IS REWRITTEN

By the mid 1980s, seminal punk rockers The Clash had disbanded. Founding member Joe Strummer fired lead guitarist and songwriting partner Mick Jones via public communiqué in 1983 and the hastily reconstituted Clash Mark II only managed to launch one final, misguided salvo before skulking off to die: 1985’s Cut The Crap which, for all the opprobrium heaped upon it, boasts the epic, defeatist state-of-the-nation address This Is England.

In the traditional rock ’n’ roll playbook there is a post-band-breakup ritual to be observed: after an appropriate grieving period the former members, having gone their separate ways, set about issuing solo albums. Tunes that were torpedoed, vetoed, or simply failed to pass muster finally see the light of day, at last immune to internecine wrangling. Mick Jones took this well-trodden path, forming Big Audio Dynamite (B.A.D) in 1984. B.A.D.’s mix of sloganeering punk, electro pop, sampling, hip hop, dub reggae and funk seemed like an organic update of The Clash’s genre explorations and for a time the band enjoyed great success.

Joe Strummer’s solo career, on the other hand, presented as a classic case of Wilderness Years. He went off the reservation, sporadically popping his head above the parapet before promptly vanishing again. Unless one was a keen eyed aficionado of late 1980s independent film, it was a pretty effective disappearing act motivated by Strummer’s state of mind following the implosion of The Clash.

Having reached the summit of rock stardom, Strummer found himself isolated and riven with remorse. In his relentless pursuit of fame he had severed many significant human bonds, becoming the very thing he had once decried. In his own prophetic words:

“What’s the point in being one of the few? There’s nothing there. You can get all the Rolls Royces, all the country houses, all the servants, all the dope – and there’s nothing at the end of that road… no human life or nothing.”

– Joe Strummer, Rude Boy (1980)

Strummer’s ensuing period of itinerant soul-searching was contextualised within a redemptive narrative arc by Julien Temple, in his 2007 documentary The Future Is Unwritten. At the end of Temple’s film, Strummer devotes himself to rekindling the spark of camaraderie with those he had once spurned, around the flames of his legendary Glastonbury Festival campfires.

But back to the mid-1980s, before such reparations had been made. Whether consciously or not, Strummer made use of the years between 1986 and 1989 to systematically dismantle his iconic persona and scatter the fragments to the four winds. This was a strategy that, to a large extent, involved Strummer subsuming his ego and identity to the will of other artists.

The first was filmmaker Alex Cox, who invited Strummer to contribute two songs (Love Kills and Dum Dum Club) to the soundtrack of his 1986 film Sid & Nancy, which depicted the doomed romance between punk idols Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. In the first of several acting roles he would take on during this period, Strummer appeared in the music video for Love Kills (also directed by Cox), playing an incompetent Mexican Federale opposite Gary Oldman’s Vicious, in a prison-break superhero fantasy.

Strummer already had some prior form as an actor, playing himself in Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s 1980 docu-drama Rude Boy. And it could, of course, be argued that “Joe Strummer” was a long-form role-play by the downwardly mobile, class-conscious John Mellor – one he was growing ever more weary of performing. Aside from the odd Travis Bickle-style Mohawk haircut, Strummer was never given to the chrysalis-like transformations of a Bowie or a Dylan – it was always about the music – but he would nevertheless don a variety of guises in the next few years, before emerging in his final incarnation at the turn of the century.

By 1986, the wounds sustained during the breakup of The Clash were already starting to heal: Strummer co-produced and co-wrote many of the songs on Big Audio Dynamite’s second (and strongest) album, No. 10 Upping St. His role in this case was essentially that of ‘Silent Partner’, lending artistic support to former band mate Mick Jones and his new crew.

In 1987 Strummer returned to acting, in Alex Cox’s next feature Straight To Hell. Surely one of the most bizarre Plan Bs ever conceived, the film came about after the collapse of a proposed Nicaraguan tour by Strummer, The Pogues and Elvis Costello, in support of the embattled Sandinista government. Augmented by an eclectic supporting cast (including Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones and Jim Jarmusch) the musicians and Cox relocated to Almeria, Spain, where they cooked up a genre-colliding heist film slash ‘Paella Western’ remake of Giulio Questi’s Django Kill. Roundly dismissed at the time as a self-indulgent piss-take, or a very expensive home movie, Straight To Hell endures as an often hilarious, anarchic, proto-Po-Mo hybrid (and quite possibly an unacknowledged influence on one Quentin Tarantino).

It was during the production of Straight To Hell that Strummer connected with a musician who would take on an increasingly significant role in his subsequent creative efforts: Zander Schloss, formerly from punk band the Circle Jerks. They bonded on-set: Strummer was playing one of the film’s protagonists, Simms, a member of a gang of thieves who hole up in a desert town only to run afoul of the caffeine-addicted McManus Gang (played by The Pogues); while Schloss was cast in the minor role of local hot dog vendor Karl The Weiner Boy. Further details of the film’s eccentric ‘plot’ are probably best omitted, though it is worth noting that Strummer fully immerses himself in the role of a brooding, sexually frustrated wannabe bank robber. In addition to contributing two songs of his own to the film’s soundtrack, Strummer teamed up with Schloss to co-write Karl’s theme song, Salsa Y Ketchup, a rousing, double-entendre-riddled paean to sausages. Thus an unlikely yet fruitful collaboration was born.

That same year Cox, on a creative roll, directed a second feature: his allegorical masterpiece Walker, penned by legendary screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid). Ostensibly an historical biopic about William Walker, the freebooter who invaded Nicaragua in the 1850s under the doctrine of manifest destiny, the film is a rabidly anti-American stab at President Ronald Reagan’s then-contemporary support for the counterrevolutionary Contras. The film is rendered all the more subversive by the fact that it was made with $800,000 of Universal Studio’s money. Confined to a furtive cameo on the periphery of the frame, all but unrecognizable beneath bushranger beard and straggly long hair, Strummer’s on-screen contribution to Walker is negligible. Off-screen, it’s another story.

No longer content with dashing off a few tunes for the soundtrack, Strummer expressed a desire to compose the entire score for the film. Duly afforded the opportunity by Cox, Strummer recorded a series of 4-track demos using only acoustic guitar and a rudimentary keyboard. These skeletal ideas were entrusted to the prodigiously talented Zander Schloss – a “show off” by his own admission – who fleshed them out into lush arrangements for stringed instruments, horns and percussion. Much inspiration was apparently taken from the local music Schloss and Strummer heard in the cantinas they frequented during the film’s Nicaragua shoot.

Walker’s resulting score blends folk and country with more distinctly Central American and Caribbean influences, at times echoing Bob Dylan’s minimalist soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, elsewhere evoking the strident dramatics of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western themes. The Clash often experimented with musical genres (dub, reggae, funk, rockabilly), assimilating their influences through a tight-knit filter. Out on his own, Strummer became an ever more inclusive musical polyglot, a twitchy World Music exponent (minus the Great White Saviour Complex). Strummer’s contribution to the actual recording is limited to lead vocals on a few lilting campfire ballads, demonstrating a remarkable degree of autonomy imparted to Schloss and his session musicians. It is sublime in its own right, but as the first full-length solo album by the former front man for The Clash, it understandably left many fans bewildered.

In 1988, Strummer was commissioned to compose the soundtrack for Marisa Silver’s independent film Permanent Record, a melancholy meditation on teenage suicide. An early test screening of the film reportedly moved Strummer to tears. The backing band assembled for this project, fittingly dubbed The Latino Rockabilly War, comprised the rhythm section of punk/jazz outfit Tupelo Chainsex – bassist Joey Altruda and drummer Willie MacNeil – augmented by the now ubiquitous Zander Schloss on lead guitar. The eight songs they recorded rank among Strummer’s best solo work and display a brash, one-take vitality, repetitive rave-up Trash City even featuring the film’s star, Keanu Reeves, guesting on scrappy rhythm guitar. A slightly altered line-up of this band would soon go on to create Earthquake Weather.

