Saturday, 11 June 2022

Hot Shots #14 - Get A Job - The Silhouettes

A week late for the Platinum Jubilee weekend, but hey-ho - 'Get A Job' by the Silhouettes is nonetheless pretty apt when the British royal family are at the forefront of the mind. However, I submit that 'Get A Job' can be enjoyed at almost any occasion (bar funerals, maybe?), not just those moments when you're ruminating as to why a nation kowtows to a bunch of inbred ne'er-do-wells.

I don't know much about doo-wop - next to nothing, really - so I cannot pretend to have any great insights. To me, there's an appealingly loose feel to the harmonising; whether that's due to the relatives prowess of each Silhouette or the imbalance in dynamics (the bass voice sounds overpowering) I can't say. Whatever the case, this slightly ramshackle feel is to the song's advantage, marrying up nicely with the hard luck story of the narrator.

On the one hand 'Get A Job' feels reasonably conventional; a three-chord trick punctuated with a bombastic saxophone solo, as was de rigueur. There are glimmers of something else shining through, though - the refrain of "Dip dip dip dip dip dip dip / Mmm-mmm-mmm" stands out, even in an age of zany vocal effects. The "Sha-na-na-nah" backing the underpins each verse might even be more revolutionary; not only is this possibly the origin of this oft-imitated (in doo-wop) hook, but it also inspired the name Sha Na Na. Consequently, a straight line can be drawn between the Silhouettes and the third president of East Timor

Another touch that feels modern is the dropout, leaving the vocals backed by nothing more than drums and handclaps. A slightly more wonky line, the, could be drawn between 'Get A Job', the 'Amen Brother' drum break and modern hip-hop. Am I reaching here? Perhaps, perhaps, but I'm hearing something potent going on.

That, for me, is the crux of what makes 'Get A Job' so exciting; it feels like the moment one river begins to flow into another, a mingling of currents. One one level it's simply a fun, wry pop track delivered in a fairly gusty manner, but between the lines you can hear the future calling out. Grand stuff. 

Sunday, 22 May 2022

Angel Witch - Angel Witch


Provenance: The song 'Angel Witch' by Angel Witch appeared on a heavy metal compilation I was gifted during my teen years. Not long afterwards I bought a second hand copy of the album, Angel Witch.

Review: Angel Witch by Angel Witch kicks off with a track called 'Angel Witch', the chorus of which (witch?) goes "You're an angel witch / You're an angel witch." Suffice to say, you're going to see the words 'angel' and 'witch' crop up fairly regularly in this review.

For the uninitiated, Angel Witch fall squarely into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, who can count as their London-based contemporaries Iron Maiden and Praying Mantis. One of the bands to haunt the Soundhouse in its heyday, Angel Witch released their debut album (this one 'ere) in 1980 and then took their sweet time following up with 1985's Screamin' and Bleedin', by which time the NWOBHM had, bar its big beasts, largely run out of puff. 

Was it this gap between releases that meant Angel Witch were never destined for the big leagues? Within that same span, Saxon managed six albums, Iron Maiden five, and even the largely ponderous Def Leppard managed three. Meanwhile, three-piece Angel Witch managed to sack their drummer, split up, re-form with an entirely different lineup (excepting main man Kevin Heybourne), split up again, re-form with the sacked drummer, finally record the tricky second album - oh, and sack the drummer again. In a scene reasonably infamous for the shifting sands of band membership, Angel Witch seemingly took it upon themselves to show their competitors how to truly meltdown.

A shame, because Angel Witch is a classic of NWOBHM. Never mind that it sounds like it was recorded in the back of a meat truck - never an impediment in the genre - the songs and performances shine through. Or, should I say, Kevin Heybourne's talents shine through; which is no disserve to Kevin Riddles (bass) and P45 addict Dave Hogg (drums), but this album is all about guitar and vocals, which are Heybourne's department. 

There are a few bands who can lay claim to foundations of thrash metal - Judas Priest, Motorhead and Venom all fed into the sound - but I have rarely heard its precedent articulated so clearly as it is on tracks like 'Angel Witch' (yes, that phrase again), 'Atlantis', 'Sweet Danger' and the outro section of 'Sorcerers' (which sounds a bit like speeding up a cool Uriah Heep track). All of these examples push tempos into the red and are underscored with imaginative lead playing, that frequently breaks off into hot-fingered fret-worrying solos.

Interestingly, you can see the joins - inasmuch as, considering how forward-looking Angel Witch is, the voice of its ancestors ring through loud and clear. I mention Uriah Heep - well, 'Gorgon' (on my version of the album, misprinted as 'Gordon') is essentially the midpoint between 'Easy Livin'' and, say, one of the heavier numbers off Thin Lizzy's Jailbreak. Elsewhere, its possible to make out Rainbow, the Judas Priest of 'Exciter' and 'Hell Bent for Leather' and the Scorpions (the intro to 'Free Man', especially). It's all good though, Angel Witch borrow from the best and synthesize their influences with their own trademark sound. This is, namely, Heybourne's haunted yelp and the superior guitar playing he brings to the party. I don't think there was a better musician in the NWOBHM mix than Heybourne.

