Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Final Countdown - Europe

Provenance: I bought this off a bloke for 50p, twelve or so years ago.

Review: I would like a refund.

Whilst, proverbially, curiosity is a slayer of felines, it was also the motivation behind me forgoing a can of Diet Coke to instead purchase Europe's magnum opus. After all, it contains that one track that even the least rock-conversant could recognise. As I sat down to write this review it struck me that hitherto this very moment I have only given this album one or two spins.

Over a decade on, I realise why. Please, feel free to fill in this gap with your own Europe / Brexit joke, because even the startlingly real prospect that the UK is flushing its economy and international good will down the john is less horrific than The Final Countdown.

To be fair, there were a couple of tracks that didn't induce the kind of metaphysical despair that Kafka merely hinted at. 'Rock The Night' is approaching competent for a big production hair metal number and...uh, that's it. I'm revising 'couple' down to 'a single song'. And lest you think I'm taking a kick at an easy target, bear in mind that I gave Faster Pussycat a pretty positive review (notwithstanding their questionable stance towards sexual activity with minors), and will no doubt be swooning over Ratt, Warrant and Dokken in the near future. I tend to like this bollocks. But not Europe, or at the very least, not The Final Countdown.

How did 'Carrie' become a hit? It's overwrought and boring. How did 'Ninja' (the second-worst ninja-related music title I own) or 'Time Has Come' make it past even the most cursory quality control? Little wonder that guitarist John Norum, the only one who demonstrates any flair on this release, quit soon after, claiming that the guitars had been buried under banks of keyboards. It's just a shame that upon completion The Final Countdown wasn't immediately buried under twenty metres of concrete, thus neutralising the radioactivity of its shittiness.

If I had to pick a standout for the most ball-achingly terrible moment on the album I'm going to go for 'Cherokee'. May I digress a little? Back in 2012 my partner was able to join me in the UK just in time for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. I'd been living in this town for about two months, my partner for a week, and we were intrigued to see how the greybeards of the local council thought best to mark sixty years of Elizabeth Regina. I am sure Her Majesty would have been thrilled that it was basically a laser show set to 'The Final Countdown'.

In the same manner, Joey Tempest (lead vocals) thought a fitting way to commemorate the Trail of Tears was through the medium of butt rock. 'Cherokee' begins with what I can only assume is some kind of 'tribal' drumming, but done in so ham-fisted a manner that you wonder if the song is a piss-take. At which point you remember this is The Final Countdown, and it's no doubt meant in all earnestness. Generations of trauma, borne of a people torn from their birthright and rounded up like cattle, are perfectly realised and sensitively depicted through faux-orchestral synths and wailin' solos. I hope that the First Nations people of today are able to seek some comfort or solace in a song that sounded like it was rejected from Magnum's Vigilante album for being too limp.

And what of the title track, deemed by my town council to be fit for a queen? Well guys, I've got news for you; it's rump. If you like crappy, parping keyboard bombast married to some of the most idiotic lyrics ever penned by man or beast (there are, I suspect, apes that could do better) then 'The Final Countdown' is for you. If, however, the parts of your brain that process sensory information are halfway functional then you'll find a spot of waterboarding to be the more pleasurable alternative.

The Final Countdown is only forty minutes, but forty long minutes that transmogrifies your existence into a seemingly eternal waking nightmare. Which, fair play, is pretty strong stuff for a mere fifty pence. It's a pity that I'm allowing Europe to overshadow my almost completely positive impressions of Sweden (I've visited a number of times - let me tell you, the strawberries are a delight) so I'm going to go and cleanse my palate with a spot of Opeth and Vilhelm Moberg, lest I start ranting about blue passports, fishing quotas and the like. Adj√∂!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Hot Shots: #11 - The Knickerbockers - Lies

I'm a huge fan of the Nuggets compilation, and you should be too. How about this hypercharged cut of ersatz Beatle-boogie? Just one of many, many treats to be found on the untouchable, original Nuggets anthology.