But before they did, Joe cropped up on screen once more, skulking around a Memphis bar playing a suicidal drunk in one of three intersecting storylines that comprise Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train. A role specifically written with Strummer in mind (as is Jarmusch’s casting modus operandi), his character’s repeated line: “Don’t call me Elvis!” is a succinct, significant statement of Joe’s desire to shrug off the ill-fitting rock star mantle.

Which brings us, finally, to 1989’s Earthquake Weather.

I recall buying this album eagerly upon its release – apparently one of only 7,000 people to do so, if my research is correct. Finally, a fully-fledged Joe Strummer solo album! After a few perplexed spins, it was thereafter consigned to some dark recess of my record collection. Reviews from the time vindicated my initial disdain.

Before we take the platter out for reconsideration, let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the front cover. As a tequila sun sets over Californian palm trees, an enigmatic silhouette stands on the edge of a swimming pool diving board, quiff hanging lank atop his uplifted head, cigarette dangling from his lower lip. A leather-jacketed, bow-legged, cowboy-booted guitar slinger, Telecaster slung like a rifle at his hip. A pomaded pirate poised to walk the plank. It’s simultaneously elegiac and defiant. Later adopted as the logo for The Joe Strummer Foundation and as Chris Salewicz notes in his biography Redemption Song, it’s “an iconic Strummer image ironically much better known than the music inside the record it was intended to herald.”

Off-mike, Joe bellows a war cry: “LET’S ROCK AGAIN!” and the album opener Gangsterville kicks off with no fanfare, the words and music coming thick and fast, rhythms wrestling. Strummer hollers urgently over the top of a reconfigured Latino Rockabilly War, now with Lonnie Marshall replacing Joey Altruda on bass:

The Revolution came, the Revolution went

 Strummer summarises, with an abrupt sense of futility.

Wanted: one man to lead a crusade

Payment: a bullet on a big parade

Then, all at once: the pounding punk thunder flips to a tipsy Caribbean sway and we’re relocated to the titular ‘Gangsterville’. The effect on Strummer’s vocal also turns on a dime, switching from mighty slap-back echo to tinny, crackly filter, as if emanating from a cheap transistor radio in a broken down ’57 Chevrolet. The song continues in this schizoid fashion, alternating back and forth between two distinctly opposed feels, the effect unnerving yet undeniably cinematic: the abrupt transitions from verse to chorus are like scene cuts. The lyrics equivocate every bit as much as the music – Strummer is alarmed to discover common ground with both the victims and perpetrators of political crimes:

On the other hand, sitting next to an evil crew
They just got down from floor 82

Been selling Indian reservations

Comin’ in looking for some jazz and a little libations

I like the same kind of beer

I gotta get right out of here

If the first track speaks of political disillusionment, the second, King Of The Bayou, immediately contradicts this position with a hopeful salute to Phillipine President Corazon Aquino, elected in the wake of the 1986 People Power Revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos. Here, the optimism is infectiously anthemic:

Cory is the one

She’ll never ever die young

Next up is Slant Six, which comes on like a Keith Richards solo number, right down to Schloss’ wiry slide guitar licks. It’s apt, then, that the song critiques the decadent trappings of rock stardom – and their isolating effect – that Strummer himself was struggling to avoid:

 You got Juan-Le-Pins

You got the needle and the deep cellar wine

You got the slow boat to China

You own part of South Carolina

What a fate: to be imprisoned at the height of your dreams

An abrupt climate change comes in the form of Island Hopping, whose lazy nylon-string lope, evocative of Jamaican folk, underpins a telling ode to the joys of shirking one’s duties and the lure of capitulating to wanderlust:

I don’t like to do a drop of work

Drive a cab, or paint the church

It’s been the same since I don’t know when

So I’m goin’ island hopping again

Throughout the album Strummer is preoccupied with rebellion, escapism and restlessness, topics that must have felt very dear to him during these “lost” years. Significantly, the majority of the song titles suggest movement, modes of transportation or destinations: Slant Six, Leopardskin Limousines, Ride Your Donkey, Island Hopping, Gangsterville, Sleepwalk, Highway One Zero Street, King Of The Bayou, Shouting Street, Passport To Detroit. The lyrics coalesce into a surreal, novelistic, globe-spanning travelogue, jumping to and from locations both real and fictional, rapidly juxtaposing rich and poor, cops and robbers, boardrooms and barrios, in imagery pitched somewhere between Bob Dylan’s Invisible Republic and William Burroughs’ nightmarish Interzone.

Earthquake Weather marks the point where Strummer’s laissez-faire approach to band leadership reached both its zenith and nadir. Evidently pleased with the result of recent collaborations, he allowed his co-conspirators great liberty to flesh out his foggy notions, bringing their diverse musical pedigrees to bear as they discovered the arrangements through intensive jamming. Zander Schloss, for his part, revels in this freedom, grandstanding on lead guitar, banjo and any other stringed instrument within reach as he navigates the hairpin genre curves. His hyperactive solos come off like Marc Ribot channeling J. Mascis. These musical explorations often took place with Strummer in absentia: he would take to the streets in search of real-life lyrical stimulus, or hunker down in a far corner of the studio in his notorious spliff bunker to pursue more inward inspirations.

It’s only around the middle of the album that this otherwise fruitful regime of organized chaos threatens to skip the rails: on Dizzy’s Goatee and Leopardskin Limousines the grooves are tentative, the vocals delivered in an unconvincing mumble, as if something hasn’t quite gelled. And Boogie With Your Children and Sikorsky Parts – which no amount of re-listening can fully redeem – bear unfortunate comparison to early Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is possibly due, in no small part, to the abrupt mid-session replacement of Willie MacNeil with drummer Jack Irons from the aforementioned Californian funkers.

Four songs on the album reveal that Strummer never fully transcended his Punk Rock Warlord persona. Nor perhaps, ultimately, did he truly wish to. Shouting Street drives like a madman, with Schloss rapid-firing Chuck Berry licks from the passenger seat (complete with a shout-out to Jim Jarmusch); Jewellers & Bums is an insistent thumper that could stack up against anything on The Clash’s flawless London Calling; Highway One Zero Street (with a title that’s pure Zimmerman) effortlessly shifts gears from Mariarchi-Waltz time to stabbing punk to anthem rock to popping funk, unfolding like a map of intersecting ethnic neighbourhoods; and Passport To Detroit rockets along an apocalyptic desert highway at midnight, headlights illuminating doomy portents.

The sole cover version on the album, Ride Your Donkey, is a relaxed rendition of The Tennors’ Rocksteady standard, which Strummer might have first heard at the Marquee Club in the early days of London’s punk scene. Its inclusion here suggests a nostalgic trawling through past influences, and is one of the few backward glances Strummer permitted himself in his relentless forward march to a new identity.

Some critics speculated that Earthquake Weather was a self-sabotaging attempt on Strummer’s part to wriggle out of his contract with EMI, but it’s far too complex a piece of work to have been conceived with such a cynical endgame in mind. Much was made at the time of the “muddiness” of the album’s production and it’s true there is a kitchen-sinky chaos to some of the mixes, but much like Strummer and Schloss’ soundtrack work the focus favours ambience over radio-friendly clarity. Several songs even feel like they’ve wandered in off the set of Walker: Island Hopping, Leopardskin Limousines and the album’s closer, Sleepwalk (originally written for Frank Sinatra), provide gentle acoustic oases of calm amid the urgent electrical storms that dominate elsewhere.

The album has a palpable sense of topography and geography, heavily populated by a multinational cast of heroes, villains and background extras, as if Strummer’s forays into film were feeding back into his songwriting. The cumulative effect of Earthquake Weather is akin to reading the screenplay and listening to the score for an unmade trans-national road movie, as an abstract but nonetheless coherent narrative plays out on the screen behind one’s eyes. The main character, of course, is Joe Strummer himself. No matter how hard he fought to submerge his stardom and defer to his creative associates, the resulting work bears his indelible imprint.