Nothing strikes fear into the heart like 'Gordon'

Were Angel Witch able to avoid the tumult that occasioned their frequent implosions, they could have been contenders. Angel Witch is now seen as a classic NWOBHM release, and with its combination of skill, melody and aggression it's not hard to see why. The only oddity is the rather beery, terrace-chant backing vocal on the title track - it almost sounds like, for a brief moment, Cock Sparrer or Sham 69 had gatecrashed the studio. It breaks the spell for a moment, removing you from the atmosphere of darkness and occult mystery that Heybourne so adroitly infuses the rest of the album with. Three years later, Mercyful Fate would release an album - Melissa - which is very similar to Angel Witch, but at no point does it take the listener to the Shed End on a Saturday afternoon.

Maybe I'm reaching, but perhaps here was the seed of discord - the esoteric Heybourne versus his more prosaic bandmates? Nonetheless, an excellent collection of distinctive metal that has weathered the test of time. Now, time to give that 'Gordon' another listen...

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Mothers of Invention - Cruising with Ruben and the Jets


Provenance: I have mentioned before that my dad's Zappa fandom continues to echo through my musical tastes. What I probably haven't mentioned so much is where we diverge. Although my dad's favourite albums are probably mine, too (we're talking Overnite Sensation, Hot Rats, Apostrophe here), I certainly have more patience for the jazz-oriented stuff. Oh, and I really like 1950s doo-wop and rock 'n' roll, which makes me the perfect mark for Cruising with Ruben and the Jets.

Review: For those not up to speed, this is the Mothers of Invention playing dress-up - in 1968 - as a 1950s combo. It's the music they grew up listening too, but the passage of a decade must have seemed remote enough, in musical terms, that there was mileage in the notion. And the Mothers weren't alone - a year later Sha Na Na would debut with a schtick entirely around recreating the doo-wop phenomenon. In the 1970s, perhaps as a bastard offshoot of glam rock, the UK caught the bug with bands like Darts and Showaddywaddy. And what is the Rubettes' 'Sugar Baby Love' if not a hyperreal recreation of the doo-wop sound? Were Mud, with their matching wide lapels and spoken-word middle eights, a thousand miles away?

(Incidentally, Sha Na Na prove an interesting etymological bridge between the Silhouettes (whose 'Get A Job' is one of the great pop songs of all time) and the first president of an independent East Timor.)

Still, arguably, Frank Zappa and his mates were the first to breathe life back into the 1950s, but Cruising... is a peculiar record. One leaves with the impression that Zappa loved the music, but can't quite come down off his perch to play it straight. That would be too earnest, too po-faced by half. Which is a great shame, because it feels like every time the Mothers get close to producing something heartfelt and beautiful, there's a discordance or sneering that sours the deal. 

As a consequence, the full effect of swooning slow burners like 'Love of My Life', 'Fountain of Love' and the wonderful 'Anyway the Wind Blows' are undermined with a mocking condescension, usually with some silly falsetto or bass vocal. Sadly, these aren't the only crimes to report.

To prepare Cruising... for release on CD in 1984, Zappa (in full control of the Mothers catalogue) decided to re-record the rhythm parts with Arthur Barrow and Chad Wackerman providing new bass and drum tracks respectively. Well, it sounds shit - farty, rubbery bass tones and crispy, plastic and utterly unsympathetic percussion. For an album that sets its stall out to recreate a particular era, to have these anachronistic sounds pulsing through the mix takes you as listener right out of the moment. Bring back Jimmy Carl Black (but not Roy Estrada).

(Incidentally, pre-everything being available on the internet, I saw the Grande Mothers whilst a university student. I would hazard that the Grande Mothers are probably the Zappa tribute act with the highest convicted sex-offenders-to-band-members ratio going. Probably. I even got a photo with Estrada. Sheesh.)

A pity, a pity. There are moments where everything works - 'Cheap Thrills' is fun, bouncy and irreverent in a way that bespeaks fondness, and 'Jelly Roll Gum Drop' is a fizzy showstopper that celebrates the inane potential of doo-wop lyrics in exactly the right way. And hey, it's nice that Zappa cuts loose with an outro guitar solo on closer 'Stuff Up the Cracks', just to remind you that you're not listening to an authentic forgotten relic from the Golden Age (a gag that would've flown better without the terrible 1980s overdubs).

Hey, it's still a decent listen and a bit of a curio, if somewhat ephemeral. Ray Collins' voice is great. Shame that, in places, it's utterly hamstrung by its creator. On purpose! You get the impression that Zappa hated pop music, deep down - and so, that being the case, why should the listener care either?

Sunday, 10 April 2022

Kimono My House - Sparks


Provenance: Short version - my Dad owns this, and I listened to it when I was younger.

Slightly longer version - I also saw a performance of them on what must've been Top of the Pops 2; and if the recent Edgar Wright documentary is to be believed, I had much the same reaction as many kids did back in 1974.

Namely, why is that frontman singing with such a high voice? And why is he letting Charlie Chaplin play the keyboards?

(Per the aforementioned Sparks Brothers documentary, legend has it that John Lennon phoned Ringo Starr to tell him that Hitler was on Top of the Pops.)

Anyway, great album and an almost automatic purchase on CD, once I'd gotten the bulk of Blue Oyster Cult and Judas Priest out of the way.

