Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Hot Shots: #13 - Tower of Strength - Frankie Vaughan

Frankie Vaughan aka Mr Moonlight was an easy listening icon of the late 1950s into the 1960s, but here in his gutsiest performance he resembles nothing less than a human wind tunnel. Don't believe me? Then why not hear what the good folk over at the excellent Freaky Trigger website say in words more eloquent than I could ever muster:

A record that anticipates, outdoes, and sadly fails to prevent Tom Jones, “Tower Of Strength” is the pop equivalent of those great, famous old Charles Atlas ads. Hey! Wimp! Fed up with having sand kicked in your face? Well, we can’t promise you the secrets of muscle mystery, but we can slap your frustration on vinyl and let you howl along as if you did have biceps like steel cords. 

Frankie Vaughan’s performance is beserk – check that first verse, he bellows the lines and then ends each one – “door!”, “knees!”, “mee-eee!” – with a different kind of shriek. When he comes back for more in verse two his voice is more of a bassy gasp, and then he ends it all with a cod-opera flourish. Marcello C has called this one of the great British soul singles – I’d agree, but I think it’s helped hugely by being recorded near the beginning of soul, before its emotional lexicon had been fully compiled. 

In the right mood “Tower Of Strength” can harrow you, but in another mood – which also turns out to be ‘right’ – it’s an absolute hoot. Like much of my favourite British music, you can take it as seriously as you like – or need.

Super! Go and read everything else on the site too, it's boss.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Welcome To The Pleasuredome - Frankie Goes To Hollywood

Provenance: The Burger King advert that featured 'Two Tribes' made a big impression on me. So when I saw this for a princely £2 in HMV, I considered it a low risk gamble.

Review: One of the most baffling, surreal pop experiences you can subject yourself to. Almost everyone knows the immaculate credentials of 'Relax', 'Two Tribes' and 'The Power of Love', but do you know they come from a sprawling double album that features covers of Edwin Starr, Bruce Springsteen and Dionne Warwick? Or that the first track is an aural wonderworld that stretches to thirteen minutes? Or that Chris Barrie (Red Dwarf, The Brittas Empire) provides not one, but two impersonations for spoken word passages?

Like The Lexicon of Love, a favourite album of mine, this is identifiably a Trevor Horn production. As with everything he turned his hand to during this era, ...Pleasuredome sounds incredible on a good set of speakers; and it helps that the performances were given a polish thanks to the presence of various studio hacks. Songwriting credits are spread amongst the band on the original cuts, but singer Holly Johnson is probably the only member of Frankie... who can be counted as a consistent presence.

The only time Horn's golden touch turns to shit is the completely gratuitous, chintzy cover of Warwick's 'San Jose (The Way)' One might argue that most of the covers, skits and interludes are gratuitous, given that they amount to little more than padding, but 'San Jose' simply doesn't fit in with the bombastic, priapic thrust of almost everything else on ...Pleasuredome. It's pretty insipid, especially when compared to their hemi-powered turbo through Springsteen's hoary old classic 'Born To Run' (incidentally, I knew the Frankie... version before the Springsteen original, and I prefer it). Admittedly, the cover of 'War' sounds a little anodyne, sacrificing the raw funk power of the original instrumentation for synthesizers, but it's saved by a bizarre intro courtesy of the aforementioned Chris Barrie, rambling away in a startlingly good Ronald Reagan take-off.

The covers aside, about the only other aspect of ...Pleasuredome I don't like is 'The Power of Love'. Although it's Johnson's most assured vocal on the album (albeit shorn of his usual winking seediness), overall it's a sluggish, insincere mess. How it became the Christmas-defining giant it has morphed into is anyone's guess; I was going to say it belongs in the same division of insipid yuletide pap as East 17's 'Stay Another Day', but that's harsh on Brian Harvey (a man who managed to run himself over after consuming too many jacket potatoes) and company. Go ahead, call me a tin-eared poltroon, but it's a shit song.

However, elsewhere the music fizzes, bubbles, pumps and shimmers in gloriously overblown style. It's easy to forget just how pounding 'Relax' sounds with the dials turned up; on the other hand, it's difficult to understand just how BBC programmers let this one through the net to be played on daytime radio when even the bass line sounds this obscene. The other superstar number, 'Two Tribes', is thrillingly propulsive, coming on more like Iron Maiden's 'Wrathchild' than any piece of chart fluff has any right to. It's also slyly self-referential with the lyric 'Are we living in a land / Where sex and horror are the new gods?', when ...Pleasuredome contains 'Relax' (which was accompanied by a suitably deviant music video) and 'Krisco Kisses', a snazzy paean to fisting.

On that point - the what was originally side four contains some lesser known gems (and 'The Power of Love'), all written by Frankie... personnel. Neither 'Black Night White Light' nor 'The Only Star In Heaven' are classics, but both have their merits; the former rendered especially attractive by its moody minimalism and stuttering rhythms. There's a couple of decent Frankie... generated moments on side three too, chief amongst them the jive-talkin' funker 'Wish (The Lads Were Here)', which features some truly tintinnabulous slap-bass playing.