It took another decade for Strummer to finally emerge as a solo artist in the traditional sense. With new backing outfit The Mescaleros, he released a trio of increasingly decent albums in quick succession between 1999 and 2002. The last of these, Streetcore, was completed posthumously by band mates Martin Slattery and Scott Shields, Strummer having only recorded his rhythm guitar and vocal tracks before his sudden death at age 50.

And so, once again, responsibility for the realisation of Strummer’s vision fell to his collaborators – but this time out of heart-breaking necessity rather than trusting intent. As a result, Streetcore makes for bittersweet listening: it’s the solid solo album every fan had been waiting 13 long years for – but Joe was no longer around to hear it. Faced with the reality that we’ll never be graced with another, and freed from past prejudices a listener may have once brought to the material, the music Strummer made between 1986 and 1989, culminating in Earthquake Weather, now reveals itself to be richly rewarding and ripe for redemption…………….

Sources:

Cox, A. (2013) Website of filmmaker Alex Cox (Retrieved from alexcox.com)

Excerpts from lyrics to Gangsterville, King Of The Bayou, Slant Six and Island Hopping © Joe Strummer

Hazan, J. & Mingay, D. (1980) Rude Boy (Buzzy Enterprises / Michael White Productions)

Jarmusch, J. (1989) Mystery Train (JVC Entertainment Networks / Mystery Train)

Pottker, N. (2014) In Conversation: Zander Schloss (Retrieved fromfiles.wordpress.com/2014/10)

Salewicz, C. (2006) Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography Of Joe Strummer (London, Harper Collins)

The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Joe Strummer ‘Earthquake Weather’ is written by Adam Spellicy, one of ARS’s guest authors. Adam Spellicy is a screenwriter, filmmaker and an occasional musician based in Melbourne, Australia. (Follow Adam Spellicy on Twitter @AdamSpellicy )

Album Rescue Series Guest Author, Adam Spellicy.
Album Rescue Series Guest Author, Adam Spellicy.

THE ART OF A&R

One of my most regular and popular Master Classes that I deliver to early career music industry professionals is ‘The Art of A&R’. A&R spelt out is Artist and Repertoire. The A&R department of a record company is responsible for:

A. working with the talent who are already under contract, and:

B. finding new talent; that is seeking out new material and acts to sign in an attempt to develop a roster of artists for the company.

The A&R department’s staff are frequently involved in all aspects of an artists’ relationship with the record company, including the initial negotiations and the signing of the recording contract, the rehearsal arrangements and production, and promotion divisions of the record company. The training of new creative, entrepreneurial forward thinking and business savvy A&R managers is, I would argue, central to the very survival of the music industry.

In a time of crisis and collapsing sales of recorded music in the music industry, creative and entrepreneurial A&R workers are more important than ever. Only by continuing to create new products and value can record companies compete in this rapidly changing market. The reorientation of A&R instruments and strategies are critical to meeting the consumer’s needs in the present climate. The relationship between the product/artist and the fan has to become closer through the use of new marketing and production instruments and strategies. New tools like. for example, fan community contests, new gatekeeping functions, new financial opportunities and new technologies afford record labels the chance to rally against falling turnovers. Even if record companies concentrate on buying and selling copyrights and catalogues in the future, A&R departments will be important as a gatekeeper to maintain the company’s A&R guiding principles and policies. In other words, A&R managers and departments are there to ensure the quality of artists and content associated with the record company.

To be able to survive this crisis new challenges have to be conquered, new requirements fulfilled and new opportunities seized. As a result of collapsing sales in the music industry, recording labels have less capital at their disposal. Production and artist development budgets have been dramatically reduced. When I worked in A&R we had at our disposal lavish budgets. That said nothing stifles creativity more than wealth. As such, it has become harder for labels to invest in new artists and to develop their careers. However, the business of finding and recruiting new artists still operates as it has done for decades. There is no shortage of hard working, talented artists who want to become stars but it seems to have become harder for labels to earn money with the music they are producing, and as a result they have less budget for their development.

To withstand the drop in sales, new income streams have to be found to ensure the development of, and investment in, the careers of new artists. As long as record companies are developing, releasing and selling new artists, a turnover is guaranteed. A&R management not only involves the process of scouting for and finding new talent, but also acts as a gatekeeping tool allowing record labels to meet the company’s A&R guiding principles and policies, even if finished products are being signed to the label. Even if labels decide to concentrate more on buying, selling and monetizing copyrights rather than developing and producing new artists and/or products in the future, A&R management will remain one of the most important instruments. To be able to conquer the current crisis and to compete economically, record labels have to recalibrate the instruments of their A&R policy.

I recently gave my ‘The Art of A&R’ Master Class in Sydney, Australia at the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) to a bunch of highly creative and motivated undergraduate students. During this session I realized that I was lacking some ‘takeaways’, so in order to re-address this gap, here are some possibilities and ideas:

  1. Closer artist/fan relationship. Major labels in particular still have a very impersonal system of information distribution for fans and end-consumers. It has become more and more important to show ‘the person behind the star’. by revealing to fans and consumers the real lives of their idols and stars with all their strengths, weaknesses and mistakes, The product can gain an emotional value This personalisation evokes compassion (a Dalton Koss HQ key word). The fan feels bound to the star, both emotionally and personally. By being transparent about the recording process through daily or weekly updates, pictures and videos of the work in the studio on the artist’s website, blog, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts it is possible to show the fan how a record is made. Fans learn to appreciate the intrinsic value of music by seeing the intensive work required before a final product can be bought in the store. Its time to fully exploit social media and turn it into a powerful marketing tool.
  2. Product development process. Fans could be actively engaged in the production and development process of artists via demo listening, remix contests and artwork contests. Demo listening
 would allow various versions of song demos that had been uploaded to the artist’s Bandcamp or SoundCloud accounts and fans could vote which songs should be produced as part of the next album. Modern young audiences are familiar with this format because of the numerous TV talent shows that exist. Remix contests are already a very popular means of creating a more personal relationship between artist and fan. Fans could download the audio stems of a song for free, or even for a fee, allowing them to create their own version of their favorite artist’s new song. By selling these audio stems another source of income could be generated. Their creators could upload these finished remixes and the fan community could vote for their favorites. Within the scope of a digital or physical release the most popular remixes could be sold guaranteeing a further income stream. For the re-release of the 1976 David Bowie single ‘Golden Years’ an iPhone app was created which allowed fans to create their own remix. The app was made available the same day that the EP ‘Golden Days’ was released, with remixes by well-known producers. For artwork contests
, the fan community could be asked to upload pictures or graphics they associate with the artist or with the artist’s song. After a vote by the fan community, the most popular ones are then included in the booklet artwork or even as the cover.
  3. Improvement of product policy. With the introduction of the compact disc (CD) from 1986 onwards, sonic quality reached a new high with the added bonus that CDs had more ‘space’ than a 12” vinyl record. To boost the income of successful singles, subsequent albums were often filled with inferior songs, of live or rehearsal versions, just to fill the empty space. Some of this material was of rather dubious quality and I’ve heard a number of my own live mixing board recordings end up as a ‘bonus track’ on records. It is important that the quality of the whole product is high and sadly this just hasn’t being the case. My main problem with digital dissemination is the poor sonic quality of MP3 and MP4 files; they sound awful. All the other creative media have moved into High Definition (HD) or Ultra High Definition (UHD) e.g. TV, Cinema, photography, yet music’s sonic quality has gone down the quantity over quality route. If music production moved into HD or UHD mode then the process of developing the product may take a little longer and be more costly but the product would be greatly improved and have more customer appeal. Who knows there may be an end consumer who is willing to pay a premium for an album of near perfect production and of a super high sonic quality?
  4. A&R competence of imprints. To cover a lot of different music genres, major labels are forced to depend on the A&R competence of their imprints. Through imprints, which specialise in non-mainstream and niche music markets, major labels get the opportunity to uncover underground trends earlier and to develop them. As such, imprints are talent pools, experimental research and development laboratories for their parent companies. Not only do they develop the performing talent they also develop A&R management talent too. For this reason niche imprints need fostering and developing.
  5. New strategies of market cultivation. According to record company marketing guru, Marcel Engh, A&R policy has to be the basic element of modern music marketing because it provides and produces the value of the value chain in the recording industry, the content is the strategic factor of success. As the developer of true value, A&R policy has to remain the foundation of record labels. A company’s turnover has to grow not only through artist copyright but also through comprehensive use of the 360-degree contract. Very controversial but worth considering?
  6. The use of new technologies as instruments of A&R policy. With the rapid growth of the Internet, it has become easy for unknown artists and musicians to share their music over the World Wide Web. With Web 2.0 artists can present themselves with their biography, pictures, videos and their music. The challenge of using the Internet as an A&R instrument to find new talent is the access to vast numbers of new and unknown artists. Fan communities can act as gatekeepers to show A&R departments which artists are likely to appeal to potential customers. Relevant indications include the number of plays of uploaded songs, the number of profile views and the comments written on an artist’s wall, all very useful metrics. The popularity and media presence of casting shows helps record labels increase their income. But developing long-term careers with the winners doesn’t appear to work all the time. It is hard for the artists to compete against the following season’s participants and often the winners of one year disappear from the screen when the next show begins.
  7. Public Subsidy. During the global financial and economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, automobile companies had recourse to financial support in several countries in order to be able to survive and avoid bankruptcy. Keeping these unprofitable automobile companies afloat translated into decreased job loss and maintaining industry activity until post-financial crisis. It’s very controversial but maybe something similar could also occur in the music industry? In a postindustrial service based economy, the creative industries, in which the music industry resides, employs significant numbers of people. Increasingly, governments are recognising that public subsidy may be part of the business model for the the creative industries.

