Sunday, 25 April 2021

Germfree Adolescents - X-Ray Spex

 

Provenance: I borrowed this album from a chap I worked with (alongside Crises by Mike Oldfield) and really enjoyed it. If memory serves, I loaned him Ted Nugent's Free-For-All. A fair exchange?

Review: I had no idea what I'd be reviewing today. I had noticed that I was on for a hat-trick of eponymous band names if I were to continue in the Van Halen / Santana vein, but I've already done Montrose and never quite plumbed the depths of owning a Bon Jovi record, so my options were limited. Would the Von Hertzen Brothers count?

Nonetheless, a tweet alerted me to the fact that today is the tenth anniversary of the passing of X-Ray Spex singer and bandleader Poly Styrene. I've wanted to do Germfree Adolescents for a while now, and here's the perfect excuse. 

Beyond all musical considerations, X-Ray Spex were an important force in punk history; how many women of colour can you think of who fronted, or continue to front, a rock band? Now ask yourself how many of those preceded X-Ray Spex? Not many, I'd wager (well done if you remembered the existence of Fanny, though!). It's easy in retrospect to discern some of the more conservative elements of the first wave of punk music, and whilst it's fair to say that bands like the Slits and the Raincoats offered new templates for the role of women in music, it was still a pretty white caper. The transformation of Marianne Joan Elliot-Said into Poly Styrene mattered.

Of course, all of this would be dulled somewhat if the music wasn't up to snuff. Fret not - Germfree Adolescents is a thumping album,

Yeah, a little bit of the sloganeering is a bit dusty (but it's effortless to forgive when delivered with such youthful gusto), as are a couple of the production choices - what's with all those echoed song intros? Those are going to be the only two quibbles you'll hear in this review.

I love that it's a punchy thirty-five or so minutes long; I love just how chunky and solid the guitars are; I love Styrene's police siren voice; and above all I love, love, love Rudi Thomson's saxophone, a quirky choice of instrumentation for a punk band but one that pays off over and again. I've long been a sax advocate - forget the cheezy stuff from the 1980s, forget even my beloved Steely Dan, and think of how exciting it sounds in the Rolling Stones, or skronking away behind Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, or when it cuts like a scythe through Roxy Music's 'Editions Of You'. In fact, that's what I'm feeling here, a lot of the time; just check out the ending of 'I Live Off You' for proof. Saxophone is also used to double the chorus melody of 'Warrior In Woolworths', one of the (slightly) more sedate tracks here, and it elevates the whole enterprise; so much punk music trades on being abrasive or energetic, but Germfree Adolescents retains those elements without compromising on being a bloody fine listen.

Those moments that are just smash-mouth rock music are, however, simply exhilarating. 'Art-I-Ficial' sounds like a missile launch, and 'I Am A Poseur' is what would happen if Motorhead incorporated a brass section into their ranks. It's easy, amidst the sturm and drang, to miss the lyrics being hooted out with such exuberance by Styrene, but closer inspection reveals how pleasingly surreal they are, bespeaking of personal alienation in an increasingly synthetic, consumer-oriented world. When Styrene fantasises about becoming Hitler on 'Plastic Bag', it's telling that after proclaiming herself "ruler of the universe" she sounds even more excited to be "ruler of the supermarkets".

Could such an album as Germfree Adolescents appear today? I think not. It's too guileless, too freewheeling and the product of too singular a vision to be midwifed in such an interconnected age. Someone in a suit would say "fewer songs about department stores, please", or a producer would try to 'fix' some of the singing or playing to make it more palatable through a laptop speaker. Never mind - what matters is that X-Ray Spex had day-glo boots on the ground at the right time, breaking down barriers with a gleeful, shack-shaking abandon. Safe journey, Poly Styrene.   

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Abraxas - Santana

 

Provenance: If you ever slapped on a rock compilation or two, it was near-inevitable that you would encounter Santana's version of 'Black Magic Woman' at some point. A good song which stood out from the pack thanks to its sinuous Latin rock rhythms. In comparison, much else sounded altogether a bit 'meat 'n' potatoes'.

Around the time I was first trying to wrest a noise from a guitar my mum worked at a library, which meant that I'd get free access to whatever was on the shelf at the time. Well, one day that happened to be Santana's Caravanserai album, which I really dug. Again, it sounded like little else I had hitherto been exposed to.

So, when the chance came to purchase Abraxas (second hand) for a fiver, it felt like I was hardly gambling with my admittedly meagre earnings from my weekend job. That said, a fiver was big money back then (and still is, right?).