Not only is the song great, but this performance is superb. I know they're miming, but this video shows what can be done with a couple of cameras, a tiny stage and a clutch of hip-swinging teens in tight sweaters. It's just so kinetic, energetic and dare I say it, exciting. Has rock music seemed quite as fun since?

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Handsworth Revolution - Steel Pulse

Provenance: Haven't a clue. I bought this from an HMV at some point within the last five years. It was probably on special offer and I thought it might be worth a punt. That's some cool album artwork, after all.

Review: I can't pretend to know what life could be like in late 1970s Handsworth, having grown up in 1990s Bournemouth. I originally come from a place in Greater London called Hayes, which many in my family still call home. My parents grew up in Hayes and, before I was born, lived for a while in nearby Southall. It shares something in common with Handsworth: during the 1981, both experienced riots sparked off by racial tensions. Those in Handsworth were set off by rumours of a march by the National Front, whilst Southall's disturbances were in response to a planned Oi! concert in the Hambrough Tavern pub.

Hit fast-forward to 2011 and parts of London are ablaze with rioting. I stand looking from the top floor of the hospital I work in as plumes of smoke ascend into the summer sky. I return home to see bars and supermarkets in genteel areas like Clapham boarded up in anticipation of violence. Rumour swirls that looters have left a treasure trove on Clapham Common as they seek to evade the police. A seldom-seen neighbour asks 'what shall we do?' and I shrug and produce a golf club. I take an evening walk down to Tooting and pass through the thoroughly middle-class preserve of Balham. I note that nothing is shuttered, although reports later emerge of smashed windows. It is 2011 and race is once again the tinder box, and the fatal shooting of a black man by armed police sparks unrest that will sweep across the country.

So it is now 2017 and things don't feel much better. The referendum on British membership of the EU saw one campaign group literally borrow from Third Reich propaganda to create a poster. Meanwhile, Donald Trump's ascent sees neo-Nazis rebranded as the 'alt-right' and their fashion choices are discussed by mainstream publications. So now I'm listening to the angry, defiant, questing Handsworth Revolution by the British reggae band Steel Pulse, and it's sounding fresher than ever. That's not to downplay the actual music itself, which is superb, but it would be silly to ignore the politics of Steel Pulse's debut, which are front and centre throughout. Putting it another way, the impact of the message has not diminished down the years.

So we have calls for social justice on the title track; 'Bad Man' begins sounding like a boast but mutates into a meditation on slavery; 'Soldiers' demands self-determination for Africans and the removal of the imperialist yoke; 'Prodigal Son' counsels a people to stay in touch with their culture and renew their knowledge; and it seems trite to hint at the gist of 'Ku Klux Klan'. Who could blame the guys in the band for rounding out the collection with the spacey 'Macka Splaff', which is unabashedly about the joys of smoking weed? Even Shakespeare leavened his tragedies with a few jokes.

The grooves are monstrous, the musicianship is top notch (I was especially taken by the delicate, Latin-tinged guitar on 'Prediction') and thus you could quite happily dig this album for all its surface qualities. It's a smashing reggae record. For my money though, Handsworth Revolution reveals its real charms when one tunes into the messages about unity, identity, history, race and spirituality. It's not altogether comfortable listening either, especially if you're a white guy from Bournemouth. Handsworth Revolution delivers a few home truths about my history that I may not want to hear, but certainly need to hear.

There's always hope - and so with 'Prediction', which envisages deliverance for the followers of Ras Tafari, so I'm going to allow myself to perceive a few green shoots. A man has led a General Election campaign on a solidly social-democratic manifesto and created the electoral upset of this century (domestically, at least). Those who sought to smear him as a terrorist sympathiser now find themselves propping up their rickety administration by cosying up to paleolithic bigots with much stronger links to terrorism. The hypocrisy stinks and it won't be tolerated as long as good people stay vigilant and press for a fairer, more tolerant society. To quote Steel Pulse, "Have some, have some faith! / The impossible have a habit of happening..."

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Black and White - Tony Joe White

Provenance: The origins of where and how I first encountered Tony Joe White are now obscured by the mists of time.