Through the reorientation of instruments and strategies of A&R policy, record companies can overcome the recent sales collapse. However, the industry needs fresh ideas and creativity when it comes to selling new products and artists. The days of sitting back and waiting for the big money to roll in are long gone. It has become difficult for record companies and artists to promote and sell their music. Only with good ideas, extraordinary marketing tools and instruments can companies maintain the consumer’s interest in buying music. Major labels, in particular, need to return to developing long-term artist careers instead of relying on one-hit wonders and TV talent shows, even if these do provide some short-term increases in turnover. Successful long-term careers are the key here; the re-imagination of past business models, such, as the three or five album deal is probably the solution. Sign talent with a view of developing and growing it along with its audience over a significant period of time. In order to do that we need new, creative, entrepreneurial and media savvy A&R managers and workers.

ALBUM RESCUE SERIES: PETE SHELLEY ‘HOMOSAPIEN’

I was born in 1962 in the city of Hull, or to give it its full name, Kingston upon Hull, which is located in East Yorkshire in the north east of the UK. The city of Hull sits on a vast flat barren clay wilderness called the Plain of Holderness. This Plain was one huge marsh up until 1240 when the Dominican monks established a Friary in the market town of Beverley. From across the North Sea, these Dominican monks brought in the Dutch to drain this large swathe of land to make it habitable and suitable for farming. To this day you can still see the ditches and dykes built by the Dutch to drain this great plain. Easily sourced fresh and clean water filtered through the chalk of the Yorkshire Wolds also made this area desirable for habitation. I can’t prove my theory but it’s my contention that something was added to this water during the late 1970s and 1980s. The result was a noticeable, unprecedented outbreak of artistic and musical creativity in Hull during this period the likes of which have not be seen since. Whatever was in the water during this period was obviously good stuff and did the trick.

From the mid 1970s through to the late 1980s, Hull, and in particular the Polar Bear pub, seemed to attract artists and musicians from all corners of the UK. The Polar Bear pub was on a road called Spring Bank so called because this road followed the course of the original conduit which brought fresh water from the Yorkshire Wolds’ springs into the city. One person I casually befriended during 1981/2 was art student Philip Diggle from Manchester, who was studying fine art at Hull College of Art and Design. At the time, Philip was a poor starving eccentric artist (he still is) who told me one night, after way too many beers in the Polar Bear pub, “I’m drawn to action painting and I’m going to make it my vocation”.

Back then this Victorian pub had a long public bar, a lounge and a very strange liminal space referred to as “the café bar”. This was a small wood paneled room that held approximately 20 odd people and was wedged between the bar and lounge. This was the city’s only arty bohemian safe spot and every night of the week it was filled with poor starving artists and musicians such as Roland Gift, Eric Golden aka Wreckless Eric, Lili-Marlene Premilovich who would later morph into Lene Lovich, her lover and musical partner Les Chappell and just about every other local indie band, would be record producer, fine artist, architect and other assorted creative wannabes. It was here that I made the connection that Philip Diggle was in fact the younger brother of Buzzcocks rock God guitarist Steve Diggle.

A few years earlier, I’d seen the Buzzcocks play a couple of times at the Wellington ‘Welly’ Club in Hull. Most punk bands at the time hailed from down south, specifically London. Buzzcocks were different as they came from Manchester, located a couple of hours away along the M62. Most southern punks bands that I saw live, more often than not at The ‘Welly’ club, were like peacocks e.g. lots of expensive bondage trousers, leather jackets with studs and other flamboyant touches. Bands from the north, and especially Manchester, dressed down; it was more second hand thrift shop punk as opposed to the highly stylized Vivian Westwood/Malcolm McLaren look. The northern look was much more accessible. An Oxfam or second hand thrift stores allowed the poor working class of Hull to emulate this dressed down punk look.

With their dressed down punk look, the Buzzcocks had the musical chops to match. Pete Shelley, the band’s lead singer, looked like the weedy kids at my school, the ones that got bullied and never got picked for the football team. His vocal style was quiet, limp, whiney, camp and often out of tune. It wasn’t the classic punk rock loud, proud, macho and shooty vocals you associate with this genre. Shelley was unique and he was certainly not a lead man in the classic punk rock mold like Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer or Dave Vanian. Northerners like myself loved the Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley; we identified with them and claimed them as our own.

Their 1977 Spiral Scratch EP was the first ever self-release punk record. It sounded fantastic and was 100% Punk Rock. Track one, side two; Boredom was a call to arms. For me it was this record, not The Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK, that signalled Punk Rock had arrived. This EP announced punk’s rebellion against the status quo whilst also providing the strident musical minimalism template (the Steve Diggle guitar ‘solo’ consisting of only two notes but repeated 66 times!) that all future punk records would measure themselves against. Martin ‘Zero’ Hannett quickly recorded and mixed the music in a single day and it was perfectly insistently repetitive and energetic. Jon Savage states in England Dreaming (2001: 298) that this record was instrumental in helping establish the small record labels and scenes in both Manchester and Liverpool. Following on from this EP, the Buzzcocks released three fantastic albums; Another Music In A Different Kitchen in 1978, the superb Love Bites also in 1978 and A Different Kind of Tension in 1979. Martin Rushent expertly produced all three albums, none of which need rescuing here.

For the traditional Buzzcock fans, Homosapien was a super-sad and disappointing event upon its release in 1981. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre maintained that the concepts of authenticity and individuality have to be earned but not learned. We need to experience “death consciousness” so as to wake up ourselves as to what is really important; the authentic in our lives which is life experience, not knowledge. As he wrote in Being And Nothingness (1943: 246), “We can act without being determined by our past which is always separated from us“. Many artists reach this point in their careers; this is the moment when Pablo Picasso swaps expressionism for abstract cubism. Sartre would probably concur that Pete Shelley experienced his ‘death consciousness’ moment when he recorded this album. Homosapien is the moment Shelley and Rushent swap electric guitars for synthesisers; they are both acting without being determined by their collective and individual Buzzcock pasts.

Much of the material contained on this album were songs originally intended for the Buzzcock’s fourth album. Some of the material on Homosapien even pre-dates the Buzzcocks and had been cryogenically stored for a number of years. This wasn’t Shelley’s first solo album as he had recorded, but not released, an album called Sky Yen way back in 1974. Some of this material was re-worked on Homosapien. The Buzzcocks had fully committed to recording a fourth album. It’s pure conjecture, but this album was probably set up to continue their intriguing, strange and powerful direction they had taken on their third 1979 album A Different Kind of Tension. Rehearsals for the fourth album were underway in Manchester when the record company (EMI/Fame) refused to advance the money needed to make the record. Tensions were running high, so producer Martin Rushent called a halt to rehearsals and returned to his newly built barn studio, Genetic, on his property near Reading in Berkshire.

