Sunday, 29 January 2017

Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath

Provenance: It'd be hard to justify calling yourself a Christian without any familiarity with the Bible. Similarly, it just doesn't wash if you say "I'm a metal head" and don't know any Black fucking Sabbath. I got this one in my mid-teens.

Review: It's hard to really say anything big or clever (not that I've achieved this ambition elsewhere on this blog) about an album that has been so thoroughly praised, appraised and revisited as Black Sabbath's self-titled debut. Come at me with Vanilla Fudge, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Blue Cheer or Iron Butterfly, I don't care - this is the first truly heavy metal album.

See, Black Sabbath didn't slow down a Motown song or use volume as a proxy for heaviness. They named themselves after a Boris Karloff movie (an excellent start), kick their debut off with a rainstorm and the first three goddamn notes are an inverted tritone. The tritone, in Western music, is said to have a whiff of sulphur about it and was historically known as diabolus in musica. Not a bad statement of intent. It gets better - there's basically no groove whatsoever, the whole behemoth being dragged along by Tony Iommi's glacial, monstrous riffing. Add in Ozzy Osbourne's wailing about figures in black standing before him and bingo - you just invented heavy metal. Get out of here with that horse hockey about the Kinks. No way, Link Wray.

(NB: I might just consider 'Ghost Riders In The Sky' to be the first metal song; you can gallop it like a classic Iron Maiden track and the lyrics are fairly elite and cult).

Listening to Black Sabbath I can't understand the criticism of Ozzy Osbourne as a vocalist. He doesn't possess the greatest range, but he's simply perfect on this album. He sounds every bit as haunted and portentous as the music demands. And what music! Huge slabs of guitar from Tony Iommi that anchor the songs, allowing bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward to skitter and chase each other. Before I heard 'The Wizard', I couldn't countenance the harmonica being part of the metal repertoire, but when Iommi doubles the harp riff it sounds perfectly at home. The lyrics are dorky as all hell but you get a bit of wriggle room when you're forging an entirely new genre.

The other massive Black Sabbath highlight for me is 'N.I.B.'; I remember me and the guys in my first band marvelling at the bass solo that serves as an introduction. It bounces around almost aimlessly, meandering to a halt purely as a prelude to one of the fattest riffs ever committed to tape. It's one we attempted to play, albeit unsuccessfully, as our novice talents couldn't quite replicate the sheer bludgeoning power of the original. And how cool is the kiss off 'my name is Lucifer / Please take my hand'? Extremely cool is the answer.

Of course, Black Sabbath didn't emerge fully fledged from the rock godhead. There's blues rock and that weird stoner-psych that bubbled up from the 60s underground in there, but Black Sabbath wraps it in a bleak, nightmare, pagan darkness that is entirely its own creation. So 'Sleeping Village', or at least the first six minutes of it, sounds like Cream but doesn't sound like Cream; or it sounds like Cream on tranquilisers (and goodness knows, sometimes Cream could be a bit lumpen for my tastes); or a tranquilised Cream who have just made a sacrifice to our bright and shining lord Satan. 'Warning' has an arpeggiated intro that wouldn't have been out of place on a Led Zeppelin deep cut, but what follows sounds like an ugly mutation of their heavy blues, a charcoal-grey pastiche, groin thrusts replaced by the slow-mo nodding of the dope head.

Sexless, mournful, scary, devilish, shorn of all optimism or hope - sounds like tons of fun, right kids? Perversely, it is. Good to listen to when planning your own funeral.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Motivation Radio - Steve Hillage

Provenance: This is a very new album for me, as I received it for Christmas 2016. However, the reason I had wanted it stretches back a few years. I had been to see Gong play in Exeter, for whom Hillage served as both guitarist and support act. I was rather taken with his solo work I heard that night, especially 'Salmon Song'.

Gong were fantastic that night. The late Daevid Allan dressed in a gnome costume augmented with compact discs and regaled the audience with a story about collecting psilocybin mushrooms from "the wooded glades of the city." May he and Gilli Smyth enjoy the long and cosmic trip back to Planet Gong.

Review: Ugh. After wrasslin' with Ted Nugent's brutish and nasty Craveman it's a delight to lift one's gaze beyond the horizon and peer into the depths of a universe filled with a pure and positive energy. Okay, perhaps Steve Hillage hasn't exactly awoken the New Ager within, but the attitudes of discovery and wonder that pervade this album are certainly infectious. Hell, it's even there in the album cover; a wide-eyed, blissed-out Hillage, dressed like an initiate into a vaguely sinister cult, superimposed upon an image of 'The Dish' at Parkes Observatory. The inference is clear; keep your eyes on the skies and your ears tuned into the music of the spheres.

So what was Hillage concocting back on Earth to aid our ascent to a higher plane? The short answer: something endearingly eccentric.

Within the first track you're already tasting some really cool flavours - strange synthesizer sounds, Hillage's oddly attractive vocals (with no attempt made to hide his English accent) and some questing guitar work. Somewhat unexpected is the definite funk sound that is perceptible early on, and becomes more marked on songs like 'Motivation' and 'Saucer Surfing''. Reading around, I learnt that Hillage had, at this time, become quite enamoured with US funk acts such as Earth, Wind and Fire, and had consciously tried to capture some of that groove. Not that you'll ever confuse this with Mothership Connection.

