Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Ha! Ha! Ha! - Ultravox!

Provenance: Like the dog who returns to his vomit, I once again decided to trust a review in Classic Rock magazine. However, this time - this time, guys - instead of just saying "these guys make a soulful rock racket, like Bad Company partying with the Doobie Brothers" or some other banal shit, they actually made the first three Ultravox! records (they came in a bundle) sound interesting.

When I read the description that they'd often been dismissed as a "punk Roxy Music", I was all in. This, I was told, was 'good Ultravox!', before they dropped the exclamation mark, gained a Midge Ure and became shite.

Review: If you only know Ultravox as the band behind 'Vienna' and 'Dancing With Tears In My Eyes', Ha! Ha! Ha! will come as quite a shock. Far from the mannered, slickly delivered synth-pop that defined their most successful era, the Ultravox! on display here are a bunch of perverted sickos with out of tune guitars and a clutch of cracking songs. First track 'ROckWrok' is as fluid, messy and enjoyable as the sexual practices gleefully delineated and, masked by the frantic delivery, possibly the filthiest song to ever gain airplay on BBC Radio 1. Oh, and in case you didn't realise that you were dealing with capital-a Art, the name is a punning take on a Marcel Duchamp-produced magazine.

What I have come to sincerely love about Ha! Ha! Ha! is the energy that pulses throughout the album; an energy that threatens to teeter over into anarchy but reels back from the edge at just the right moment. It sounds like it was put down mostly live (I have no idea - but it doesn't sound like its replete with overdubs) and captures Ultravox! at their most freewheeling. If frontman John Foxx has a weakness (it's certainly not his name) it's that he's sometimes trying too hard to act cool, but that's largely offset by lyrics speaking of disaffection, fin-de-siecle nihilism and sex. Is it pretentious? Sure, but it's a lot of fun. It's a gas hearing Foxx mash-up Bryan Ferry's strange bleat with guttersnipe polemicising, and the squeaking, skronking instrumentation never seems less than demented.

Whilst one can certainly hear Roxy Music in the mix, as well as Joe Strummer and wisps of Kraftwerk, it's also nice to see where the legacy of Ha! Ha! Ha! lives on in popular music. Listening to the post-glitter stomp of 'While I'm Still Alive' (a favourite of mine) always brings to mind Franz Ferdinand, whilst (more obscurely) the off-kilter tunings could easily have influenced King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard's Flying Microtonal Banana album.

Also, I know I use the term 'glamorous demimonde' far too much (if I've used it once, it's too much) but - dear reader - it is entirely appropriate. For all the thrust of the music, the pose on display is a cross between a decadent ennui and Mitteleuropean (lol, me using words again) elegance. The two most obvious examples - and it's probably no coincidence that the Kraftwerk imprimatur is most evident on these tracks - are 'The Man Who Dies Every Day' and the mighty 'Hiroshima Mon Amour'. It's also curious that, Kraftwerk aside, the other big influence both share is cinema; it's hard to hear the opening lines of 'The Man...' and not think of a Harry Lime figure stood turned away, shrouded in mist; and 'Hiroshima Mon Amour' shares its name with the 1959 Alain Resnais film of the same name (of course - you knew that, right?).

It is perhaps perverse of me to rank 'Hiroshima Mon Amour' as a highlight, because formally speaking it is the one song that points towards Ultravox's revivification as purveyors of sleek, stilted melodrama. Why is it good then? Because whilst it starts out with a bipping drum-machine intro that threatens to turn into an OMD single, it soon morphs into something strangely affecting and beautiful. Each verse is a miniature painting, or perhaps a still from an arthouse movie, a moment of clarity not so much captured as poised. I've used the word 'elegant' before in this review, and it really does apply to 'Hiroshima Mon Amour', from the mournful saxophones to the swooning melody.

And in any case, if I am being perverse, that fits in nicely with a good portion of what Ha! Ha! Ha! serves up. What a wonderful chronicle of humanity's ability to sound sad, jaded and deliriously happy all at the same time.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Ace Of Spades - Motorhead

Provenance: Do I really have to say anything here? It's fucking Motorhead.