Review: When will Santana undergo the kind of critical re-evaluation that the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan have enjoyed in recent years? Perhaps never; because although the two latter examples probably have stronger overall back catalogues, Santana remains tragically unhip. Yes, he became wildly popular again, for a New York minute, right around the turn of the millennium but even that unlikely comeback was tinged with snobbery. And since then, Carlos Santana hasn't helped his cause with a series of guest-packed, cover-heavy collections that have tried to ape the success of Supernatural with diminishing returns.

Perhaps it's time he engaged a business manager with a little more nous than the Archangel Metatron.

However, going back to the material that put Santana - the man and the eponymously-named band - on the map is a rewarding experience. Albums like Santana III, the aforementioned Caravanserai and today's subject - Abraxas - is to take a trip through some very groovy musical landscapes. The bald fact is that nobody had knitted samba, rock and psychedelia together so successfully, so organically as Santana, and arguably their early run still sets the standard. It also helps matters that Carlos had an instantly identifiable electric guitar tone and a facility with sustain techniques that gave his playing a rich, weeping quality.

Some of it also sounds resoundingly modern; the hypnotic bassline beneath windchimes and hand percussion of opener 'Singing Winds, Crying Beasts' could quite easily be pumping from the subwoofers as the dawn breaks over HawkFest or Bimble Bandada. Another aspect in Santana's favour is that the lightness of the percussion prevents this music from sounding lumpen in a way that, say, Cream or Black Sabbath sometimes do to contemporary ears. Even the lead guitar work hasn't particularly dated, in the sense that it frequently works in the service of the song and never disintegrates into the undisciplined wig-outs that were de rigueur at the time. Jeff Beck is a fine, very fine guitarist but how anybody can endure an entire Beck, Bogert & Appice album is beyond my ken. 

Did anybody attending gigs in the 1970s really enjoy it when Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin took their audience on half-hour noodle odysseys? I would genuinely like to know.

Only three tracks, really, sound rooted in the distant past. Two of them - the acid-rock of 'Hope You're Feeling Better' and 'Mother's Daughter', I like a lot. They're the most straight-ahead numbers here, but with little imagination could be a Shocking Blue and Mountain tracks respectively (again, no bad thing in and of itself). The other one is 'Samba Pa Ti', which has fallen victim to its usage in one of those horrible, soupy Marks and Spencer adverts that turns food into softcore pornography. True, it's the closest to elevator music on Abraxas but along with Fleetwood Mac's 'Albatross', any charm it used to hold has evaporated through its association with pretentious nosh.

However, that does leave a whole heap of really strong material that still sounds fresh - slinky 'Black Magic Woman', the gang-chanted version of Tito Puente's 'Oye Como Va', the jazzy 'Incident At Neshabur' (a reference to Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution, apparently) and the aggressive chord-stabs of 'Se A Cabo' all possess a sprinkling of magic. Incidentally, my Duolingo Spanish tells me that the latter should be called 'Se Acabo' ("it's over") - pero, es posible que estoy incorrecto! Anyway, Abraxas is great, a supple counterpoint to the chest-beating testosterock that was in vogue, and, like the band itself, is long due reappraisal.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Van Halen - Van Halen

 

Provenance: One of those albums I felt I "had" to have as a rock fan, along with Boston's debut and Appetite For Destruction. Can you be a rock fan without listening to Aerosmith, Guns N Roses and Van Halen? Sure, but that's like being an English Literature scholar and dismissing the canon of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens et al. There is a (sometimes) Dead White Men reading list for longhairs, and Van Halen is on it.

I bought this from Essential Music in Bournemouth, probably my favourite music store of all time (though Tower Records in Shibuya, Tokyo runs it close). Part of the fun was the perma-scowling proprietor, who would no doubt much prefer if we spent our money on the Smashing Pumpkins or the Violent Femmes, but had to seethe in silence as my friends and I kept bringing Metallica and ZZ Top jewel cases to his desk. 

Review: The first couple of times I heard Van Halen, I didn't get it. Ask me now and I think it's not only one of the most important milestones in hard rock, but also an incredible listening experience. One of my favourite albums, for sure. However, the first few spins left me puzzled. Yes, it rocked, and the guitar work was phenomenal, but it seemed different in a slightly uncanny way.

Listening again, I can hear what confused the teenage version of myself; it's the tactile qualities of the sound, which was unlike anything else I'd hitherto experienced. Everything else I'd listened to had a kind of solidity to it that Van Halen lacks. Which isn't a mark against Van Halen - on the contrary, it's one of the more extraordinary elements to this album. We are talking about the late Eddie Van Halen's famous 'Brown Sound'. Whereas other electric guitar tones sound wiry, metallic and often harsh, here's a sound that is unctuous, splashy and warm. This was guitar as plasma - a shift from the earthbound, prosaic tones that had previously dominated, yet there was nothing unsubstantial about it.