I can definitely state that I was aware of the man and his music before September 2010, which I spent in the USA. Here's why:

a) I vividly recall hearing a god-awful song chronicling the downfall of some poor southron maiden or other set to the music of 'Willie and Laura Mae Jones' on the radio. I was near Nashville at the time.

b) I managed to finagle my way into a private function at Graceland, and the Elvis tribute band (no pressure there, lads) played 'Polk Salad Annie'.

c) I met a guy in Louisiana who claimed to have known Tony Joe White a little in his youth.

Don't get me wrong, my road trip around the Deep South wasn't some kind of extended Tony Joe White-themed promenade, he just happened to crop up a fair amount. I wish I hadn't encountered that re-write of 'Willie and Laura Mae Jones' though, because it was like an ice-pick to the ears. I've tried to locate it for this review but no dice, so if anybody knows what I'm talking about, please get in touch.

Review: Mere words are inadequate to describe how much I fucking love this album. Yet I also find that words are hard to come by in articulating why Tony Joe White's debut had such a profound impact on me; a clear-eyed (or clear-eared?) reviewer would no doubt highlight the flaws and half-developed ideas littered throughout the album. I, however, don't fall into the clear-eyed category; in fact, I was not a little lachrymose when I finally saw 'the Swamp Fox' himself in London last year with my friend Rachael.

(Can I just add something about the TJW live experience? White played a guitar plugged directly into an onstage amp, with precisely two pedals at his disposal - a wah-wah and a deafeningly loud overdrive, which transformed his music into proto-metal garage rock every time it was activated. His only accompaniment was a drummer, which meant the sound could sometimes feel a bit empty when TJW played lead breaks. Yet he could be absolutely mesmerising, even when he talked to the audience in his indecipherable molasses-thick drawl).

Listening to it again now, I still feel both comforted and excited by the sounds coming from my speakers. Firstly, that voice. That drawling, cool, subterranean baritone is absolutely perfect. It's not particularly well-recorded, and sometimes distorts when he fails to moderate his volume. Yet this is precisely why I love it - unlike so many modern recordings where a vocal is tracked numerous times, levelled out and compressed, this is an unadorned and honest record of one man's utterly peculiar instrument. It also helps that White possess a collection of weird vocal tics, smattering his performances with lusty grunts and non-lexical vocables.

All this is performed over what can be described as country-funk, at least on the originals that make up just over half the album. When it hits its stride, Black and White really cooks. Aforementioned opener 'Willie and Laura Mae Jones' is a fine example. Covered by Clarence Carter, Brook Benton and Dusty Springfield amongst others, it's a soulful and powerful little fable about race relations between poor blacks and whites. 'Aspen Colorado' is a quietly poignant story vignette about a young man trying to make his own way in the world, and the famous 'Polk Salad Annie' (a staple in Elvis Presley life performances) is belting rocker about an indigent girl and her 'no account' family. In all these instances, White proves to be a deft caricaturist, able to breathe life into his subjects with his wry, nuanced eye for detail.

There's a fair amount of sex on offer too. 'Whompt Out On You' portrays White as a callous lothario, and contains a drum break every bit as funky as 'Amen, My Brother' by the Winstons. 'Who's Making Love' is a soul-power cautionary tale to every dude stepping out with a side-slurp, and he even imbues the Bacharach standard 'Look of Love' with a breathy, languid eroticism. In fact, for such a good and prolific songwriter, White is a very able interpreter, showcasing his ability to inhabit a song on both 'Little Green Apples' and 'Wichita Lineman', the latter possibly just outflanking the Glen Campbell version (heresy!) in my estimation (burn him!).

Deep, seductive, slow and loose, Black and White is a quirky yet colourful slice of downhome escapism. White's idiosyncratic singing only serves to make this a more affecting collection, and Rachael can no doubt attest to my fondness for White's turn of phrase (we still text each other references to 'corn pone', mentioned in 'Willie and Laura Mae Jones' every now and again). Essential listening, y'all.