Review: The songcraft, adroitness and execution of Kimono My House are so good that it's almost terrifying. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but I've listened to a lot of music, and played a fair bit too, so I like to think I'm not talking out of my hat all the time. I think it helps that I am generally in favour of this kind of arty, ambitious rock in the first place; even better when it has a strong melodic sensibility.

Sparks certainly weren't alone in this era - coevals include Roxy Music and David Bowie, whilst I'd argue that early Alice Cooper (up-to-and-including Welcome to My Nightmare) fit the bill too. Of that group, perhaps nobody - save Bowie - has gone on quite the creative journey that the Mael brothers have undertaken since their first flourishings, one that has taken in glam, power-pop, disco, New Wave, electronica, neo-classical and techno. 

Kimono My House is from their glam era, if you could call it that. At the more cerebral end of the glitter spectrum for sure. Yet, despite their tunefulness, there are moments that baffle as much as the most opaque Steely Dan lyric. 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us' as a narrative or conceptual whole makes little sense unless you imagine it as an impressionistic shifting between scenes in different Hollywood movies. The Maels are, famously, film buffs. Go on, say the title in the manner of a narrow-eyed silver screen desperado and you're halfway there. With such material Sparks create a mounting sense of tension and frantic disorientation. It's their biggest hit!

'This Town...' was the one I knew as a kid, and it's the reason I slapped Dad's album on the turntable. I'm glad I heard that song in a pre-streaming era, as I let the needle run on to 'Amateur Hour', a brilliant, witty song about early explorations around sex. Sample lyric: "It's a lot like playing the violin / You cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin." All this, I should add, is wrapped in some of the canniest pop music around.

Stick a needle anywhere in Kimono My House and you'll find a smart turn of phrase or allusion. Kant, the Rockefellers and the final act of Romeo and Juliet all crop up (in the latter case, a whole song structured around Romeo's confusion at finding himself alone in the afterlife). Is it too clever by half? Not when it's this fun. A paean to narcissism is delivered via lurching fairground organ in 'Falling In Love With Myself Again'; the chorus to 'Complaints' packs frustration and desperation into a sickly sweet clap-a-long; and best of all, 'Hasta Manana Monsieur' is played as a hard rock tango. Every song here is a winner, and a single Sparks song often carries more ideas than some artists stretch across a whole album. 

Before wrapping, I just want to make note of two of the bonus tracks on this CD, something I tend not to do. After all, I'm trying to meet the album on the merits of its original iteration. However, 'Barbecutie' and 'Lost and Found' were, back in the day, b-sides to two of Kimono My House's singles. B-sides! For any other band, these would be the highlights, especially the sugar rush of 'Lost and Found'. At this stage in their career, Sparks were simply too good.

Of course, it wouldn't last; subsequent albums would be uneven or confounding, sometimes by design. Still, it's this wilfulness to go against the grain that has guaranteed Sparks not only longevity but a genuinely interesting discography stretching across five decades. I was lucky enough to see them in 2018, and they covered so much ground, with aplomb, panache and a sense of mischief. It's in the top five live performances I've been privileged to witness by anyone, anywhere.

Sunday, 27 March 2022

Destroyer - Kiss


Provenance: Lost to the mists of time. There's no great story behind this one. I suspect I bought it after enjoying Kiss' Double Platinum compilation.

Review: Five-and-a-half years ago I reviewed Destroyed by Sloppy Seconds, which features cover art that sends-up that of Destroyer. Sloppy Seconds were (are?) a scrappy Indianapolis punk band with a cult following. Kiss are globe-bestriding monsters of arena rock. Yet the Sloppy Seconds offering knocks this into a cocked hat. In this instance, the apprentice quite easily bests the master.

On the basis of this (and the other Kiss album I've reviewed so far) I can only conclude that the band's enduring popularity is built squarely on their Alive! series of live recordings. Why? Because in the studio, they were absolute tripe.

There are precisely two listenable songs on Destroyer - opener 'Detroit Rock City' and 'Shout It Out Loud'. The former is a song I could listen to practically any time of day or night, although I could do without the prelude. This consists of a whole minute of your life listening to a fake radio station and the most underpowered car in the world starting up. It sounds like the pump in my fish tank. However, once into the meat of the track it's a different story - a headrush of cool bass riffs, hysterical vocals and drink driving. It even squeezes in Space Ace (maybe?) playing a distinctive, flamenco-tinged solo. It would be reasonable to surmise after this barnstorming opener that the rest of Destroyer is gonna rock.

Well, sorry to dash your cherished hopes 'n' dreams, because it's a precipitous slide downhill thereafter. It's not that the songs are, in and of themselves, terrible, once you remove lyrics, singing and execution from the mix.

To give 'King of the Night Time World' its due, it's about the last time 'Starchild' Paul Stanley sounds relatively human. It would even be a decent song if played by a decent band. But this is Kiss, starring Peter Criss on drums, a guy who makes Moe Tucker sound like Terry Bozzio. Bob Ezrin does his best to bury some of the more rancid stuff, but his 'jazz influenced' hi-hat work is splashed across 'King...' like puttanesca sauce down a crisp white t-shirt. Next up is 'God of Thunder', with Gene Simmons sounding like he's trying to burp up a hot-dog over the a plodding backbeat.