Of course, this wouldn't be too much to write home about if it weren't for the fact that the individual wielding this space-age sound wasn't a virtuoso. I've had a good twenty years with Van Halen and it remains probably my very favourite 'guitar' album. Successors to the guitar god crown, like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Paul Gilbert may have been technically more accomplished, but none of them get close to the sense of freewheeling abandonment that EVH conjures up with his seemingly off-the-cuff pyrotechnics. As evidence, I would submit 'I'm The One', an up-tempo rocker kicked up a few notches from 'good' to 'outstanding' by the pop-eyed way Eddie wrangles his instrument, coaxing out ever more outrageous sounds with the most wild swing feeling to his playing. You know what it sounds like? A shit ton of FUN.

Speaking of which, that's another aspect to Van Halen that comes through loud and clear. Although the fabled Punk Year Zero had already happened by the time this platter dropped, many of the big stadium beasts endured. Fat, lazy and complacent, yes, but still lurching their way around the arena circuit, plying their constipated brand of blooz rock with ever diminishing returns. Above all else, these bands sounded altogether too serious, too pretentious by half - one gets the impression they'd not only sniff their own farts approvingly, but also recommend they pair nicely with a '68 DRC pinot noir.

Van Halen - and Van Halen - swept that all away. Of course, there were bands who understood rock could be a laff before Van Halen - Slade, Kiss, the Dictators, Alice Cooper - but something changed with this doozy. On top of a warmer sound, you also had the one-man party that was David Lee Roth, a gorgeous blonde apparition who karate-kicked and back-flipped his way through the live show. He might not have been the best singer around - hell, there's a case to be made that bassist Michael Anthony was the best singer in Van Halen - but even on record, he had the same spark evident in Bon Scott of AC/DC, which gave the impression that he was always having a grand old time.

An amusing part of looking back at Van Halen is seeing how critics at the time reacted. Fairly unfavourably, as it turns out! Robert Christgau, who couldn't review hard rock or metal to save his life, predicted Van Halen would go the way of Deep Purple et al into turgidity (which, whilst Roth was in the band, never happened), whilst another compares Eddie's playing with that of Jimmy Page or Joe Walsh. What the fuck? Okay, Van Halen didn't spring forth fully formed from the head of Zeus, but to put a trotter like Walsh next to EVH is so off beam as to be laughable. If we're talking antecedents, the big one for me is Montrose, which also did quirky and playful things with guitar, and the good-time sensibilities of 'Bad Motor Scooter' or 'Good Rockin' Tonight' would've fit snugly onto Van Halen (the beginning of 'On Fire' actually resembles Montrose's 'Space Station No. 5', to my old ears anyhow). You could also make the case that David Lee Roth was like a turbo-charged version of Black Oak Arkansas frontman 'Big' Jim 'Dandy' Mangrum, another flaxen-haired barnstormer who brought an aw-shucks charm to proceedings. 

However, neither of those acts could've pulled off the feat of making bar-band stalwart 'You Really Got Me' sound so fresh and exciting, nor could they have dreamt of the headrush craziness of 'Atomic Punk'. Returning to the theme of 'fun', who else would've slammed down a composition like 'Eruption' on the table? This was, pure and simple, Eddie and the boys saying "can your favourite guitarist do this?", and the answer was, no, absolutely not. However, because everything is kept so light and breezy, the braggadocio and confidence on display make you smile - there's no side, no pretension, just four guys kicking out the jams.

One could, if gripped by a bilious mood, also point the finger at Van Halen as the inspiration of the many deep crimes committed by the hair metal genre. It's fair to say that without Van Halen, there wouldn't have been a slew of hair farmers finger-tapping their solos and squealing about havin' nuthin' but a good time. So what? Every important cultural artefact inspires a clutch of lesser imitators. Many tried, but none were able to match the gusto, the ambition and the controlled lunacy of Van Halen. I've enjoyed listening to it so much whilst writing this review, I'm skipping straight back to the beginning.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

The Long Good Friday OST - Francis Monkman

 

Provenance: Unlike most good movies, this one is going to be heavy on exposition. How I obtained the soundtrack to The Long Good Friday is simple enough - I bought it from an online retailer - but the journey leading to that point was somewhat longwinded. No fan of brevity I, so I'll indulge myself a little.

