Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Hot Shots: #4 - Glenn & Chris (aka Hoddle & Waddle) - Diamond Lights

The track record of sportspeople stepping into the studio has not been a glittering one. The problem is that for the most part the folk involved are good at kicking a ball or running fast, but not creating enduring art. That's why we have 'The Anfield Rap', Muhammad Ali's pedestrian version of 'Stand By Me' and Gazza's desecration of Lindisfarne's 'Fog On The Tyne'. That's why 'Outstanding', by Andy Cole, was shit.

But look, here's an exception - the unjustly maligned 'Diamond Lights' by England international footballers (and Spurs teammates) Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle. It's baffling as to why this is party to so much ridicule - yes, they're footballers, and its doubtful they served in the electro-trenches early doors with Five Times Of Dust or Cultural Amnesia - but it's not a bad song. If it was Tears For Fears, Visage or Depeche Mode, it would be considered a minor classic of industrial post-new wave.

Besides, despite his Chelsea connections Hoddle is a Hayes lad, and I would follow him into Hell - except that he believes in reincarnation, we'd both be coming back as grasshoppers or goats or something.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Bad English - Bad English

Provenance: I awoke one wintry morning in early 2008 with one of the worst headaches I have ever endured. I had been drinking, you see, as men are wont to do. Milky sunbeams streamed through my window as I attempted to gather myself together. The incessant jabbering of political talking heads on the radio irked me, so I groped towards one of the preset buttons and hoped for the best. Music is what my body and soul needed.

And sweet, sweet sounds filled the air. As I lay there with pounding head and cracked lips I drifted into a kind of reverie as first Little Steven's 'Los Desaparecidos' and then Bad English's 'Forget Me Not' washed over me. Not even Heaven's own choristers could compare with what I was hearing in that rare moment.

A couple of years later someone was selling the Bad English album for two quid at work. My thoughts were swallowed in an instant by that memory of mine back at university and so, with tears welling in my eyes, I sent an email: yes, I said, yes - I will buy your Bad English album.

Review: I like Journey. I don't love them, but I like them enough to own a couple of hours. I like them enough to roll my eyes when people go nuts over 'Don't Stop Believin' (hello, it's not even their best song - 'Who's Crying Now', right?). I also like The Babys to the extent that I have included 'Isn't It Time' on mixtapes for more than one love interest. So a band comprised of former Babys (John Waite, Ricky Phillips) and current Journeymen (Neal Schon, former Baby Jonathan Caine) should be superlative, right? Wrong.

As an aside, I should also add that Deen Castronovo, who would later drum for Journey, was also in the lineup. Castronovo would later be kicked out of Journey after being sentenced for domestic violence, and Wikipedia now use his mugshot as his picture.

This album has two redeeming features - John Waite's singing, which is good throughout, and 'Forget Me Not'. Even in a state of stupefaction it's heartening to know that my critical faculties still work. I guess opening track 'Best Of What I Got' isn't terrible, albeit it's a touch redolent of a song commissioned to be used as incidental music in a 1980s buddy cop movie. Imagine the kind of upbeat, formulaic rocker that starts up after the freeze-framed high-five at the end. Likewise, the mid-paced 'Heaven Is A 4 Letter Word' has a chorus that feels nicely anthemic without ever truly soaring.

The first true fly in the Aqua Net is 'Possession', which every now and again sounds like 'The Flame' by Cheap Trick. Which isn't surprising, as producer Richie Zito was responsible for the Cheap Trick album which featured, er, 'The Flame', released the year before this. 'Possession' sounds like virtually every other hair metal ballad of the period, which is synonymous with me saying it's a heap of lukewarm shite. Who did good ballads in the 80s anyway? Whitesnake were pretty decent, and Heart's 'Alone' is up there (I was blown away when I saw them do it live). As if to underline the point, Bad English outdoes itself in terrible balladry with 'When I See You Smile'. It makes 'Possession' sound like Slayer's 'Raining Blood'.

There's no real point in going song-by-song for the rest of the album. This will suffice: the more up-tempo tracks don't quite make me want to beat a puppy to death with my fists, the slower ones do. If you could picture the most generic freeze-dried, windswept, big hair stadium rock band in your head, the sound that they would make is Bad English. And that, for me, is their biggest crime.

As is the case with many of these 'supergroup' projects, there's no evidence that anyone involved tried to push the envelope. I am way more inclined to be charitable to a spectacular failure when it shows a hint of ambition, but everything on Bad English smacks of 'this'll do'. The sheer horror of Bad English is revealed in its crushingly bland competence. When the average episode of CSI: Miami contains more surprises you've got a problem.

