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: Big Audio Dynamite ‘This Is Big Audio Dynamite’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Record Store Day 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Rescue Series: Iris DeMent ‘Infamous Angel’

A few years ago I was driving from Liverpool in the North West of the UK down to Ealing in West London to visit my son and his wife. As is normal when you drop off the M40 motorway onto the A40 ‘Western Avenue’ the traffic comes to a complete standstill. No need to be angry as these natural pauses in life can be a good thing, a time to reflect. Its not often I turn the radio on but on this very rare occasion I did and I fell into the middle of ‘Let The Mystery Be’ by Iris DeMent. My inner voice screams “Who is that singing?,” and as the song comes to the end DJ Stuart Maconie back announces, “That’s Iris Dement and Let The Mystery be from the great lost country album Infamous Angel“.

How come I don’t know about this album, given that I use to live in Nashville? This is my lucky day I have just become DeMented. I rush into my son’s house and garble a greeting whilst also requesting the directions to the local record store. Within one hour of first hearing Iris DeMent on the radio I’m at Sounds Original, 169 South Ealing Road and I own a second hand, or pre-loved, copy of Infamous Angel for the sum of £5.00 ($9.00). My life is temporarily complete.

This is a remarkable debut record, released by Warner Brother in 1992. Its one of those recording that makes you sit back in awe. Infamous Angel was Iris DeMent first release at the age of 31; she didn’t start writing music until she was 25, a classic late bloomer. I’m guessing the production work by Jim Rooney contributes much to this recording. Rooney was a pioneer in the genre that would be come Americana working with artists such as Hal Ketchum, Nanci Griffiths, Bonnie Raitt, Townes Van Zandt and John Prine (who, not surprisingly, is one of DeMent’s biggest champions). Rooney works perfectly with DeMent on exposing her gift for poignant, confessional songwriting and a voice that makes raw beauty seem like a brand new thing. DeMent invokes the elemental magic of the Carter Family while sounding as fresh and modern. So what’s the problem here, why does the album need a rescue?

Maybe the problem is the release date of the album. 1992 is when the Americana boom starts. To a large extent this genre inflicted irreparable and unwarranted damage to Infamous Angel and sent it spiraling into obscurity. The music business was happy to create a niche for the country music’s most fiscally dependable demographic e.g. the white, male Baby Boomers (me). In the early 1990s, radio programmers coined a new, related usage: “Americana” which became a nickname for the weather-beaten, rural-sounding music that bands like Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo were making. It was warm, twangy stuff, full of finger-plucked guitars and gnarled voices like car wheels on a gravel road.

Americana was like a John Ford Western film full of huge landscapes, grand narratives and all American heroes with a grandiose swagger. Along the way, a handful of artistic traditions founded in rebellion, such as the blues, Appalachian folk, outlaw country, etc. got elided into the relatively conservative format that is Americana. In her book It Still Moves: lost songs, lost highways and the search for the next American music (1992), Amanda Petrusich hits the nail on the head when she states: “It sometimes seems like the Delta’s legacy is most present in modern hip-hop” rather than Americana “where its basic tenets are still being perpetuated, even if the form has altered dramatically”. Time was when working-class heroes really were “something to be”. Most critics, including me, suspect that Shania Twain and Garth Brooks are as unlikely to outsell the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers 50 years from then. Someone will one day write a book setting forth clearly why the stars and the technology aligned between 1927 and 1967 to produce a flood of sublime popular music, and why this flow began to evaporate in the subsequent 40 years. I feel for Petrusich here, for she shows us with nods and winks that she agrees with this proposition.

Artists like Iris DeMent aren’t supposed to exist anymore in this post Americana cynical world. She sings un-ironically about her family, forgiveness, and other real-life mysteries. DeMent is accompanied on this great debut by little more than acoustic guitar, upright bass, piano, and an occasional fiddle. This album’s concerns are largely family and tradition, and many of these songs deal with memories of her life and loves. This album explores various themes such as religious skepticism, small-town life, and human frailty. The Carter Family influence is revealed in a spirited cover of the classic Fifty Miles of Elbow Room as well as Mama’s Opry, a tribute to her mother, who also sings lead on Higher Ground. These are all wonderful songs, but DeMent’s greater talent is the ballad. She delivers an astonishing display of balladry on this album, including When Love Was Young, Sweet Forgiveness and After You’re Gone, a tribute to her dying father that is so profoundly affecting that I am often rendered nearly helpless and close to tears listening to it.

The critics of this album believe that it does not address the big issues in life, the grand narratives. I would completely contest this; have a listen to Let The Mystery Be. A track that is almost beyond existential comprehension as it addresses the ending of our own life with what might or might not happen. When I finish listening to this record I feel incredibly somber but refreshed by DeMent’s charming, almost naïve, outlook on life. That naïveté isn’t an act either, DeMent claims in her liner notes that she’s never thought of herself as a great singer. She couldn’t be more wrong, and listeners can thank heaven that she changed her mind, for this is an album to be cherished and played as long as one has life to listen.

Should you buy this record on Record Store Day Australia? Indeed yes, you should and don’t even bother looking at the sticker price. When you own this record become evangelical and share it with anyone you can!

infamous

Record Store Day Australia 2015

Dalton Koss HQ is excited to announce that Tim Dalton, (#DKHQ’s Partner), is Record Store Day Australia 2015 Blogger and Outreach Communicator. Record Store Day Australia will take place on the 18th April 2015.

With over 35 years international rock n’ roll industry and academic experience, Tim will be revising records, exciting us with his rock n’ roll stories and above all, telling us why it is so important to support the record and music industry.

For more information about Record Store Day Australia 2015, please click here:

http://www.recordstoreday.com.au/tim-dalton-is-back-on-the-team/

Tim Dalton, Record Store Day Australia 2015 Blogger and Outreach Communicator
Tim Dalton, Record Store Day Australia 2015 Blogger and Outreach Communicator