However - at least these are, at a foundational level, heavy rock songs, no matter how ham-handed they've been rendered. What the fuck is 'Great Expectations'? It's sopping wet, with a syrupy string arrangement and underscored by a horrid, shrill choir. I don't know what it's trying to achieve other than being the most suck-ass thing ever committed to vinyl; and even then it's a failure, because it's not even the biggest pile of horseshit on Destroyer. 'Flaming Youth' is okay, I guess, if you like Sweet b-sides sung by Paul Lynde. 'Sweet Pain' meanwhile just sounds inept; how Bob Ezrin heard this and thought "yeah, that sounds like four guys all playing in the same room at the same time" is a mystery.

At least there is some respite in the form of the aforementioned 'Shout It Out Loud', which is gloriously dumb, as opposed to plain dumb - a big, hooky invitation to get down and party, Kiss-style! What makes this track pop so much - the maracas? No matter, 'Shout It Out Loud' has got the wow factor - a cool descending piano riff, a chorus so sticky that even the Men In Black would struggle to wipe it from memory and handclaps that seem to be in the right place. It's an island of fun and kineticism in an ocean of sclerosis. Perhaps Destroyer finishes on a flourish..

Hol' up, there, pard'ner! This here's 'Beth' country! Yes, 'Beth', winner of a People's Choice Award in 1977, is a proper stinker. It makes 'Great Expectations' sound like Napalm Death, a track that Captain and Tennille would've rejected for being too drippy. Peter Criss gets to sing, which could be fine, as he did the lead vocals on actual good song 'Black Diamond'. Alas, here he seems to think he's the next Rod Stewart, croaking away over a sea of piano 'n' strings schmaltz. It's the nadir not only of Destroyer but 1970s rock - which whips ass in general - altogether. Here's a fun call back: 'Beth' made its US television debut on the Paul Lynde Halloween Special, where Kiss performed alongside such luminaries as Florence Henderson, Billy Barty and the Osmonds. (In the interests of fairness and balance, here's Kiss doing a great mime job with 'Detroit Rock City' on the same show.)

'Beth' isn't the final word on Destroyer - that honour goes to 'Do You Love Me?', which is alright-ish but like trying to wash your mouth out with a thimble of Listerine after gargling sewage for three whole minutes. It would play better for me today if I didn't believe Paul Stanley sincerely meant every single narcissistic word. 

Apparently many Kiss fans think Destroyer is the band's best studio album. God almighty! You know, I might actually prefer Hot In The Shade (though I'm in no massive hurry to confirm this). Clearly - and it's obvious from live footage - Kiss are a band best witnessed in person, all their theatrics and whizz-bangs undoubtedly part of the appeal. Hell, I've seen 'em live and it was top entertainment. The bones of good rock songs are there on Destroyer, and they become fully-fleshed in the live arena. Nonetheless when sat at home, listening to their studio efforts, Kiss come across as a pallid, even timid, version of themselves.

Sunday, 13 March 2022

Ain't No Doubt - Jimmy Nail

I have recently been down with covid. Big whoop, I'm hardly unique in that regard. I am double-jabbed and boosted but still had to endure a few days of true discomfort and a post-virus honeymoon comparable to jet-lag. I'm fine now, thanks.

In the throes of the illness, however, I couldn't do very much past lie on my bed, or if I fancied a change of scenery, lie on my sofa. Unable to even contemplate anything half as interactive as a video game or playing an instrument, one Friday night I meekly submitted to whatever was on television - the best option being a rerun of Top of the Pops from 1992.

And sandwiched between Def Leppard and Wet Wet Wet, I experienced something quite remarkable - Jimmy Nail performing eventual number one smash, 'Ain't No Doubt'.

I am aware of Jimmy Nail's musical career, despite being more familiar with his acting (by which I mean I used to watch Auf Wiedersehen, Pet). I reckon most people my age and above could probably croon the chorus to 'Crocodile Shoes' ("shoo-oo-ooes"), plus I have a foggy memory of Nail serenading starters of a distance race, probably the Great North Run, with his tune 'Running Man'. I can neither find footage nor even reference to this ever taking place, but I did find out that Nail took on the half-marathon run himself in 2006. Celebrity participants for that year's edition included, per The Northern Echo, "Carol Vorderman, Amanda Burton [...] and Chris Tarrant's estranged wife, Ingrid." I also found a blogpost that discusses the plausibility of Jimmy Savile's marathon times, as well as this incredible photo:

For the uninitiated, that's then-England right-arm fast bowler Steve Harmison and Sting, either starting the Great North Run or recreating their favourite scenes from Barry Lyndon. Sting looks downright buccaneering, no? Harmy, meanwhile, looks like he's been dressed by his mum for his first day at big boy school.  

I'm straying wildly off course, so let's bring this back to Jimmy Nail's 1992 Top of the Pops performance of 'Ain't No Doubt'. Let's have a look, shall we?

I'm hardly a clotheshorse myself, yet I feel compelled to comment upon matters sartorial (again). For his big night out Nail offsets a fairly elegant - but quite large, as was de rigueur - suit with a shirt that appears to be a tribute to the oeuvre of Piet Mondrian. Nail is otherwise Nail, not quite the gargoyle he's oft been made out to be, and in fact quite redolent of then-Arsenal skipper Tony Adams. Handsome, in a craggy way.