Shelley followed Rushent down to Berkshire and the two settled into Genetic studios with the intent of working on Buzzcock demos. This was no ‘home’ studio; technologically it was cutting edge and years ahead of its time. Rushent had predicted the future of record production, investing a considerable sum of money on audio equipment such as a Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, Roland MC-8 Microcomposer and a Roland Jupiter 8 keyboard with the intent of teaching himself the new art of music programming. Once Rushent had confirmed that ‘sequencing’ was the future of record production, he equipped his Genetic Studio with the very best and most expensive audio equipment. This included a MCI console, one of the first Mitsubishi Digital multi-track records, at an eye popping £75,000 ($153,000), a Synclavier and a Fairlight digital synthesiser, where most people would buy one or the other.

Very quickly Shelley and Rushent fell in love with the sound of the ‘Linn Drum’ demos at the exact moment where mainstream electro-synth pop was just taking hold. Rushent used his studio as a research and development laboratory, perfecting his new way of producing records. Homosapien is the sound of one musician (Shelley), one record producer (Rushent) and lots of early, expensive computer technology. Visionary Island Records’ A&R Executive, Andrew Lauder, heard the early demos and instantly offered Shelley a solo deal. Tired of the Buzzcock’s near bankrupt financial state, Shelley abruptly disbanded the band via an insensitive lawyers’ letter mailed to his band-mates.

Virgin Records’ A&R Executive, Simon Draper, listened to the finished Homosapien album; he’d heard the future. Martin Rushent was instantly hired to produce the Human League’s 1981 hugely popular masterpiece album Dare. By the time Rushent set to work on Dare, he had perfected a new way of sequencing and programming synthesiser-based music. In this process, he had pioneered the technique of ‘sampling’, skills he first practiced on Homosapien. This, said Shelley, marked a departure from the baroque flourishes of the outdated progressive rock era: “Martin wasn’t content that synthesisers produced weird noises; he did his best to use them to convey musical ideas. These days when you listen to music you don’t even hear the synthesisers. That is due to Martin, who was at the vanguard of making electronics work for the music“.[1]

The Buzzcock fans’ shock had barley dissipated from the unexpected news of the break up when Homosapien was released. A great number of Buzzcock fans were disappointed and disenchanted by what they perceived as Shelley jumping on to the Gary Numan synth-pop bandwagon. Shelley’s lyrics remained just as cold, disjointed and disgruntled as they ever were on a Buzzcocks’ album, only now they’re placed much more in the forefront of the soundstage instead of being just an afterthought. The album confirms that Shelley’s wry, witty, lovelorn pop songwriting ability was still perfectly intact. As you would deduce from the album’s title, this work is as narcissistic as anything that David Bowie could ever write, “Homosuperior in my interior“; it doesn’t get any more narcissistic than that.

Despite the new method of computer-sequenced production Rushent manages to retain the tight compressed, hard vocals of Shelley’s band work. The ten tracks on this album are magnificent, modernist abstract electronic works of art. The opening track and first single, Homosapien, was rejected by British radio due to the song’s apparent homosexual overtones, even though taken at face value, its controversial nature seems less evident. Regardless, it was a worldwide club hit, especially in gay clubs, and was the blueprint for many synth-pop dance tracks that followed. Tracks like the fabulous experimental I Generate A Feeling and the relentless I Don’t Know What It Is are confirmation of this testament. If this album was a painting it could easily be one of Philip Diggle’s modernist pieces of abstract expressionism. The similarity between this album and Diggle’s paintings are very similar i.e. Diggle’s paintings are complex 3-D abstractions, they go beyond texture, and some of them are inches thick as is Shelley’s music on this album.

With the lack of mainstream radio play, and poor reviews, this album was largely unloved upon its release. The NME said that “Homosapien is the first chance to examine the solo Shelley over the full range of interests and emotions but it is a disjointed album… the problem is the bulk of the raw material is too ineffectual, often embarrassing and half realised, to give the songs a focal point which binds, injects or drives them with the necessary conviction or resolution… It lacks energy, urgency and desperation, something to grab on to: the power to wake you or make you or shake you up. A shame because Shelley still has a lot to give”.[2]

When Homosapien was originally released, it pushed the technological envelop on all fronts. As a cassette, there were ten tracks on one side, while the other side was a computer code that could be loaded onto your Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer. I often wonder how many people played the wrong side of the cassette on their HiFi system and heard the garbled cacophony of computer code, thinking this was the album? I bought the cassette version upon its release in January 1981, but could never get the computer graphics to work properly. My cassette version was quickly replaced by the sonically much superior CD version, which came out a few months later in June 1981.

I would also suggest that this album suffered from some unwarranted homophobia. Pete Shelley was punk’s version of heavy metal band Judas Priest’s lead singer Rob Halford. When both artists came out, the press had a field day resulting in many fans deserting both artists; not that it made one iota of difference to the music. Judas Priest was still a kick-ass heavy metal band no matter the lead singer’s sexual preference. The one positive of Shelley’s ‘coming out’ was the attention Homosapien received by a totally new demographic that never heard of the Buzzcocks. As a stupendous club dance track, the single Homosapien, was a huge success in gay clubs around the world even if it didn’t generate high retail sales.

In recent times, the genius of Philip Diggle’s modernist action paintings have been recognised by the American corporate business world who are buying his work as part of their investment portfolios. Diggle’s works can now be found hanging in the Rockefeller Centre and corporate headquarters of the Chase Manhattan Bank; both located in New York City. In many ways the Shelley/Rushent album Homosapien is similar to one of Diggle’s artworks. It can take thirty years or more for cutting edge works of art to be fully assimilated and accepted into the cultural landscape. This album was the work of two visionary artists who created a substantial work of art as opposed to an ephemeral standardised pop record. This album is evidence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory at work. The name of the studio, ‘Genetic’ and the name of the album ‘Homosapien’ are all not so coded semiotic clues as to how this album evolved from the punk rock of the Buzzcocks. Homosapien will forever be associated with the sexually charged gay scene, the smell of Amyl Nitrite and thumping bass of gay club dance floors. Too many homophobes made this album taboo and off limits. My suggestion is to get hold of the Homosapien CD, play it loud and just enjoy the fabulous music.

[1] The Telegraph 2/7/14 (Rocks Back Pages accessed 24/6/15)

[2] NME 22/8/81 (Rocks Back Pages accessed 24/6/15).

Homosapien2

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.

ALBUM RESCUE SERIES: TIN MACHINE ‘TIN MACHINE’ by DR IAN DIXON

Hello Humans, can you hear me thinking?

These words begin Bowie’s second Tin Machine album, critically panned as ‘second rate’. This marks Bowie’s second attempt at equanimity within a band since heading up The King Bees as Davie Jones in the mid 1960s (Trynka, 2011). In the interim, he added the moniker ‘Bowie’ vying to outdo Mick Jagger (meaning ‘hunter’) by naming himself after a legendary hunting knife – although the story is still hotly debated and becoming a mega-star (Sandford, 1996).[1] Was forming Tin Machine an act of sheer pretension or a genuine plea to return to his roots? Indeed, for the inimitable David Bowie, self-conscious pretension is an active part of his stagecraft and a key ingredient within his famous ‘personas’. This brings us to another quandary: where is his faithful, protective mask during the Tin Machine era? Did the 1980s, which saw him perform to audiences in the hundreds of thousands, selling albums in the tens of millions, see him emerge from behind the mask? Had he finally accepted his Reality as a household name without obfuscating his (dubious) ‘true’ self behind theatrical disguise?[2] Or was he making Tin Machine, the band, his latest attempt at subterfuge; albeit in the guise of honest, grassroots rock ‘n’ roll? As band member, Hunt Sales, famously remarked, “this was presumably the only garage band in existence with a millionaire for a lead singer” (Leigh, 2014). How ironic that ‘Woody’ Woodmansey, the drummer of the Spiders from Mars, once declared Bowie as simply ‘one of the lads’ who became a star and a show-off and relinquished his duties lugging gear as he had done in the early days (Trynka, 2011).