As a youngster I was an avid listener to late night radio. This initially meant falling asleep to the strains of oldies station Classic Gold (828 AM!), later graduating to Talk Radio (1053/1089 AM) before settling on BBC Radio Five Live (909/693 AM), a habit I continue to observe to the present day. My first encounter with the theme to The Long Good Friday was as the intro music to one of the Talk Radio presenters, whose name escapes me now. I do recall, however, that James Whale used 'Junkie Chase' from Curtis Mayfield's Superfly soundtrack as his theme.

At some point or another in my teens, I actually got around to watching The Long Good Friday, and I still recall registering the little jolt of surprise that it featured the Talk Radio music. Still, a good track is a good track, so I went to sniff it out at HMV, the only place pre-Amazon where I felt I had a fighting chance of getting hold of it. As it so happens the OST was in the dog-eared catalogue under the counter, so I ordered it, waiting a good two years for it to show up. Every time I went to load up on Joe Satriani or Bad Company albums, I'd enquire at the desk, and the same sad-eyed man in the scruffy polo shirt would tell me no, my soundtrack hadn't arrived.

And that, my friends, was that. I bought the DVD (one of about four films I physically own), have enjoyed the film a few times, recommended it to friends and then quite forgot about the soundtrack. Until, one day at work, I ventured an ill-advised Harold Shand impersonation, which opened the floodgates of my memory to the extent that the same evening I had found and purchased The Long Good Friday OST on CD. It arrived at my flat within three days.

As an aside, it's Easter Sunday and, hey hey, I'm doing The Long Good Friday. This is about the second time I've deliberately themed a review, not something I imagine I'll repeat in a hurry because I'm too lazy to look up birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Nonetheless, happy Easter.

Review: Before Amazon we had the HMV in-store catalogue (which to my mind, contained all the music worth owning); likewise, before we had Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels we had The Long Good Friday. I like both films, but the latter is the far more accomplished and intelligent gangster flick. Starring Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren and Charlie from Casualty, it's the story of mobster Harold Shand (Hoskins) attempting to cut a property deal with an American crime syndicate whilst, simultaneously, doing battle with the IRA after a botched money-drop.

It captures a fascinating time and place - Shand as an avatar of the dawning age of Thatcherism, trying to go legit with the redevelopment of London Docklands. Footage of the Docklands area, portrayed here as a grimy wasteland dotted with scrapyards and abandoned wharves is in itself a time capsule of a bygone age; the expensive flats and high-rise offices now on the site of riverine industry are not uncontentious in themselves. Here, fiction and reality intersect - watch this fascinating conversation between Hoskins and Barry Norman to see where the emotional nexus of The Long Good Friday originates from.

Final note about the film - whilst not in-depth, writing from Brexit Britain it's interesting to hear East End gangster Shand waxing lyrical about how London soon be considered the capital of Europe. Later, when the Americans get cold feet, Shand threatens to partner instead with "a German mob - the krauts!" and parts with the rejoinder, "what I’m looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world: culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than a ’ot dog, know what I mean?" All rather strange, given the desperation with which the government of the day has tried, latterly, to cosy up to President Trump, the very epitome of transatlantic crassness that Shand so derides.

Wait - isn't this a music blog?

So, to Francis Monkman's (he of Curved Air fame) original soundtrack - a tough one to review, because outside of the main title theme, it feels unfair to comment on music divorced from the images it was meant to illuminate. This is nothing like, say, the aforementioned Superfly soundtrack, which Mayfield wrote as an impressionistic commentary to the film's action. It's straight-down-the-line stuff for the most part, aside from a sticky reggae number that begins promisingly but falls down on an ill-advised - and poorly executed - vocal by Hoskins, here doing a Jamaican accent

Having said all that, the incidental music is rather fun! Just like the main theme, many of the successive tracks combine keyboard and synthesizer with traditional instrumentation, a marriage that still feels fresh. Flutes compete with square waveform synths, slashing bursts of electronic static scythe through Philly soul string arrangements, all to great effect. There's the merest intuition that some cues have been taken from Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, but everyone borrows from everyone, so why fuss? The exception to this is a delicate, and quite beautiful, solo guitar piece called 'Sarabande in B Minor / Guitar Flamenco'. 

Ultimately, it's Monkman's main theme I came for, and to this day it doesn't disappoint. Urgent, juddering synthesizers set the pulse of not only the track but also the ramping tension of the film, before everything is swamped with the exuberant blart of a showband horn section. Squidging (the correct technical term, I believe) these two disparate ideas together is a musical exercise in tightrope walking, but it works; the effect is electrifying. Crystal Palace used to run out to this music, don'tchaknow!

Don't worry about this OST - I needed to have it, a compulsion to right a (perceived) wrong of the past made me do it. Instead, experience this music in its proper context by watching The Long Good Friday. You could even treat yourself to a 'ot dog or two whilst doing so - know what I mean?