I reckon Nail and his duettist (Sylvia Mason-James) are performing live as I can actually hear the sprechgesang verses clearly, as opposed to the darkly-muttered imprecations of the studio version. Nail also tones down the Midlantic accent adopted on the record without quite reverting to his native Geordie. Affecting an American twang has long been a facet of pop, but half this song is 'talked' and the execution thus sounds deeply weird.

'Ain't No Doubt' also seems to be three songs in one - the faintly housey keyboards and talked verses are bargain basement Frankie Knuckles, there's some rather melodic R&B in the bridge, and the chorus is a weird hybrid all of its own. Pitched halfway between a US military drill chant and the kind of gang-vocal detonation employed by the Backstreet Boys or N'Sync, it's devastatingly effective. The image of a middle-aged Jimmy Nail, Mondrian shirt and all, poppin' and lockin' at the head of a troupe of tracksuited teenyboppers briefly flashed through my mind.

Never mind, because Nail's ultra-low energy performance is still utterly compelling. I've expended more puff doing up my shoelaces. Still, the bit at 0.27 where he mimes his paramour's heart "walking down the street" by waggling his fingers made me snicker; and I was rolling about at 1.27 when Nail prompts Mason-James that her part is coming up like he's signalling for a goal kick:

But please, go back and watch this moment if you haven't done so already; the incredibly awkward body language is even funnier than the static image when seen in context. All this, incidentally, whilst a brass section duck and swoop in the background with a display of kineticism better suited to a Bruno Mars concert. 

Yet, when the dust settles at the end of the year and Spotify reveals my 'most played', there's a chance that 'Ain't No Doubt' will be top ten. Here's why - Nail actually has a great voice that's perfectly suited to the track; the chorus is a proper blockbuster; the bass line that the music rides atop is superb; and overall, it's one of those songs that gnaws and nags due to that supreme attribute of good pop, catchiness. I've found myself humming 'Ain't No Doubt' in idle moments many times over this past week. If you've given the video a couple of spins perhaps you will, too...

Sunday, 27 February 2022

My Side Piece, or, the hallmark of legitimacy

When is a cultural phenomenon not a cultural phenomenon? Or rather, who gets to decide these matters? Certainly, sheer weight of numbers is a big contributing factor - when a song or video goes viral, it can become difficult to ignore. 

But not always.

A few years back, my partner and I were staying overnight in a Kansas City casino resort. Fatigued as I was from the sixteen-hour journey, I could nevertheless tell that we stood out from the other clientele, and not just because I'm a Brit who knows the difference between a Wildcat and a Jayhawk. We stood out because we weren't Vietnamese. That weekend, the hotel was hosting a two-day concert of Vietnamese pop music and virtually everyone we encountered was there to enjoy the festivities - babes-in-arms to pensioners, first, second and third generation.

It was great to be amidst such a swell of people who were there for a happy occasion. We had arrived the night before the fun started in earnest and guests were lugging heroic amounts of snacks and drinks up in lifts and through corridors. The infectious mood even touched us, as one guy who we had a brief chat with gave us a six-pack of Coca Cola, just because. He reckoned there would be, all told, about three thousand attendees at the shows. 

A big deal, then, to Vietnamese-Americans, but looking at the posters I didn't know the performers from Adam. I had no idea if they were the genuine article (apparently so), second-rate or otherwise. Were it not for the need to get moving the next day (family!), I would've stayed on to check what the fuss was all about.

On 3 April this year at Wembley Arena will play host to Shreya Ghoshal. I've been to Wembley Arena to see acts like Steely Dan, Ghost and ZZ Top. It is estimated that ZZ Top have sold 50 million albums worldwide; Steely Dan lag behind a little on 40 million and, whilst Ghost neither have longevity nor discography to their advantage, they've gone top ten multiple times in the USA, Canada and the UK (not to mention scoring three consecutive number one albums in their native Sweden). 

Shreya Ghoshal is a playback singer and actress from Rajasthan, around my age. Where the Indian film industry is concerned, she absolutely has a pedigree to be proud of. She is also popular enough to book Wembley Arena when playing London, yet I haven't a clue who she is. That a popular Indian singer would be a draw in London doesn't surprise me - after all, I originally hail from Hayes, which has a large south Asian population - but nonetheless I received a little jolt of surprise, and perhaps shame, that a wildly popular culture is out there on my doorstep, contemporaneously, that barely gets covered in the mainstream press. 

(Incidentally, on the topic of Hayes, in between Elvis tributes, Psychic Sally and Ireland - the Show!, one can find listings for Sahir Ali Bagga and Garry Sandhu at the Beck Theatre.)

I am not blind to the fact that, in my tastes and sensibilities, I overstate the importance of artists I like. It still riles me when I'm met with incomprehension at 'Blue Oyster Cult', despite the fact that they are not the globe-bestriding giants of my imagination. I practically weep with joy if someone under forty recognises the name Townes Van Zandt. But - at least, at one time, these acts had their moment in the sun, lauded by press and audiences alike; and even if they didn't, there's still the potential to be lionised by vinyl-sniffers and the like as a 'hidden gem' or 'overlooked genius'. 