On the plus side, at least 'Forget Me Not' still sounds good.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Hot Shots: #3 - Dobie Gray - Drift Away

My last two selections for this slot featured artists and songs that aren't well known. Whilst Dobie Gray may not be a household name in the UK, 'Drift Away' is one of those songs that's permeated the consciousness through oldies radio, TV soundtracks and a clutch of covers, most lamentably by Uncle Kracker.

This is, for me, the definitive version: Dobie Gray's rich voice was the best fit for this languid slice of downhome rock 'n' soul. This performance on The Midnight Special features a band that's really cooking with gas and an introduction by Wolfman Jack. What's not to love?

Sunday, 19 February 2017

TV theme music - part two

My initial intention had been to write a single post on TV theme music before returning to the usual fare of album reviews. This was before I sent an email to colleagues / friends / all-round good eggs Simon Bidell and David Lavelle asking them their favourite themes as I knew I'd get some decent answers. What I did not bank on was how incredibly well-informed both guys are about television theme music, which in turn prompted me to decide that the lion's share of this post will be devoted to the thoughts and observations of Simon and David. If you find anything interesting or enlightening in this article, credit must go to them.

The discussion kicked off in earnest when Simon advanced the Dr Who theme as one of his picks, adding the disclaimer that any version post-1979 should be excluded. I am not a fan of the show but the first incarnation of the theme, arranged by pioneering electronica musician Delia Derbyshire (who, as well as working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, was also part of White Noise), is an eerie, trippy wonder. This was countered by David, claiming that Peter Howell's 1980 version was "absolutely sensational, a brilliant reworking" and closer to composer Ron Grainer's original vision. Judge for yourself:

In the same email, David was also fulsome in his praise of Peter Howell's theme for The Body In Question and rattled off a string of other names of individuals who specialised in composition for television. Like many (most?) people over the age of thirty who grew up in the UK I can cite Mike Batt (The Wombles) and Ronnie Hazlehurst (Only Fools and Horses) before my knowledge of theme composers was exhausted. David, on the other hand, named a few he deemed worthy of greater recognition:

  • Richard Denton and Martin Cook (Tomorrow's World)
  • Ken Freeman (Casualty, The Tripods)
  • Alan Hawkshaw (Countdown and the library track "Chicken Man", which became the Grange Hill theme)
  • George Fenton, whose themes for BBC News spanned three decades (also the composer for music featured in wildlife documentary series The Blue Planet and Planet Earth)
Here's a good'un courtesy of George Fenton - the opening titles to BBC police drama Shoestring:

As David mentioned, Shoestring owed a debt to The Rockford Files, which got Simon onto some of the great US TV themes, so let's rattle off a bunch that were mentioned: The Phil Silvers Show, Lost In Space, The Munsters, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Kojak, Ironside, Hawaii Five-O, Wonder Woman, The Pink Panther, The Banana Splits, Rhoda, Bedazzled, The Green Hornet, Dallas, I Dream of Jeannie and one I am rather fond of, The Dukes of Hazzard:

A more recent American show, Stranger Things, has a theme song described as "pretty astounding" by David, which is a nice moment to think about how TV music can consciously pastiche styles or genres to evoke a certain era. The incredibly funny Garth Marenghi's has theme music that parodies its counterparts from 1980s sci-fi shows through usage of, and I quote Simon here, "distorted synths, sound levels bleeding out [and] spooky effects to heighten the drama." Hear for yourself:

(To these ears, it sounds not dissimilar to the Rick and Morty theme, which was surely created with the same intention in mind). Returning to Stranger Things, David pointed out that Tangerine Dream, whose influence is evident in the theme music, repaid the compliment by covering it, "a piece of metatextual circularity I can't quite get my head around."

What about bad TV themes? David very astutely points out that "sitcoms often got very decent themes, especially shows like Dad's Army and Hi-De-Hi, which are very good examples of how great themes distill themselves down to the basic essence of the show. There's nothing redundant about their sound or their composition. That's probably the secret of a good theme - can you imagine the show without it?" 

Nevertheless, the crap seems to come from the light(er) entertainment end of the scale. Simon plumped for this bit of fizz from darts-based stalwart Bullseye, a sub-Chas 'N' Dave / Mrs Mills knees-up that will either delight or make your blood run cold:

Credit to Simon for also holding his nose long enough to remind me of Minder, Love Thy Neighbour and Mike Reid's Runaround. He then turned on the afterburners to dredge up this unholy piece of shit:

Let's end on something a bit good, eh? We started off with Simon opting for Dr Who (one of ten themes he initially supplied me with), so we'll finish with David's all-time favourite combined TV theme and title sequence. There's a bunch of stuff I have omitted, such as the controversy over who played on the Coronation Street theme, and how production companies save a few bob when selling shows overseas by re-recording theme music instead of paying royalties to the original performers. In any case, many thanks to Simon and David for a stimulating and very informed discussion - now play yourselves out to this:

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Hot Shots: #2 - Shandy - Dance All Night

For the second of my selections, I'm posting up this stompin' bit of bovver by the larrikins in Shandy. Australians seemingly have a real facility with four chords and a big beat, but these lads also deliver with a really fun video. Top entertainment!