With his adoption of funk, Hillage has also sloughed off a fair amount of the trappings of prog. That's not to say that this collection is any less weird as a consequence. So the seemingly straightforward heavy riff-rock of 'Light in the Sky' is undermined by Miquette Giraudy's breathy, panicked (and somewhat unexpected first time around) contributions. 'Radio' is the most singular song about radio since Helen Reddy's disturbing 'Angie Baby' (go on, have a listen and try explaining to me what's going on). In a final flourish, Hillage flips the sweaty priapism of Buddy Holly's 'Not Fade Away' into a song about universal love and personal inspiration. Come on, that's adorable!

At a remove of some forty years some of the sentiments can seem twee or naive to the average punter, and the synth tones are decidedly retro (so much so that they are possibly in vogue again). Was it a queer duck in 1977 too? Received wisdom suggests that such sensibilities couldn't survive in the midst of the punk crucible, but on the that punk score received wisdom is utterly wrong. (As an aside - I've lost count of the number of BBC music documentaries that show Rick Wakeman in a cape or Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower and there's a keyboard playing an interminable solo the whole time, and it's interrupted by a narrator going "But then..." and suddenly it's the intro to 'Pretty Vacant' and the Sex Pistols have destroyed everything that came before them. Everything. I mean, it's just pathetic. You can't even call it revisionism, it's just stupidity.)

However, in real time - the time you take to tune in to Motivation Radio - it is genuinely difficult to resist. If music can be escapist, then what better than an album that gives your inner consciousness a road map of the Milky Way and blasts you off with all best wishes in the world? Some music is aimed at the body, some towards the groin, some towards the head. Motivation Radio aims for the galaxy, and is all the more better for doing so.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Craveman - Ted Nugent

Provenance: Back in the day it took a whole night to illegally download a couple of tunes off Napster, and there was literally no guarantee that they file you'd found corresponded to what actually ended up playing from your speakers. We're talking about a time when people would list 'surfing the net' as a hobby.

A lesser remembered feature of Napster was the ability to send messages to other users. One morning I came downstairs to find an American guy was downloading an Alice Cooper track from my account. During a brief exchange he recommended three artists to me - Bob Seger, Molly Hatchet and Ted Nugent.

A couple of evenings later I had a single song by each artist - 'Old Time Rock and Roll' by Seger (eh), 'Flirtin' With Disaster' by Molly Hatchet (cool as hell) and 'Free For All' by the Nuge (ditto). At this point in life I knew not who Ted Nugent was or what he professed the finer things in life to be, and thus felt no compunction in purchasing Cat Scratch Fever. Not long after, I think my parents got me this for Christmas.

Review: I'd love to be able to sit here and put aside the fact that Ted Nugent is one of the more choice individuals out there, and instead focus exclusively on the merits and demerits of the album. I really wanted to do it, because (whisper it) I quite like some of his early stuff. You could, if you're a desperate guy trying to cling onto the tatters of your fandom, try to argue that the rampant machismo and unabashed objectification of women were merely poses, or the facets of a hyper-real performative entity like an Alice Cooper or the guys in KISS (who weren't actually demons or space aliens, I was surprised to read). The problem here is that many have accused Nugent directly of worse things than reductive and sexist portrayals of women within the context of musical performances.

The second problem is that on Craveman the two public faces of Ted Nugent - the one who writes literary masterpieces such as 'Wang Dang Sweet Poontang' and 'Motor City Madhouse' - and the one that rants almost incoherently on conservative talk radio about hunting, immigrants and firearms, have come together in unholy confederacy. His rancid and retrograde views pollute almost every corner and crevice of this album. Here's a sample lyric from (shit) opening track 'Klstrphnky':

Look at all the dirty nookie!
Keep that shit away from me!
Do you think I'm kinda kooky? (I can't even stand to looky)
It's all infected HIV!

If that's not tasteless enough for you, don't worry - Ted signs off from 'Klstrphnky' with the immortal line "Well I'm the world's biggest nigga, and all you dirty whiteys suk!" (sic). Nothing else reaches quite that level of offensiveness; nevertheless, here are a few couplets that somehow eluded Shakespeare:

"My ballz drip catnip / No shit bullshit" ('Pussywhipped')
"I wasn't afraid of your lightning baby, your thunder was a part of me / I'd dance with the devil at midnight maybe, your threat is a catastrophe" ('I Won't Go Away')
"My baby likes my frosting on her cake / I put the caffeine back in her beans" ('My Baby Likes My Butter On Her Gritz', an entire track of sub-'Sex Farm' metaphor salad)

Then we've got the big boy braggadocio of 'Rawdogs & Warhogs' which is all pathetic flag waving and how "I'm ready to fight, just pick a night, here I come!" - except that when the US draft in effect during the Vietnam War did 'pick a night', Nugent may have taken some fairly drastic measures to ensure he stayed out of that particular pagga. Whether or not Nugent did soil himself in public to avoid Vietnam, the fact remains that he exclusively shoots at things that are unable to fire back. Bravery comes in many guises, I guess.