Earlier this week I stumbled upon Pokey Bear's 'My Side Piece' by accident, a quirk of algorithm one could say, and as much as I found it excruciating, it's an earworm. I went to bed humming it and I woke up laughing at the line "You might find me in Mexico chilling in the sand", as if our infidelity-addicted narrator were a sandworm from Dune. I think, production wise, it sounds atrocious, as if every aspect of its dynamic range was squashed into a tight cylinder of the most irritating frequencies imaginable. 'My Side Piece' has 53 million views on YouTube in under six years and over five million plays on Spotify. Pokey Bear doesn't even have a Wikipedia stub.

I read a lot about rhythm 'n' blues music, and something that crops up often is the 'chitlin' circuit', essentially a touring round of theatres that catered specifically to Black audiences. It's often inferred that the chitlin' circuit has been consigned to the history books, but that's not right, at least by my understanding. Something like it exists to this day, dependable sources of income and exposure for artists like Clarence Carter, the late Marvin Sease (RIP, Candy Licker), Bobby Rush and Millie Jackson - all of whom, incidentally, have poked their head into the mainstream at one point or another. That's the sole reason I know who they are.

Two things to round off; it's inescapable that race, ethnicity or nationality come into play, given the Vietnamese, Indian and Black American examples given here (and hey, to a lesser extent, let's chuck in the Irish - Brendan Shine, anyone?). Yet that cannot be the sole factor, because there are artists 'crossing over' all the time - Black music dominates pop like never before, whilst the K-Pop phenomenon currently shows little sign of running out of steam. Instead, it's something qualitative about the music; whether it's too folksy, too 'downhome', too crude in its humour or sentiment, fundamentally it adds up to an immunity to considered critical commentary. And if the critical industry cannot winkle out anything worthy, the recourse has been to leave it be. So, Pokey Bear gets 53 million views and doesn't make a dent.

I won't pretend to even begin to understand or comprehend any facet of, say, Black experience that a Pokey Bear or Marvin Sease speaks to. I cannot even understand what Shreya Ghoshal is singing. I do have a simple plea, though, for those cashing cheques as arbiters of popular culture - why not bring the truly popular endeavours to light? It's no use thinking of this all as some kind of 'shadow culture', played out beyond the eyes and ears of tastemakers. For better or for worse, these acts are part of the fabric, and should be appraised as such.

However, 'My Side Piece' is still driving me bananas...

Sunday, 20 February 2022

Sanctions? On my blog?

Every now and then I enjoy a wander along the back streets of Spotify by plugging in a phrase and reviewing the first ten songs that pop up. So far, I've done "goodbye girl" and "sugar baby", the latter of which yielded at least one nugget of real gold in the pan courtesy of Jimmy Powell and the Five Dimensions.

A while ago I asked on Twitter whether anybody else wished to contribute a phrase. My friend Steve responded with 'sanctions'; whether this was a nod to then-current news items or, as I suspect, a devilish ruse to get me to experience some godawful noise I am yet to determine. Indeed, I was doubtful that such a term would yield anything but, lo and behold, there are hundreds of blessed instances. 

So, without further pomp and circumstance, here I go - this one's for you, Steve!

Artist: Raised Fist
Title: 'Sanctions'
Comically squeaky sturm und drang from frequently shirtless Swedish hardcore band Raised Fist, this has a certain animating spirit to commend it. Eh, they pay a little more attention to melody and texture than most hardcore bands I've encountered, but I can't get past the singer sounding like Mickey Mouse with a twenty-a-day Silk Cut habit. 6/10

Artist: Pluralist, Rex Domino
Title: 'UN Sanctions'
Fairly minimal electronica with a healthy slice of dubstep. Doesn't sound too far removed from the kind of stuff Kojey Radical does, albeit there's more free association going on where the lyrics are concerned. Does not sound as overtly political as our raspy Swedish friends; still, for a song released in 2020 I am impressed by the anachronism of "Got my baps out on Page Three.". Those days are long gone, my friend! 5/10

Artist: Nazar
Title: 'UN Sanctions'
Damn, the United Nations really can't catch a break! A whole minute of music concrete finally coalesces into something approaching a beat, which then disintegrates; a shame, because what replaces it is one of those distorted voice modulations, like when Channel 4 News used to interview the IRA, except in this instance I couldn't understand a single word being said. Ultimately a collage of sorts, abrasive, angular and disconcerting. Perhaps this makes more sense in the context of its parent album. 2/10

Artist: Gibberish, Chris McGrath
Title: 'Sanctions'
Is this nu-skatepunk? It certainly sounds like it. Do you think Tony Hawk still listens to this stuff? Do you think he ever did? He's probably too busy minting NFTs to really care. Anyway, this has pulled me back a good twenty years; but alas, back then I was busy inexpertly chugging my way through 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' on a Hohner. Yeah, nah. 3/10

Artist: Fauna Shade
Title: 'Sanctions'
For a brief moment I thought this was going to sound akin to 'Like Clockwork' by the Boomtown Rats. That didn't happen, but what did emerge was fairly inoffensive, garagey indie. They do that thing where the verses are quieter than the choruses. You dig, the single-note guitar chime giving way to big splashy power chords, to demonstrate that they really mean it. There's a couple of cool moments where it sounds like the singer is falling down a well, or being dragged into a cave. 6/10