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

TV theme music - part one

For the past sixty years, television has been western civilisation's most unifying cultural phenomenon. Its ubiquity, its scope, its adaptability has meant that only recently have computer gaming and web-based streaming come to seriously threaten its primacy. However, workplace conversations about Grand Theft Auto V still lag behind discussions about Game of Thrones or The Great British Bake Off, demonstrating that there's still some gas in the tank where TV is concerned, even if the ways it is delivered and consumed are being changed by emerging technologies.

When people reminisce about television, an oft-favoured subject is the theme music. A good tune presaging the main action can prove memorable decades after the show itself ceased to exist. With that in mind, part one of this examination of theme music is an unabashed look at fondly remembered TV themes. I asked a bunch of friends and colleagues what their favourite TV theme music was, and here's some of the results.

First up is a great and, perhaps for someone born and bred in the UK, unexpected choice from my pal Chris. We grew up near each other and a frequent Friday night for us was me, my brother and our friend Dave all round Chris' to play Pro Evolution Soccer, make each other laugh and watch WWF: Raw. I couldn't help but crack a smile when, after all these years, I listened to 'WWF: Raw Is War', because back in the day, when you heard that first power chord, you knew shit was about to go down. It seems odd to think of it as 'mood music', but it really got the blood pumping and set the tone of what was to follow. Without a doubt nostalgia plays a huge part in why I like this, but at the time for us young graps fans, nothing said 'excitement' like the first twenty-five second of this bad boy:

From my completely unscientific polling of associates, a fairly common trend is that fondness for TV themes skews towards a person's youth. So my colleague Gemma opted for the excellent Thundercats theme song, another colleague, Clare, went for the ersatz country of The Littlest Hobo, Twitter follower @hackbridgeharry went for the brilliant Stingray theme (Gerry Anderson productions featured quite heavily in discussions), whilst my brother Richard opted for the slightly left-field choice of The Raccoons:

The TV shows didn't have to necessarily be contemporaneous with one's own childhood either. My friend Ruby, who certainly was not alive in the 1970s, nevertheless picked the rather odd and slightly spooky original theme music for The Moomins:

Which is not to say that memorable TV themes are not being produced now. However, the methods by which theme songs are being commissioned seems to have shifted somewhat in recent years to using established popular musicians, at least for marquee productions, as opposed to composers specialising in TV music. My colleague Carla chose The Barenaked Ladies' catchy original composition for The Big Bang Theory, my Kansan friend Toshia went for The Goldbergs, whose atmospherically 1980s computer game-influenced theme is by I Fight Dragons, and my partner Sea ummed and ahhed over Cheers before finally alighting on Regina Spektor's superb intro for Orange Is The New Black (check out how well it complements the title visuals):

Interestingly, the only other contemporary track chosen by the people I asked was the theme to Endeavour, the Inspector Morse prequel. It marks quite a break from other choices as it lacks the same kind of 'hooks' often used in other themes, presumably to catch the attention of the viewer within the space of thirty seconds or less. As my colleague stated, it has a rather melancholic aspect to it. Despite never having seen the show, I really like it - quiet, stately, haunting.

And then, at the other end of the scale, there's this:

Let's get a couple of things straight - The A-Team was the business, and the theme song and title credits were the fucking business. This slice of ridiculously OTT bombast was the number one choice for my German friend Bianca, who also picked two other American shows in her top three - McGyver and The Fall Guy. I can't say they're my favourite selections; but maybe they didn't have to be brilliant pieces of music to lodge in the memory. If you loved the show, it's entirely reasonable that you feel affection for its constituent elements - actors, characters, settings and music, for example.

So what's my favourite? Easy - Thicke Of The Night, US talk show vehicle for the late Alan (father of Robin) Thicke. Here's why:
  • Tonally, it was completely dissonant with the actual content of the show
  • Observes the 'Dennis Waterman imperative' - the star of the show writes the tune and sings the tune
  • "Mama don't leave the light on / I'm gonna ro-o-o-oll all night" - poetry
  • If it had Kenny Loggins' named attached, it would've been a million seller

That's it for now! In part two, I'll be digging further into the craft of the TV theme inspired by exchanges I had with two extremely knowledgeable friends, Simon Biddell and David Lavelle. I'll also include their picks, because I'm nice like that.