An assessment of the Tin Machine album in hindsight, however, highlights the successful experiment it was: his image, though tainted, lived to see many more reinventions. Consequently, both Tin Machine albums can be seen as improvisations on themes and ideas which would take another decade to perfect with the emergence of his next manifestation of (flawed) genius in albums such as Outside (1995) and Heathen (2002). Fast forward yet another decade and The Next Day (2013) appears without warning; offering up songs of radical contrast from the heartbroken Where Are We Now? to the rock lament The Stars (Are Out Tonight). So the Tin Machine experiment represents a necessary pipeline through which Bowie’s creativity passed, surged, died and re-emerged. We might therefore consider Tin Machine’s second album from the point of view of the music; Bowie’s fandom; the Tin Machine band; the Bowie mask; the album itself and the individual tracks as a way of rescuing the album from damnation within the Bowie lexicon.

Arguably, all the libel against Tin Machine connotes the best part of the great man’s life: the music itself. The first Tin Machine album was lambasted as a work of garage band wall-of-noise and both garage devotees and Bowie fans alike seemed baffled. For my part, I confess to greeting the first album hoping to hell it would match his seminal works of the 1970s, and after a valiant period of evangelical apologism, I resolved (along with the rest of the enclave) that it was awful. This second album was released by Polygram in Australasia in 1991 and, despite its questionable merits, ushers in a new era in music – a time when the rock giants of the 1970s were truly gone (maybe not as ‘gone’ as Syd Barrett, but gone nonetheless). New rock supergroups such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana took up the mantle. Indeed, the 70s gods of rock returned in the guise of ‘old rockers’ two decades later (De Generis, 2007), (those that had not carked it, that is).

Certainly, the diehard Bowie fan really wants the second album to work, and listens intently for the expected sense of transcendence to rise. Alas, like their response Tin Machine one, the exemplary fan falls somewhere between disappointment and denial.

There is, however, much that this album promises and foreshadows, echoes and reinvents: both in Bowie’s music and that of his protégés – all commendably. With hallmark screaming guitars supplied strategically by Reeves Gabrels, who also co-wrote most of the material, the album provides a clarity and balance, which might betray a rookie breed of excellence… had it been anyone but Bowie in the co-driver’s seat. The reputedly telepathic Sales brothers, Hunt and Tony, fill out the basic line-up contributing some not-quite-dirty-enough tunes to the song list. According to biographer Paul Trynka, all three accompanying performers on Tin Machine toured with, befriended and did copious amounts of cocaine with Bowie in preparation for this album.

Produced by Tim Palmer (& Tin Machine) and mixed at Studio 301 in Sydney, Australia, this album prefigures the simple rock line-up of the Reality tour (2003). But the cookie-cutter mentality to songs does not quite have that ring of authenticity, nor does Bowie adequately disappear in the background. Had Bowie read too much Marxism during his performance of the titular role in Berthold Brecht’s polemic play Baal (1982)? Did he look back in anger to find his teacher lounging in his overalls? Or was he simply in denial of his status as mega-star? As forerunner to much of Bowie’s subsequent work with virtuoso guitarist Reeves Gabrels, the album promises a burgeoning style, which subsequently shape-shifted all the way to Outside. But where The Spider’s lead guitarist Mick Ronson had been the exemplary axeman for the glam rock era and ‘crafty’ guitarist Robert Fripp had all but created Scary Monsters’ keystone, inimitable, psychotic rock, Gabrels virtuosity just becomes annoyed, annoying and overweening.

The cover art provides a first glimpse of the material to come, while simultaneously causing a cringe of trepidation. Bowie’s languid stare at the camera on the inner cover of the CD seems to deny the contrasting cover depicting four circumspect (and circumcised) Egyptian male nudes (banned in some countries). Bowie glowers with a touch of suppressed charisma as if subsuming himself in the (dubious) mentality of band solidarity were just a private joke he had not let the others in on. His look seems to say: ‘I am just visiting here’, like the space traveller Thomas Jerome Newton of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975) or the escapee from worldly oppression, Major Tom.

Once the album is in the player, the scrutiny begins in earnest: as does our attempt to recover the gems hidden in the detritus. With yet another reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Baby Universal kicks the album off with a techno-fetishist repetition of the word: “baby, baby, baby…” The hook is excellent and reeks of self-referentiality: space, star babies, alien voices and a reversal of the haunting ending of Diamond Dog (“bra, bra, bra, bra, bra…”). Baby Universal’s theme curiously collides two of Bowie’s notable obsessions: space and mental telepathy. Yes, Sir David, we can hear you thinking: do ‘think’ us some more. For a moment there’s real potential in this album.

One Shot, written with Tony Sales, produced, mixed and engineered by Hugh Padgham (retuning for another crack after Loving the Alien). There is a touch of The Labyrinth in the song’s simplicity and screaming guitar lead (not mixed so far back as to obscure its pretensions to garage band). And yes, Gabrels peels off an awesome arpeggio or two, but does it add up to a unique song? Here the listener is privileged to hear fine musicianship hitching a ride on a less than satisfactory vehicle, which only goes to prepare us (dejection beginning to set in) for the pedestrian song: You Belong in Rock n Roll. Yet, this next track, with the whispered, haunting, low crooner tones of Bowie at his best, promises to impress. However, the song proves a mere practice-run for the far superior Where Are we Now? on The Next Day. If this is rock ‘n’ roll, then it ain’t the 60s anymore. And if this is garage, they ain’t waking up the neighbours. Yet, the song actually sits nicely in the set: well arranged; some inventive SFX mixing, which creates a rush of insight for the listener; and some fine restraint on Bowie and Gabrels’ part (although seemingly vying for attention). Just when the album might have become odious, If There Is Something (written exclusively by Chuck Ferry) arrests Gabrels’ guitars from competing with Bowie’s voice and the two elements dovetail melodiously and effectively.

Amlapura: trippy, deliberately messed up, like coming off cocaine – which according to Wendy Leigh (2014), Bowie was snorting copiously at the time of this album, having claimed to have ‘kicked’ the habit previously. The dream-life represented in the appropriately titled Amlapura, couched in a sound-reverb shell, which echoes Pink Floyd (less satisfactorily). The song also prefigures psychedelic revival bands such as The Dandy Warhols and Tame Impala, invents upon the past, only to leave us hankering for the future.

And so to Betty Wrong. Scrap the tedious guitar clichés and play this on half speed and the incisive sheering chords cut through with the delightful weirdness of a David Lynch film. Indeed, the title sounds like a character from Twin Peaks (this is not such an improbable simile when you consider that in 1992, Bowie acted for Lynch in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and provided the title track for Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), I’m Deranged (1995). Perhaps that’s what Betty Wrong lacks – the essential ‘derangement’, which comes to fruition on Outside years later. Betty Wrong’s curiously switching bass, all-too-squeaky-clean, yet muffled riffs counterpoising Bowie’s smacked-out lyricism and affectedly exhausted vocal delivery contributes to a song, which is tonally satisfying, if not fully congealing. However, by this stage we are aching for the quintessential Bowie: the genius that invents (even steals) melodies such as Somewhere Over the Rainbow for sublime songs like Starman (1974) (Trynka, 2011).

So with You Can’t Talk (again written with Tony Sales), the messy grunge guitar, the driving, steam-train beat propels us through lyrics, which should be worth listening to, but somehow, Somewhere Over the Rainbow just isn’t manifesting here. Is it that Bowie’s invention is too good in the chorus to deliver a sense of the holistic song – especially a garage (w)hole? Embarrassingly, the lyrics seem lazy and teenage, yet without the prerequisite youthful anger, which ought to accompany such garage fare: the genuine, raw-power rage, which underpinned works like Scary Monsters (1979) and Ziggy Stardust (1972) is simply saddened by impending middle age; nor does it bear the inspired improvisations of Heroes’ (1977) lyricism. When the tired, clichéd fade out announces a sheer lack of creativity at the song’s ending, we are left wondering where Bowie’s mask is? Is he emerging from behind the disguise to a disappointing response? Should he simply venture back behind the personas we love so much?