Artist: gal pal
Title: 'Sanctions'
More indie, but this one has a hogshead or two more charm and inventiveness than Fauna Shade's effort. The singing is really expressive, pitched somewhere between Regina Spektor and the late, great Poly Styrene. I was immediately drawn to this strange bird due to the opening sound sounding like the start of Hawkwind's Quark, Strangeness and Charm platter, and the cataclysm of drums and synths that end the song is great craic. 8/10

Artist: jerry, slipknotmosi, hokoi
Title: 'sanctions'
Ostensibly, at least three entities contributed to the creation of this abomination. It answers the question, "what if we took the worst aspects of post-grunge, hip-hop and autotune pop and just smash them together, with no regard for what is pleasant or invigorating to the human ear?", and does it admirably. The thick mulch of layered robo-babble brings to mind the death throes of an evil cinematic supercomputer. Perhaps that's the aim? I'll stick with the Alan Parson Project's I, Robot, thank you very much. 1/10

Artist: NuMotive
Title: 'Sanctions'
I have no idea what constitutes good drum and bass. I will say this - the tempo of the music, and the staccato nature of the blips and blaps that punctuate the soundscape, do produce a sense of velocity and restlessness. A kind of skittering urgency, perhaps, which is underscored by dirty, fuzzy synth tones. If we fathom the worth of music by its functionality, this scores well. Do I like it, though? 5/10

Artist: B.O.M.
Title: 'Sanctions'
What the fuck is this? One of the more obtuse pieces of music I've listened to lately. I'd rather be listening to B.O.C., if you know what I mean! But you know what? Points on the board for creating something so quirky and challenging. It's less than three minutes, but packs a fair bit of wallop in that time - a staticky, nasty electro-stomp that assails the cerebral cortex quite successfully. 6/10

Artist: Dizzie Davidz
Title: 'Sanctions'
Autotune rap? On my blog? The day has arrived. I must admit, the Dizzie Davidz does take the manipulation of his voice a little further into the experimental realms than some of the others of the genre do, but not enough to hold my interest. It commits one of the biggest crimes around, where music is concerned - it's boring. Competent, but dull. Give me something incompetent with ambition over this any day. 3/10

And that, I type as the lights flicker on and off due to the storm blowing outside, is that. Not much there to get truly excited about, save that I want to give gal pal further consideration. In the course of this short blogpost I managed to say use both 'baps' and 'blaps', albeit the former was courtesy of the artist. What I wouldn't give for a 'bibimbap' right now! Stay safe, folks.


Sunday, 13 February 2022

Lonesome Crow - Scorpions


Provenance: Got this as a part of a 'twofer' deal along with Lovedrive, which was the album I was actually after. I did something similar with Gerry Rafferty as I had coveted City To City, but ultimately found myself enjoying Night Owl more

The packaging for this collection only depicts the original album cover artwork on the inner sleeve, which in Lovedrive's case is just as well (albeit it's not the most flagrant crime committed by the band in this department).

Review: The version of Scorpions I'm most familiar with spans the era from Lovedrive through to Love At First Sting - an era where the band had turned into a chrome-plated hard rock machine, albeit with the ability to throw the odd curveball every now and again. Klaus Meine's idiosyncratic yelp may take some getting used to, but the riffage served up by Rudolf Schenker, his brother Michael and latterly Matthias Jabs was often of the highest order.

However, Lonesome Crow was the debut, and although it features a sixteen year-old Michael Schenker, this release came about prior to his elevation as one of the more melodically astute hard rock soloists of the era. The younger Schenker would depart for UFO, paving the way for headband, Hendrix and moustache aficionado Uli Jon Roth to join the band, remaining until Lovedrive. At this point, Michael Schenker makes a brief return, long enough to play on Lovedrive before flouncing off to form the Michael Schenker Group. I saw MSG supporting the Scorpions once - Michael had a strop, stopped playing and then tried to attack his brother with a guitar.

Ah, where was I? Oh yes, Lonesome Crow. I'm expecting this to be a bit of a formative stab, and early indications are that this isn't going to be the piston-pumpin' headbanger's ball of their prime years. First impressions are that it's a bit hippie-dippie, closer to the heavy psychedelia of, say, Edgar Broughton Band or early Alice Cooper. Though, it has to be said, not quite as accomplished. Opener 'I'm Going Mad' is mostly a Michael Schenker guitar showcase, which I don't mind one bit, plus there's a little taste of the famous Meine wail on display; but its successor, 'It All Depends', already sounds quite dated for the early 1970s. Perhaps because Cream got there first with 'SWLABR'?

I shouldn't be too harsh, as plenty of bands go through the kind of metamorphosis that the Scorps would go on to do. Contemporaries UFO and Status Quo would begin as space-rock and psychedelic bands respectively before going on to toughen up their sound - and the gulf between Judas Priest's bluesy debut Rocka Rolla and the thrash metal insanity of Painkiller just sixteen years later is quite something to behold.

(I also happen to think Rocka Rolla is quite crap - sample lyric: "She's a classy flashy lassy / Imitation sapphire shine" - in contrast to the affection for Quo's early stuff I possess for material like 'Pictures of Matchstick Men', 'Ice In The Sun' and such. Nonetheless, Judas Priest are pretty cool inasmuch as they just seem to get harder and heavier, the obverse of the journey taken by most metal acts).

