Wednesday, 24 March 2021

The Essential Collection - Muddy Waters


Provenance: A question to those of you who play musical instruments - when you first started to squeeze out some sounds, what were you attempting to play?

For me, on a Hohner Rockwood Pro RP250 (one of the heaviest guitars I've ever played, incidentally), it was blues music.

Prior to picking up the guitar I had no real regard for blues music, albeit the majority of bands I was listening to at the time played material heavily derivative of the genre. I had - have - no natural musical ability, as friends, bandmates and neighbours can attest to; furthermore, there is a fine balancing act to be performed when learning an instrument relatively late on, inasmuch as the frustrations need to be tempered with the green shoots of progress.

For me, that proved to be blues music - as my guitar instructor showed me, with just three chords and knowledge of the minor pentatonic scale, a beginner can sound halfway accomplished. It worked, and twenty years down the line I still enjoy the simple pleasures of improvising over the three-chord trick, especially as working within such strictures makes you, the player, focus on how you're playing, every bit as much as what you're playing.

So, as a newly-minted bluesman, the future king of the Stour Delta, I needed to do some homework. Boy, did I. I became that most insufferable of individuals, a teenage blues buff. Knowing, at the very least, who Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and BB King were became something of a litmus test (though BB wasn't really my cup of tea, you see - a little too sleek and urbane for this adolescent purist!). I wouldn't even worry my fellow young millennials about the likes of Pinetop Perkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell and the rest, however - from my lofty perch, I simply couldn't imagine the hoi polloi were able to tear themselves away from the pabulum of Mogwai, Creed and Linkin Park and join me on the blues highway. Think of the worst kind of black metal gatekeeper, multiply by about six, and you've got me, the 17 year-old blues fan.

Anyway, I obviously had to start somewhere, and I think this followed hot on the heels of Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas Flood (and there was me chaffing BB King!) as a formative blues purchase.

Review: Well, I suppose the first observation that needs to be made is that this album contains a good number of tracks written by the masterful Willie Dixon, performed by the legendary Muddy Waters, and backed by what is considered to be the greatest Chicago blues backing band ever assembled; Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Little Walter blowing harp, Elga Edmonds on drums and Otis Spann tinkling the ivories. That is, Little Walter of 'Juke' and 'Blues With a Feeling' fame, Jimmy Rogers, who popularised 'That's All Right' and 'Walkin' By Myself', and Otis Spann, who worked with Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker, to name a few. None too shabby.

But here I am getting ahead of myself - I am already assuming you know these folks, and can nod along with these achievements. For the uninitiated, I'll say this - these guys were giants, backing a colossus. 

I almost feel like ending it here and imploring you - ordering you - to hunt down Muddy tearing through tracks like 'I Got My Mojo Working', 'Baby, Please Don't Go', 'I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man', 'I Just Want to Make Love to You' and 'Mannish Boy'. It's the kind of canned heat we should be blasting off to Mars and beyond, because if any space aliens found this shit they'd soon a) realise that we're not an entire waste of galactic space and b) give pause about invading us. It'd a pre-emptive strike, folks, and by hittin' em with the low smoke (to borrow a phrase from Joe Frazier) we might just survive unscathed. 

For those of you unaware of the Muddy Waters experience, the man is one of those people - like Howlin' Wolf - who explodes out of the speakers, his singing an extension of his personality. And what a personality! He's already middle-aged by the time he's cutting numbers and heads with Chess Records, but that's entirely to his advantage - the swagger, the virility, the braggadocio is shot through with an effortless authority. His rough, soulful voice would be a great weapon regardless, but for Waters the blues wasn't about keening or moaning; no, for him it was a vehicle for boasting, for tall tales, for hairy metaphors, sawdust on the floor and guaranteed good times. Even when Waters is ostensibly playing the puppy-eyed wooer in 'I Want To Be Loved', it still sounds as if he's already got the hotel room booked and champagne on ice.

However, the rather bargain hodgepodge of The Essential Collection doesn't just focus on what is considered by critics to be his zenith; it also contains tracks from later albums, so we get two from his 'lions-in-winter' album Can't Get No Grindin'; and 'Mannish Boy' from his psychedelic effort Electric Mud, a collection that revels in a one-and-a-half star review on Allmusic but powerful enough a testament for Chuck D of Public Enemy to reassemble some of the session players to re-record the big numbers for a documentary (one I would love to see again, but cannot find online). There are some curios here, too, such as a solo performance of 'Rollin' Stone' and a 'She Moves Me' featuring label boss Leonard Chess accompanying Waters on bass drum with an almost majestic level of incompetence.