I'll make it fast with one more thing - if you want to gorge yourself on a huge slice of TV nostalgia pie, head over to the TVARK website. You can waste hours and hours of your life watching clips and intros from shows of yore (I think I've watched the start of Games Master and Crystal Maze about a bajillion times now) - and why not? Dee-dee-dee-deeee, DAH-DUH...

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Hot Shots: #1 - Rowan Martin - Just A Little Taste

Too much waffle from me, too little music on this blog. I'll be interspersing my reviews with YouTube videos of songs I think are great, interesting or downright odd. Most of these won't be on albums I review. First up, it's Rowan Martin of the Rhythm Method and his gorgeous sunshine pop classic 'Just a Little Taste'. Enjoy!

Chaleur Humaine - Christine and the Queens

Provenance: I got this from my partner, Sea, for Christmas 2016. Today is an apt time to revisit this album for the blog as this weekend, five years ago, we married on a cold day in Kansas. Same as this weekend; married on Saturday 4 February, Superbowl on the Sunday.

For people who have shared a life together for over half a decade, we actually have little common ground when it comes to music. Our biggest overlap is Tom Waits, and I dig most of Michael Jackson's catalogue. I've been pleasantly surprised by Feist, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Wood Brothers, all of which have come to my by way of Sea, but aside from that my only other real concession has been that Tupac is "not shit" (I believe those were my actual words).

I can't think of much from my CD collection that Sea proactively listens to. My partner's (rather good) impersonations of Neil Young and AC/DC lead me to believe that both have been listened to, if not enjoyed, on more than once occasion. It's as if we both have a vague understanding of each other's musical preferences without being completely fluent. I had no idea who Christine and the Queens were - or, as it turns out, is (Christine and the Queens is the stage name of Heloise Letissier) - so this was quite a gamble on Sea's behalf. How did it turn out?

Review: How boring - it seems that five years of matrimony has actually bred a degree of familiarity between us. I wish I could tell you that my partner had me figured all wrong, because that's more interesting, isn't it? How two people can spend so long in each other's company but not really know each other. On the one hand, Chaleur Humaine is not an album I would've purchased if left to my own devices, but lo and behold, it pushes all the right buttons because I'm a sucker for this kind of ear candy.

There's bits of trip-hop, borrowings from glitch-pop, a slightly dubstep feel to a couple of tracks ('No Harm Is Done' being the most obvious example) and even echoes of early electronica like Space (the French band) and Yellow Magic Orchestra. What really makes me give a shit is that the songwriting is so, so strong. Christine and the Queens always does something interesting with the melody. That said, one of the vocal melodies in 'Saint Claude' drove me nuts for about two weeks until I realised it was the same as 'I Saw Red' by Warrant, and 'Jonathan' sounds like a stately, slow-mo version of The Stranglers' 'Always The Sun', but I like both songs so no complaints here.

Great care is also paid to the acoustic quality of the singing; and so often French is sung instead of English, where the French is more playful, or alienating, or beautiful. Letissier's voice swoops, climbs, croons and declaims, sometimes in the span of one song. As far as I can make out (I'm one of the few British kids who didn't study French in school) the subject matter of each song is more interesting than your average pop fluff. For example - "It" name-checks Emily Dickinson and appears to be about the kind of gender performativity Judith Butler and (especially) Jack Halberstam wrote about. This ain't yer dad's high-concept Anglo-Franco art pop.

(As a student I read Jack Halberstam's In a Queer Time and Place (listed in most places under the name Judith Halberstam - I believe they use both masculine and feminine pronouns, so apologies if I've fucked this up) and felt compelled to email the author - his address was in the back of the book, I believe - with a few thoughts and questions. To my surprise, not only was Halberstam gracious enough to reply to my sophomore witterings, he also expressed a desire to discuss my notes in person next time he came to the UK. I panicked and never replied - sorry! Can I also recommend In a Queer Time and Place as an excellent work about queer subcultures? One of the few books at the more theoretical end of the scale to make me laugh, too.)

Given the somewhat esoteric themes explored on Chaleur Humaine one could be forgiven for thinking that the album lacks soul. The absence of analogue instrumentation means the music certainly possesses a mechanical iciness, and this is matched by an elegance that borders on archness. There is certainly little of the whispered confessional here; however, Chaleur Humaine is the product of such singular vision and execution that it is inescapably personal. I'd love to see this all performed live.

One criticism - rhythmically speaking, Chaleur Humaine is rather one note. Aside from variances in tempo, you get pretty much the same beat pulsing through each song. Listened to in one sitting, the effect can be a little wearying. A minor complaint, but one that merits a mention only because everything else is so well crafted. I look forward to seeing what Christine and the Queens comes up with next.