The next track Stateside is: Iggy Pop meets Screaming Jay Hawkins. The Hammond organ and slick lead guitar (both played by Gabrels) seems merely an excuse to scramble up the fret-board for a good old-fashioned ‘rave up’ ending (with a dash of Steve Vye xxx).

Shopping for Girls bears a taste of Lodger (1977) or Blackout from the Heroes album with its inspired hatred of the world. Unfortunately, with none of the edge, nor the concessions to feminism, which shone from Lodger (‘I guess the bruises won’t show, If she wears long sleeves, (Don’t hit her)’) (Bowie, 1979). For all its noise, the song somehow seems tame, as if washed by an all too generic chorus. Here, we observe a concession toward Bowie auteurism: we fall, yet again, into the trap of comparing this wanting album to the master’s former greats.

A Big Hurt: could that be Suzy Quatro sneaking into his influences (an ironic reference to the one girl in glam rock who dressed as a boy instead of vice versa)? Perhaps only Oz-centricity recognises this similarity? In any case, the Sprechgesang in A Big Hurt is palpably self-conscious. Yet, even this is understandable for an artist such as Bowie: always deliberately self-conscious compared to the ‘organic’ Rolling Stones. Bowie always more interested in conveying ideas, intellectual narcissism, interplanetary tin cans and lost, remote screaming style than unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps this is why both Tin Machine albums suffer so: without music as vehicle for ideas, Tin Machine is just bad rock.

Speaking of which, his next track, Sorry (bearing no resemblance to The Easybeats or even The McCoy’s Sorrow (for which Bowie recorded the definitive version) demonstrates that Bowie and Gabrels have a deft capacity for clashing styles against each another while retaining the essential ‘sense of the song’ and still rendering it as garage. The welcome acoustic twelve-string guitar, which opens and concludes this track, makes us wish the writers really were sorry, rather than just crooning about it.

Goodbye Mr Ed (written with Hunt Sales) sports lyrics, which again promise the Bowie that was and will be again, particularly with pop references to 1960s U.S. TV shows and classical Greek mythology alike. The parallel voices (albeit missing Bowie’s backing up his own lead: ‘the many Bowies’ as Shaar Murray put it (1981)). This track foreshadows the bleak, ironic lament of Better Future off the Heathen album, but without the messed up innocence of Bowie’s infamous ‘Baby Grace’ vocal delivery or the bleak entropy of its strikingly accurate witness to our evolving reality post 9/11.

With unwarranted feedback to finish off, Bowie improvises a screaming sax line, as if to announce, like Monty Python: “I’m not dead yet!” At the conclusion of Tin Machine’s second album, the listener concedes that it is definitely an improvement on the first. But, was Bowie really ever satisfied to reside in the background? Or was it doomed from the start, implying that it simply could not be done? Indeed, there in the foldout photograph of the band, beams Bowie’s impish, wry testament: his knowing refusal at anonymity.

Look, can’t we just let Bowie off the hook (so to speak?). Just because he has provided us with genius in so many forms over so many decades, must we expect him to conquer every genre in existence? Indeed, Tin Machine II is an experiment in garage rock, which, although questionable in its own right, still gestated many an experiment to come – and with admirable delivery. The albums which stem from this one – Gabrels Bowie’s Outside, Heathen, Reality, The Next Day all bear the hallmarks of Bowie’s relinquishing genius, but then again there was a time when Bowie cut and ran from the highpoints of the past. It is, of course, the self-righteous indulgence of Bowie fandom to make comparisons to his former glories. Fans must therefore concede that, compared the travesties of Tonight and Never Let me Down (which for many fans spelled the death knell), it is an album with a balance of the pragmatic and the trippy; the hard-edged and the gilt-edged, the beery dance halls just a tad too sober and clean for genuine garage. Indeed, the album is a bottleneck of talent still waiting to flow and fills the hard-core fan with sorrow (complete with string quartet backing track). Yet, surely the clarity of Tin Machine’s production and the slick, riffing rock ‘n’ roll style (even as we cannot help our judgement) is only to be admired (if I still sound like an apologist – I am).

[1] Biographer Wendy Leigh argues this is not true and that Bowie fashioned himself on entrepreneur Norman Bowie.

[2] Where Kiss had theatricalised even the act of unmasking (1983-1996) after their 1980 album Kiss: Unmasked, heralded a change, Bowie, in this same era had merely neglected the mask until it stuck firm in place (Shaar Murray, 1981).

The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Tin Machine ‘Tin Machine’ is written by Dr Ian Dixon, one of ARS’s guest academics. Dr Ian Dixon is a well known Melbourne-based film and television director who is also one of the world’s most eminent David Bowie scholars. (Follow Dr Ian Dixon on Twitter @IanIandixon66)

Album Rescue Series: Jim Ford ‘Harlan County’

Discovering new music is always great fun and one of life’s greatest pleasures. It gets even better when you are pointed towards or discover an album totally unexpectedly. This is how I found out about Jim Ford’s wonderful, but largely ignored album, Harlan County. I received an out of the blue email from my good friend and professional cycling team manager John Herety who directed me towards this record with the explicit instructions that “you must listen to this album, it will kick your ass and blow your mind”. Thanks John for pointing me towards this superb, but largely forgotten, gem of Southern funky rumpus. Music is similar to a giant wilderness, it’s there for us to explore. Intentionally limiting yourself to one, two, or three genres is akin to self-enforced segregation at its very worst. This expansive musical wilderness is a gigantic history lesson. If you are a true music fan or a musician, you should explore as much of it as humanly possible. In these times, it’s never been so easy to source and purchase seriously cool music cheaply. This is a phenomenon that should be extensively exploited and I do.

Almost twenty years ago I worked for a small Nashville record company and on our payroll we had a couple of part time workers listed as “rack monkeys”. It turned out this role was filled by two young women who went out to the local record stores to make sure our CDs and vinyl records where in the right genre racks e.g. ‘Rock’, ‘Country’ or ‘Soul’. But more importantly they made sure that our releases sat right at the front of these racks. People will only buy what they can see and we made sure, via our rack monkeys, that our artists where the first ones a potential buyer would spot in the store. Occasionally we had a new release that didn’t neatly fit into a single genre, this would result in one of the rack monkeys calling the office and asking which genre rack to place it in. Normally this would be resolved fairly quickly but occasionally it would require extensive dialogue to define and classify the exact genre of the release. To quote Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard from the book Sygdommen til Døden (The Sickness Unto Death) (1849), “what labels me, negates me”. Kierkegaard’s position was that once you label someone or something, it cancels out its individuality and places it within the confines of the applied label. This is definitely one of the biggest problems with Jim Ford’s 1969 release Harlan County; it does not fit neatly into one, two or even three specific genres; in fact it never adopts a label, and that’s a big problem for some people. The other major issue facing this album was the year it was released.

1969 was an exceptional year, if not the best ever, for album releases; The Beatles Revolver, Led Zeppelin II, King Crimson In The Court of King Crimson, The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Who Who’s Next, Captain Beefheart Trout Mask Replica, The Band, Nick Drake Pink Moon, Sly and the Family Stone Stand and The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, the list goes on. Harlan County was arguably the strangest but most compelling album of 1969 and was Jim Ford’s first and only album. How on earth could Jim Ford, an un-heard of artist from the back hills of Kentucky, with this unique blend of country, funk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll ever get noticed in the company of these esteemed artists? At his best, Jim Ford was a clever songwriter, capable of reworking rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, soul and country clichés into fresh, funny, funky southern swamp rock. At his worst Ford was cutesy and unfocused, pulling great songs into awkward, contorted inaccessible genre defying shapes. In part this was due to his overuse of mind-altering drugs and excessive alcohol abuse; well it was 1969. Harlan County captures Ford at both of these extremes.