The real frustration is that behind the blather (the lyrics are either moronic or incoherent) there is a kernel of a good hard rock album. Nugent is a good guitarist with a keen ear for a tasty hook, exemplified best by 'Crave', an exhilarating head-rush with a spiralling riff to rival Motley Crue's 'Girls, Girls, Girls'. Elsewhere, subtract the lyrics and 'Rawdogs & Warhogs' is a fine update of Nugent's own 'Workin' Hard, Playin' Hard'. Once again, mute the singing and 'Pussywhipped' is a rollicking stomper of a tune. There are bits and pieces throughout Craveman that remind you of why Ted Nugent was able to sell millions and pack out stadiums, but much else to make you wish it was he, and not Frank Zappa, who released an album titled Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar. Doubly so because the instrumental 'Earthtones' is quite lovely.

However, in a business where success can be fleeting, you could suggest that Nugent has been shrewd enough to parlay his simplistic, ignorant and inconsistent worldview into a second career as a conservative talking head. Thanks to his pungent and frequently expressed views the chickens may be coming home to roost on his performing career, but that's not likely to unduly trouble a man of his stripe. It's a real shame that Craveman is so imbued with Nugent's sub-Pithecanthropoid politics that the experience becomes something close to unpalatable. I wasn't expecting the lyrical embodiment William F Buckley, but this crap is just insulting. Then again, ol' Bill Buckley never could crank out 'Stranglehold' in front of thousands at the Cobo Hall, so I'll give that one to the Nuge.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Superfly - Curtis Mayfield

Provenance: Back in the 1990s, when I was in my early teens, I would listen to a late night show on Talk Radio hosted by an irascible fellow named James Whale. He would abuse his producer, wind up guests and hang up on callers - all of which I found amusing then but would probably annoy me now. (Not that national broadcasters give platforms to prissy, self-regarding hotheads these days.)

Anyway, the start of Whale's show was always heralded by a snazzy bit of music that I long assumed had been created by the station. One night, a stray comment from the producer (I seem to recall his name was Ash) revealed it was actually an incidental piece from the Superfly soundtrack - naturally, I had to hunt this bad boy down. Net result - I own this album. We didn't have Shazam back then, you just had to know things.

I stopped listening to James Whale around the turn of the millenium, but looking back his was quite a curious show. I remember Uri Geller being a fairly frequent guest, as was psychic medium Derek 'Kreed Kafer' Acorah, taking questions from listeners and pretending to chat with his ancient Ethiopian spirit guide, 'Sam', to get answers from the beyond the veil. As Acorah was, of course, consulting thin air this made for great radio, arguably every bit as edifying as the occasion where he had a televised conversation with a dog.

The only other salient memory I have of James Whale was an occasional joint broadcast with a US-based show hosted by a man called Tom Leykis, complete with awkward pauses and transatlantic time delays. I fondly remember the Whale show dropping back into the American broadcast in the midst of their commercials, which were the audio equivalent to taking a cheesegrater to one's ears. Good times.

Review: I came for the James Whale Show theme ('Junkie Chase', incidentally), but stuck around because this album is the real deal. A dull tapping in the back of my cranium suggests that this was the first 'funk' album I bought, and therefore the first I listened to front to back. Growing up our household's music collection was a strange mix of singer-songwriter and heavy rock (Mum), or a variety of rock flavours including classic, avant-garde and folk, courtesy of Dad. What we didn't have was any funk, and this album certainly wasn't what I had expected.

My limited exposure to funk led me to expect a four-to-the-floor, deep, bass heavy sound. And whilst this album has some supreme bass playing - just think of that immortal riff in 'Pusherman' - it certainly didn't fit my preconception. Curtis Mayfield kept it light, with imaginative percussion parts skittering and skipping beneath his high-pitched, plaintive singing. The most hard-driving track on here, and thus closest to what I had considered the funk template, is 'Freddie's Dead', but even then the chewy, minor-key riff gets caught up with the kind of celestial string arrangement one might find on Black Moses-era Isaac Hayes.

As it's the soundtrack to a film, the whole album sounds remarkably tight conceptually. Yet where the film is pretty ambiguous about drugs (Ron O'Neal stars as a coke dealer who essentially wants to make one big score before quitting the business), Mayfield's lovingly realised companion piece is certainly at the 'conscious' end of the scale. And when the socially aware messages are wrapped in such gorgeously realised songs, the consequence is an incredibly moving and - ultimately life-affirming - collection that easily stands alone from the film as a masterpiece.

Superfly also owns the distinction of possessing one of my favourite ever second sides of any album in my possession. Highlights including the cascading pianos on the sweet, anti-drug 'No Thing On Me' ("My life's a natural high / The Man can't put no thing on me"), and the glorious, driving title track, which starts off sounding like it's going to be the twin brother to War's 'Low Rider' before blasting off into a soulsonic stratosphere of its own.

A number one album in America - and a high of 26 in the UK. This, in a year (1973) when both Perry Como and Peters and Lee made the top ten album best-seller list, feels like something approaching a travesty.