What more can I say? It's a 'best of', from one of the bests, whose electric blues was simply tougher, more raucous and, in the toss-up, more exciting than almost anything else going. I don't need to sign off with a 'buy this album' plea, just find any collection of his Chess recordings as a starting point and have yourself a ball.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Only A Lad - Oingo Boingo


Provenance: Oingo Boingo were a personal recommendation made to me. After a little research of my own, I bought today's album, Only A Lad, and a later effort called Dead Man's Party.

Review: This is the full-length debt of a band with at least one member who would go on to do, shall we say, other things (I hesitate to use 'greater' in the usual formulation). Although a clutch of Boingo alumni would move into film and TV scoring, its vocalist and rhythm guitar player Danny Elfman whose work is the most immediately familiar. Aside from scoring many Tim Burton films (the best of his output, in my opinion, featuring in The Nightmare Before Christmas), there's also the small matter of the theme tune to The Simpsons.

All of which is totally banal and rather irrelevant, because aside from a predilection for quirky compositional choices, hints of the later career only surface sporadically in the sparky, pulsing New Wave rock on Only A Lad. It's a cool sound, too, marrying the punchiness of bass-driven pop with inventive horn charts, characterful vocals and dark humour.

And, oh yeah, they really 'go there' at times. By which I mean, if you're not familiar with the infamous lead-off track 'Little Girls', you might just want to apply some circumspection to the way you word your Google search. However, a lyric refracted through the twisted justifications of a (wannabe?) child abuser notwithstanding, it's a primo cut of Oingo Boingo; tense, claustrophobic, dancing on the edge of hysteria and yet grimly funny for all that. The video, which takes some of its cues from German Expressionism, is worth a shufti, discomforting as it is.

This isn't the only instance where Elfman and co. decide to shine a light into the murkier corners of society with a dash of irony and a catchy beat. The title track 'Only A Lad' is, if anything, an even better - and more excruciating - listen than 'Little Girls'; not so much the subject matter, which in this instance is a murderous child, but in the skin-tightening stress of the strangulated vocals and ominous electronics jabbing away at your cerebral cortex. Yet, once again, it's a corker of pop song.

These tiptoes into taboo represent the most transgressive material that Oingo Boingo cover, but that doesn't make the rest of Only A Lad easy listening at all. Much of the album concerns itself with feelings of isolation, a sense heightened by Elfman's hyperactive, madcap delivery. So we have 'Capitalism', dripping with irony and sounding like Duane Eddy crossed with Devo; the stuttering rhythms of the bouncy paean to alienation that is 'On The Outside'; and a deconstructive take on the Kinks' hoary old garage band fave 'You Really Got Me', with vocals that prefigure Eiffel 65's 'Blue' by almost two decades. In fact, it's in the midsection and coda to 'You Really Got Me' where you can, with finely-tuned ears (pay attention, children!) hear a nascent sound that would soon be fully realised and parping out of a billion TV sets to herald the start of a Simpsons episode.

A criticism I have seen about Oingo Boingo, and specifically about Only A Lad, is that they too often favour a 'kitchen sink' approach to production and arrangement, throwing all kinds of wacky sounds and whiplash tonal changes into the music. I don't get it. The only time I think this holds some validity is on closer 'Nasty Habits', although I would argue that the bells and whistles suit the knockabout atmosphere. Otherwise, Only A Lad shares some of its sensibility with Talking Heads, Discipline-era King Crimson, The Tubes, Japan and a few others who were unafraid to fill their records with discordance and interesting sounds without sacrificing the ability to write a tune. 

Yes, Tin Pan Alley this ain't - you'd be pressed to whistle too much of this, despite the catchiness; at times Elfman's vocal acrobatics can produce a faint ache behind the eyes, but the commitment to his role of a manic lord of misrule is almost actorly. Spoiler alert: the spikier edges are sanded away on later releases like Dead Man's Party (albeit, it's an interesting album in its own right), but for the quintessential Boingo, look no further than this kaleidoscopic circus of raw nerves, high anxiety - and quality music.    

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Welcome To My Nightmare - Alice Cooper


Provenance: I was already deep into my Cooper fandom by the time I got this album. A fandom, I should add, that my dad is directly responsible for.

Formative experiences with live music can be, if not always life-changing, then choice-affirming; I've mentioned it before but seeing Alice Cooper top a bill that included Orange Goblin and Dio was one of those instances where I felt everything clicked into place. I now own multiple albums of each artist.

Incidentally, I realise that I have yet to delve into the band Alice Cooper thus far on this blog, whose output many critics rate as superior. Guess what? They're probably right. Guess what? I don't care, this is my little corner of cyberspace and I'll happily keep on pushing the likes of Trans, Recycler and Chinese Democracy over and above more canonical works of those respective artists.