The very definition of a mixed bag, then, but with Horn at the helm ...Pleasuredome almost always defies banality with sheer presence and heft. Even the quieter moments are swaddled in banks of keyboards and guitar, culminating in a comfortable mid-range miasma that bathes the eardrums. How else, honestly, could you get away with a track like 'Welcome To The Pleasuredome', with its gongs, harmonica, Fairlights, jungle ululations and twisted snatches of Samuel Taylor Coleridge? It rises and swoops like a Gershwin rhapsody for nearly quarter of an hour and never once grows wearying. In some ways it resembles Rush's '2112', inasmuch as it serves as a blueprint for everything to follow. Bonkers, over the top, sublime.

Oh, and Barrie's other impersonation? Prince Charles, ruminating upon the male orgasm. Have fun, kids!

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Edgar Broughton Band - Edgar Broughton Band

Provenance: I'm reasonably conscious of the fact that to make points about music I often grab at comparisons. It's cheap and easy, but it relies on the reader knowing something of the artists I use as comparators. I've oft seen this technique used as a form of one-upmanship, a chance to preen with a display of obscurantism designed to dazzle the poor reader.

I realise I'm guilty of this, but in mitigation, I barely know anything. So when I hear wobbly, bubbly synth soundscapes I think "that sounds like the Alan Parsons Project", and when I hear dark, off-kilter psych I think "that sounds like the Edgar Broughton Band." Or more accurately, that sounds like Edgar Broughton Band, their third album, because it's the only album of theirs I own.

Anyway, I saw these guys raving it up in a BBC4 documentary on psychedelia so I bought what looked to be their most promising album. This is it, and I'm now going to review it, so next time I say "this sounds like the Edgar Broughton Band" you can scratch your chin and say "yes, of course" to yourself and feel a whole lot better.

(By the way, earlier in the week I was in a record store with a friend when a vaguely familiar song came on. "That", I started to chirp like the unthinking automaton I am rapidly turning into, "sounds like the Alan Parsons Project". It was Pink Floyd. Again, to defend myself, I'm pretty sure Alan Parsons was the engineer on the track in question.)

Review: I am always up for a good psych band, and the best I've witnessed in a long time was Kikagaku Moyo. What made them stand out from the other acts on the bill was their discipline. Whilst their support were content to meander pleasantly in the realms of sub-Hawkwind space rock, Kikagaku Moyo took a mentality of the cold-blooded killer to their music. That's not to say it couldn't be gentle or affecting, but there was no flab, no excess and they could turn on a sixpence when required. This aspect to their performance was almost as impressive as the music itself.

Likewise, there is little that's too loose on Edgar Broughton Band, and certainly compared to their lysergic-powered contemporaries there is precious little dicking about. Live, apparently, it was a different story, but by and large the temptation to wig out is reigned in. As an individual who finds the Grateful Dead and those interminable fucking 'Mountain Jam' tracks on the Allman Brothers' Eat A Peach albums the very antithesis of good music, this is most welcome indeed. (NB - I like it when good musicians stretch out; there's plenty in jazz, a good few electric blues artists who understand the push 'n' pull dynamics of tension, and I will defend Hawkwind to the hilt; but the prospect of Led Zeppelin 'jamming' a track for half an hour gives me happy thoughts about cyanide pills.)

It's probably a major dysfunction of mine that I'm mildly surprised every time at how much of a country influence is evident on what would have been side one of Edgar Broughton Band. There's a fair amount of acoustic instrumentation scattered throughout, and even some rather cornpone harmonica (though it is very enjoyable, I confess, I confess!). To undercut the rootsiness, there's also a sense of darkness seething throughout; 'Poppy' sounds like a druggy, pin-eyed 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' and 'The Birth' is an unnerving slice of goggly hysteria.

The standout, however, is the majestic 'Evening Over Rooftops', which begins in a quietly unsettling way and builds and builds to a wild, swirling crescendo. The best aspect of 'Evening Over Rooftops' are the lyrics, which manage to be surreal and terrifying at the same time. I think what seizes me each time I hear 'Evening Over Rooftops' is that I can't recall another rock song with such an unsteadying lyric; it's like the most deathly of Anna Akhmatova's poems set to a kind of symphonic armageddon. Intriguingly, the backing singers on 'Evening...' are the Ladybirds, most notable for their frequent appearances on The Benny Hill Show.

Side two drops off a little bit, and although there's nothing here I actively dislike, 'Madhatter' grates a little with its rinky-dink Syd Barrett affectations. Still, there's more than enough to hold the attention - 'House of Turnabout' ducks and weaves nicely, 'Getting Hard/What Is a Woman For?' is another fantastic slowburn track with suitably bonkers vocal (points off for the horrible, horrible title though) and 'Thinking Of You' is a chilling, spiky cut of Brit folk (featuring Mike Oldfield on mandolin!), coming across like a dead-eyed Incredible String Band, or a twisted Planxty (minus the Irish brogue). Edgar Broughton's singing merits a mention, because it's hard and tough most of the time, and at times he genuinely evokes Till Lindemann of Rammstein fame.

Okay, so the album ends on a bit of a crawl with the surprisingly schmaltzy sounding 'For Doctor Spock', but its saved by its elliptical lyric featuring babies going on strike (the Dr Spock of the title being Benjamin Spock, the famous parenting guru), resonating with the environmental concerns that flit in and out of Edgar Broughton Band's music. Overall, it's a weird, disconcerting and varied journey through a bingo hall of early 1970s Brit psych, but rewarding for the sojourner. Rewarding? Bloody brilliant. Also, the bonus tracks on my CD are cool, which is never a given on these reissues, standout number 'Call Me A Liar' hitting a real groove.