The laid-back, rootsy, gleeful sound of Harlan County comprising equal parts country-rock, soul, funk and rock ‘n’ roll, is an unlikely catalyst for igniting the 1970’s British pub rock scene. Early pioneers Brinsley Schwarz recorded excellent cover versions of Ford’s JuJu Man and Niki Hoeke Speedway. Brinsley Schwarz’s chief songwriter, vocalist and bass player, Nick Lowe, later recorded Ford’s 36 Inches High. These three songs don’t appear on the Harlan County album; they’re from an aborted 1971 UK recording session that featured Brinsley Schwarz as Ford’s backing band. These three songs would deservedly become classic pub rock staples, which can be still heard belting out of UK pubs to this day.

Harlan County sounds fantastically dynamic with its crazy energetic full-on performances by Ford and his associated ‘A list’ session musicians (including James Burton on guitar, Dr John on keys, Gerry McGee on bass and drum ace Jim Kiltner). Ford produced the record himself; his production techniques are crude but effective and wholly appropriate. The ten songs captured on this album are superbly written paeans to the Deep South of America. These are songs of dirt roads, love, corn bread, truck driving, extended family, honest hard manual work and leaving the Deep South for a better life out west. If this album were a classic American novel, it would be John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath (1939). This album’s music occupies a landscape where R&B meets country, Kentucky meets Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta meets Appalachia. It’s a geographical album of songs as much rooted in its landscape, as it is in the author’s journey through life.

Zeitgeist, a frequently employed word in Album Rescue Series, can also be applied here as this album unequivocally catches the spirit of the times. Forty years later all of the above themes would be adopted by the genre that we now call Americana. The lyrical keynote of this album, hitting the road and leaving home behind for a brighter better place, is well traversed territory by artists such Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark. Ford’s versions of these narratives are grim but they do give a unique, if somewhat raw, account of his experience. Maybe Ford was a southern soothsayer whose cathartic music was simply forty years ahead of its time?

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The masterpiece of this album is the opening title track and album theme setter, Harlan Country. This track in particular is a semi-autobiographical story of leaving Kentucky and seeking out a better life out west in California. This song could easily be considered the signature tune of Ford’s entire career, if you could classify it as a ‘career’? The moment this track kicks in with its stunning but unconventional arrangement of rib breaking fat beats, snaky guitar riffs, swampy piano lines, honking funky horns and all topped off with Ford’s Hillbilly soul vocals you know what’s in store from the rest of the album. The wonderful off-kilter second track I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me (Till The Cows Come Home) is a song of sharp humor and hooks pointy enough to catch a Southern catfish. Ford bears his soul for all to see against a greasy rock ‘n’ roll beat that’s high as a kite and as tasty as fried chicken.

Up next is Changing Colors, which is a soulful ballad where we can clearly hear Ford’s voice nearly quivering with naked sincerity and self-awareness against a gentle rhythm and slow building beautiful orchestral arrangement. In hindsight the lyrics are hauntingly prophetic “What makes you think that I won’t ever make it, when the chips are down?” It’s well over 3,000 arduous miles from Kentucky to California but track six; Long Road Ahead makes it sound like the archetypal great American road trip and something to embrace. As Jack Kerouac quite rightly noted in On The Road (1957:p.183) “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road”. If you didn’t know better then this track could easily be mistaken for a Rolling Stones track from their 1971 Sticky Fingers album, with its parping Bobby Keys Texan styled horns, southern funky guitar riff, gospel driven piano and loud three part soul backing vocals.

The central theme of travelling and finding oneself is heavily reinforced on track eight’s Working My Way To LA. This is a song full of optimism, heading for California, and in equal part regret in leaving the beloved family home in Harlan County, Kentucky. One can only guess at the mixed emotions Ford was feeling during the writing and recording of this song. One of only two songs not authored by Ford on this album is track nine’s blues standard Spoonful. This is stark and haunting tune penned by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Howlin Wolf in 1960. Unlike the 1966 insipid and uninspired dirge recorded by overrated UK ‘blues’ merchants Cream, Ford’s version is a proud and blatant reaffirmation of his Southern roots. Ford takes complete ownership of this song and confidently de-constructs it before he re-constructs it in a new(ish) form. It breathes, it sweats, its bumps drunkenly into honkytonk walls and yet like every other song on this album it’s wonderfully chaotic and loose, yet it never unravels. This version of the song knows where it’s going, it’s aspirational, and the place it’s heading is out west to the drug friendly, free loving haze and sunshine of 1969 southern Californian Nirvana. The closing tearjerker ballad is a cover of Thomas ‘Alex’ Harvey’s 1959 song, To Make My Life Beautiful. Ford, and studio band, treat this song with the respect it deserves and deliver a subtle, a word not normally associated with this album, and respectful rendition. It’s an appropriate choice and serves as a calming influence, like a cold beer, to herald the end of the journey. The words of John Steinbeck’s travelogue Travels With Charley (1962:p.4) ring very true here, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us”.

There are a couple of possible factors that contributed to this album almost disappearing into complete obscurity. One of those was Ford’s difficult artistic personality and lifestyle choices; the other was because he signed to the wrong record company. Sundown Records was a small-underfunded southern Californian outfit, which was formed in partnership with White Whale Records specifically to release this album. White Whale Records was home to The Turtles, a few coveted psych rock records, but not much else, and it wasn’t really fit for purpose to market Harlan County. Legend has it that if Jim Ford had waited a day or two before signing this record deal, he would have been on Ahmet Ertegün’s Atlantic Records and produced by Jerry Wexler. That might not have guaranteed him success, but it would have put him somewhere a little more secure and loaded the cards heavily in his favor. Atlantic Records would have definitely provided the financial and marketing clout to ensure this album had the best possible chance of mass sales instead of the Viking funeral that it actually awaited. With Atlantic, there was also the possible opportunity of Ford becoming a pop, soul, or country singer or carving out a career as an often-recorded songwriter. Ford had a good track record as a writer having contributed songs to Motown Records for The Temptations and solo artists such as PJ Proby, Bobbie Gentry and most famously the 1973 hit Harry The Hippie for Bobby Womack. In the 2011 re-issue liner notes there’s an enlightening quote from Bobby Womack “Jimmy was a beautiful cat, one of the most creative people that I’ve ever met”. Those royalties would have certainly made Ford’s life a lot more comfortable in later life. By the early 1980s, Ford had completely disappeared into a haze of drug abuse and erratic behavior.

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Jim Ford definitely walked it like he talked it, a singer-songwriter who found his inner talents through the hardships of abject poverty and economically conscripted labor. If he hadn’t escaped this kind of life his future would have being one of hard toil and possible pneumoconiosis like his former coal miner colleagues. His early life bears a striking resemblance to Loretta Lynn’s, as portrayed in the 2003 film Coal Miner’s Daughter. Ford’s roots are in the coal mining villages in the hills of Harlan County, Kentucky, and those early years of poverty and hardship definitely shaped his worldview as expressed through his music. When you expect that life will hand you absolutely nothing and your favor turns around, even if it is only temporary, then intuitively you grab the opportunity like it’s never coming back.

Jim Ford didn’t lead a very glamorous life, he saw out his days until his lonely death on 18th November 2007 in a Californian trailer park in Mendocino County. At least he did fulfil his ultimate dream and make it out of Harlan County. As an album, Harlan Country is evidence that Jim Ford had no equal in his day, he sat on his own cloud in the great American wilderness, cross-legged, wild-eyed and wiry, a figure too dangerous to approach but much too alluring to be ignored. Jack Kerouac captured his type of spirit in On The Road (1957:p.5) when he wrote “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. David Bowie ‘Tonight is written by Dr Ian Dixon, our first in a series of guest academics. Dr Ian Dixon is a well known Melbourne-based film and television director who is also one of the world’s most eminent David Bowie scholars. (Follow Dr Ian Dixon on Twitter @IanIandixon66)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Rescue Series: Ultravox ‘Ultravox!’

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

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

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

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

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

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The five members of Ultravox dressed in black PVC.

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

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

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

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

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

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