Review: Nobody's arguing the toss as to the position of Welcome To My Nightmare in the Cooper back catalogue; this ain't no DaDa or Zipper Catches Skin. Any Coop fan will have this in their collection, the only wrinkle being that this was the first record sans Smith, Bruce, Dunaway and Buxton. Which should be a big loss, as nothing else that I've heard to date has quite sounded like the original Alice Cooper band. Furthermore, if I was indulging in putting together a fantasy supergroup, Dennis Dunaway is probably the leading candidate in the bass slot.

But these are ruminations for another time! I'll hopefully get around to Killer and Billion Dollar Babies one day, which will give me ample time to blather about Dunaway; I wish no disservice to the bassists who actually played on Welcome To My Nightmare, Prakash John and noted rock slaphead / Chapman stick-botherer Tony Levin. Anyway, who's complaining about Tony Levin being up in your business? Not me 

Probably the biggest misconception about Alice Cooper is that he is a heavy metal artist. Yeah, he has been, now and again, especially when he relinquished the mantle of innovation to chase trends in a bid for relevance. Yet whilst there are elements of hard rock on Welcome To My Nightmare, if I may go all Jilly Goolden on you, there are also strong overtones of glam-rock, prog and even musical showtunes in the mix. In that respect, it's not so different from many other rock albums starting from the Pretty Things' remarkable S.F. Sorrow insofar as here is a version of popular music that is all grown up. Making the admixture of genres and influences come together to into a unified whole is a different kettle of fish, however.

I am happy, nay, gleeful, to report that Welcome To My Nightmare pulls off this high-wire act with aplomb. That the sequencing means we can bounce from the heavy riffing of 'The Black Widow' to 'Some Folks', which sounds like a demented twist on something from West Side Story, then onto the balladry of 'Only Women Bleed' - successfully - is testament to both the quality of the music and a kind of quiet internal logic holding it all together.

When I see Alice Cooper perform live, one of my favourite moments of the show is when he unhooks a set of supplementary 'arms' on his specially prepared jacket to signal the pummelling intro to 'The Black Widow', a genuine headbanger with a seasick bassline and weird lyrics about a spider-king that rules the earth. On record the effect is hardly diminished, and in fact it could be argued that this is the definitive version because it contains the lengthy spoken-word introduction, performed by the immortal Vincent Price. Truly, I feel a little kick of joy in my heart every time 'Devil's Food' begins to fade and I hear that lubricious, cartoon-sinister voice intone "Leaving lepidoptera - please don't touch the display, little boy...".

It's worth sticking with that trifecta of songs to reflect on 'Only Women Bleed' for a moment. In today's climate it seems like an impossibly clumsy song to be sung by a man, but behind the yuks of the double entendre lies an oddly tender song about the endurance of women suffering from domestic abuse. There has always been an intelligence behind Cooper's lyrics, something Bob Dylan has publicly acknowledged, but sympathetic takes for the victims of domestic abuse were rare in the era of 'wimmin'-dun-me-wrong' chest-beating mid-70s rock. Who else did something like this? Perhaps Cheap Trick with 'The House Is Rockin'', though they always had a knack of wrapping razorblades in bubblegum.

Anyway, not long after 'Only Women Bleed' is 'Cold Ethyl', a paean to necrophilia that landed him in hot water with the columnist Ann Landers. It also happens to be the best hard rock track on Welcome To My Nightmare, a song that Slash has claimed as his favourite. Catch me in the right mood and it's probably mine, too.

What comes after 'Cold Ethyl' is a succession of tracks that forms a mini-opera about an individual named Steven, who appears to be suffering from hallucinations, paranoia and a few other things. Whilst much of everything preceding has smacked of Grand Guignol fun 'n' frolics (bar 'Only Women Bleed'), the tonal shift to something edgier and darker makes this an uncomfortable listen. The tension, however, is broken by the album's final cut, the Kim Fowley-penned three-minute glam-slam of 'Escape', as bouncy and celebratory as it ever got for Coop. Still, the question lingers - is Welcome To My Nightmare a concept album in disguise? Has every musical turn and chicane been a wander through Steven's imagination? Does it matter?

When push comes to shove, these questions just add to the overall enjoyment of Welcome To My Nightmare. The fate of Steven is left unresolved, and so are my questions. I don't mind sitting with ambiguity, it doesn't feel like a cheat - especially if it's the price on pays to fully appreciate the five-star brilliance of this most colourful, sparkiest, imaginative artefact of 1970s rock.