So it begs the question - what exactly were Scorpions attempting with Lonesome Crow? Judging by the phasing, flanging and wah-wah that abounds, I reckon we're looking at one of those joints that's meant to be deep, man. It's heavy on the atmospherics and wig-outs, every tom-tom sounding like it was recorded from the back of a cave. Are we meant to think of Scorpions as a troupe of mysterious psychedelic goblins? Because that's the overall vibe. If you encountered Lonesome Crow era Scorpions, you'd half expect to come away with a quest involving potions or amulets.

Do I hate this? No. Yes. Bits of it, certainly. I think 'Action' is about the clumsiest thing they ever committed to tape. It's like listening to a Wishbone Ash track from Argus, but it's shit. By the time one gets to the 'creepy' birdsong effects in the intro to the title track, I think one has probably had quite enough. Little of Lonesome Crow is outright terrible, but by the same token there's little to charm or wow the listener. A curio, a line in the sand, the genesis of a band that would go on to do bigger and better things - but no more than that.

Sunday, 23 January 2022

Doremi Fasol Latido - Hawkwind


Provenance: As with Gryphon, Hawkwind are another band I've inherited from my dad. I've got albums, been to see them (and a few of their offshoots) live; hell, I even spent a weekend on the Isle of Wight at HawkFest.

Yet I'm no superfan. It's taken me a while to get around to reviewing Hawkwind on this blog. The reason behind that is, in my life, Hawkwind speak to a very specific mood, or perhaps more accurately, a particular state of mind. A state, as it happens, that is not very congruent to sitting down and tapping away at a computer.

Nonetheless, ultimately it's music - and thus even if my third eye is a little attenuated on a dull Sunday afternoon, I'll give it the old college go.

Review: Almost immediately after hitting the play button on my stereo, I regret that I'm not lying back in a darkened room at midnight. I could close a few curtains but it would be a faint attempt at recreating the ideal conditions to absorb Dave Brock's singular contribution to our specie, Hawkwind. In fact, 2am in a marquee surrounded by other revellers and vision-questers is probably the ideal. As I have mentioned before now, Simon Reynolds has convincingly argued the case that EDM can only be properly experienced at a rave, with the attendant sensations, lighting - and drugs. I think the same applies to Hawkwind.

So, I'm not about to get myself twisted at the same time as Paul O'Grady: For the Love of Dogs is on TV (nor will I ever, really - I'm notoriously boring in this regard). Still, at their best - which Doremi Fasol Latido approaches - Hawkwind are a mighty proposition, beaming in all manner of strange vibrations from the dimly-perceived reaches of the galaxy. For the uninitiated, Hawkwind have worn a few hats in their time, but their most famous guise is as 'space rock' pioneers; long, jammy, semi-improvised pieces with an emphasis on repetition and lashings of burbling synths and crazy guitar tones. Not top forty stuff - for the most part.

For the most part, that's what you get on Doremi Fasol Latido, especially on the likes of 'Brainstorm', 'Lord of Light' and the lengthy 'Time We Left the World Today'. However, there's a very cool acoustic spine to many of the tracks here, which suggests a kind of bridging between the hippy past and the electronic whoosh 'n' clang sound that would come to dominate the space rock genre. The woodiness of acoustic guitar and the extra-terrestrial beeps and blats actually blend very well on tracks like 'Space Is Deep' and a personal favourite of mine, 'Down Through the Night', which sounds like a transmission from the starry vault above. Meanwhile another acoustic number, 'The Watcher', was straight enough a composition to appear in relatively unaltered (albeit, massively amplified) form on Motorhead's debut album.

Yes folks, this is Lemmy-era Hawkwind; in fact, Doremi Fasol Latido is the first studio album he appears on. In what form, however, is a little obscure, simply because his bass is virtually inaudible. His inimitable croak, like a toad regurgitating a sheet of sandpaper, graces one track, though it is in (relatively) limber form compared to how it would sound only a few years down the line. Still, I don't really mind the lack of bottom end, as all the fun stuff on Doremi Fasol Latido occurs in the mids and trebles - the hypnotic two chord buzz-guitar for one, and Nik Turner's free verse flute and saxophone soloing. I've long been a big advocate of people going insane on the flute in rock music, and would love to see a revival.

(A couple of days ago I saw a cool band in Brighton that featured a dude playing amplified accordion. Immensely enjoyable. More of this in rock music, please, but specifically, more hog-wild flute parts.)

Now, whilst I very much like the version of Hawkwind that attempted things like melodies and choruses (Quark, Strangeness and Charm), it's this iteration, one that deals more in sounds and textures, that is dear to my heart. Out go pop song structures - in come grinding guitars, motorik percussion and synthesizers that feel like they're about to split apart. Yes, there's plenty of abandon present, but lurking at the centre of Doremi Fasol Latido is a kind of meditative focus; that through ritual (you could describe much of the music as here in the vocabulary of chants and marches) and intent, we're only a tachyon or two away from hitting upon the universal resonance that opens us up to the music of the spheres.

Take heed my fellow psychonauts, Doremi Fasol Latido is the rocket fuel needed to kick clear of Spaceship Earth, even if it's just for forty minutes or so. It's longer than Bezos managed.