Review: The first Motorhead (not doing the umlaut, sorry) album I bought was a live bootleg with terrible sound quality. Every song sounded the same. Having said that, it was still one of the most exciting things I'd heard up until that point.

This was to be my second Motorhead purchase. Why Ace Of Spades? Because it was called 'Ace Of Spades' and had the song 'Ace Of Spades' on it. I really, really like the song 'Ace Of Spades'.

To these ears, 'Ace Of Spades' is the perfect distillation of everything that made Motorhead work. It rattles along at a breakneck pace, an aggressive rip-snorter of a beast unshackled from the bound of propriety and gentility. Like the best rock 'n' roll, it boils everything down to the most basic constituent parts - drums, bass, guitar, voice. There's no dicking about with flutes or mandolins, no vocal harmonies, nary an attempt at a diminished seventh chord. And the vocals? The purest, man-don't-give-a-fuck skull-grin stoicism gutter poetry. It's Rudyard Kipling's 'If-', were Kipling a Ladbroke Grove speed-freak with a pornographically loud bass guitar. 'Ace Of Spades' has the ability to beat the crap out of you within ten seconds if played at the correct volume. I shall never grow bored of it.

You know what's great about Motorhead? They really are, as Lemmy often claimed, a rock 'n' roll band. No doubt they're heavy as all hell, but that's not metal I'm hearing in their sound; it's the thrum of Eddie Cochran, shot through with amphetamines, smoke and rust. The difference is in the dynamic range of the instrumentation - first wave rock 'n' roll often featured thin-sounding guitars and drums that pattered away relatively unobtrusively (when used at all), with vocals and often saxophone to fatten out the sound. Here, drums and an outrageously overdriven bass perform fill out this part of the mix; nor do guitars no Lemmy's inimitable vocals stray too far from the middle, either.

The result? Not a huge amount of depth, which means the only truly trebly sound - the hi-hat - really jumps out at you. Drummer Phil 'Philthy Animal' Taylor rides that rather loose hi-hat relentlessly, which, coupled with the tempo, creates a clattery, splashy effect that is every bit as important as Lemmy's lawnmower-grind bass. Also, I should add that Lemmy's whiskey-and-razors vocals were absolutely essential, and that he was terribly underrated in that department. Try to imagine anybody else singing Motorhead songs - it feels ridiculous.

Look, here's the deal - if you like what the title track brought to the table, you'll like the rest of the album. Every single diesel-powered bastard of a tune on here exudes the same grimy scuzziness as the one that preceded it. Last time out I reviewed Dio's Holy Diver which for all its merits comes across as rather bloodless in comparison to Ace Of Spades. The Motorhead universe is not one where the pomp of vaguely silly Tolkeinesque fantasy gets a look in. Sentiment is eschewed entirely on Ace Of Spades - 'Bite The Bullet', 'The Chase Is Better Than The Catch' and 'Love Me Like A Reptile' all seem to revel in an almost animalistic view of sexual relations (articulated most clearly on the latter, even if only two of the three examples given in the lyrics are actually reptilians). One gets the impression, from a mere sound recording, that this is a band that could beat the shit out of you and your mates, and would certainly take a piss on you as you lay prone.

I normally don't talk about any bonus tracks on albums I own - they were often omitted from the original collections for a reason - but these are mint. 'Dirty Love' was the b-side to 'Ace Of Spades' and is every bit as good as anything else they recorded in the period. Meanwhile, 'Please Don't Touch' and 'Emergency' come from the St Valentine's Day Massacre EP recorded jointly with Girlschool. Hearing Lemmy and Kim McAuliffe duetting on the former, a cover of a Johnny Kid and the Pirates song, is an absolute, unadulterated joy and further underscores Motorhead's classic rock 'n' roll DNA.

I saw Motorhead live many, many times. Fortunately I got all my experiences in before Lemmy's very public demise, which resulted in truncated shows and confused performances. They were one of those bands who went for the throat every time; there are few finer things in life then witnessing Motorhead firing on all cylinders, tearing full-tilt through 'Overkill' or 'Bomber', pummelling you in the chest with the sonic earthquake they generated. What a band, what a singular band - and what an album.