Monday, 31 December 2012

An Alphabet of Records!

I wanted something clever/significant to end the year with, but couldn't fink of nuffink, so here's a randomly-chosed A - Z from my record collection (apologies for any overlap with other posts). Not sure yet that I'll have something for each letter but let's see!

A is for Frankie Avalon: Gingerbread/Blue Betty (HMV, 1958)
Frankie Avalon is mainly derided for being typical of the kind of manufactured light rock 'n' roll/pop that made The Beatles necessary, but this record, despite its cutesy lyrics, is not just parent-friendly, safe faux r'n'r (though it is that), it is great high energy teen rock/pop, and why not?
B is for B-52s:  Wild Planet (Island, 1980)
By far the best of the B-52s' many good albums, this one has career-defining greats like 'Give Me Back My Man' and 'Private Idaho' as well as (for added entertainment value) Kate Pierson's beehive hairdo & Fred Schneider's attempted moustache on the cover.
C is for Chumbawamba: Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records (Agit-Prop, 1986)
Lightyears away from their unexpected (to say the least) hit single, 'Tubthumping' (now being used in a TV advert, which is pretty ironic for many reasons), this is an album which is mainly notable for it's criticism of Live Aid, which the band convincingly potrays as an exercise in millionaire guilt-assuaging with mainly negative consequences for the Third World. The music is a strange not-very-intense crust-punk, not as memorable as one would like but still somehow satisfying. Their sound was to progress strangely, becoming more pop-dance-sample friendly with 1990's Slap! and then more commercial (literally, as it turns out) pop-punk in later years...

D is for Bob Dylan: Nashville Skyline (CBS, 1968)

Not a huge fan of Bob Dylan; detest country music mostly, including Johnny Cash (who guests here). But this album is nice. Dylan's mellower, post accident voice is warm and pleasant, the music is pretty and fairly skeletal and it all works. Even better is that somehow I have an odd Taiwanese edition with a strange thin papery sleeve....
E is for Brian Eno/David Byrne: My Life In The Bush of Ghosts (EG, 1981)
Predictably, this semi-ambient album was a good 10-15 years ahead of its time, using found sounds, samples and beats. It's great.
F is for 'Fatal' Microbes: Violence Growns (Small Wonder, 1978)
This single is a classic of the late punk era, very post-Siouxie vocally and made (judging by the band photo, see below) by a bunch of High School kids, the title track is ambitious and a bit of a drag, but 'Beautiful Pictures' is just a great punk-pop song.
G is for Girlschool: Demolition (Bronze, 1980)
The 'female version of Motorhead' are at their most intense on this relentless NWOBHM album. Better, some (me) might say than Motorhead, although that might be controversial.
H is for Bo Hansson: Music Inspired By Lord of the Rings (Charisma, 1972)
In comparison with Howard Shore’s soundtracks to the Lord of the Rings movies, or indeed the epic atmospheric black metal of Austria’s Summoning (2006’s Oath Bound being an especially strong and accessible example), Bo Hansson’s LOTR album is kind of jazzy (sometimes inappropriately funky) and ineffectual. On the other hand, on those terms it’s an enjoyable Mike Oldfield-ish time capsule of its era.
I is for Iron Maiden: Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (EMI, 1988)
At the time it seemed to many that Seventh Son was another example of Maiden losing their edge, but in retrospect it was the last in a series of truly great albums and to this day stands as one of their best. What is great is that they encapsulate all of their ambitious, progressive tendencies, but in songs that are concise, catchy and powerful.
J is for Jobriath: Creatures of the Street (Elektra, 1974)
Despite the fact that his eponymous 1973 album had expensively flopped, Jobriath was given another chance with this peculiarity; while it is still essentially glam rock, here he brought in the influence of musicals and a kind of Cabaret-esque Germanic decadence, plus pinches of folk, Rolling Stones influences and some genuinely lovely heartfelt romanticism (such as opening track ‘Heartbeat’). Taken altogether it proved – not surprisingly – to be hardly anyone’s cup of tea, and was to be his swansong, which is a shame.
K is for Killing Joke: Killing Joke (EG, 1980)
Legendarily grim industrial post-punk, what is less often mentioned about this classic debut is that, like Joy Division (but even more so), the band had an ear for a catchy pop tune, most notably ‘The Wait’ and ‘Wardance’, which may well be dark and brooding, but is also accessible and of its time in an almost chart-worthy (indeed the latter actually did chart in the US, slightly).
L is for Lionheart: Hot Tonight (Epic, 1984)
Ex-Iron Maiden guitarist Dennis Stratton’s Lionheart were in theory a far more radio-friendly proposition than Maiden themselves; don’t think they got much airplay though. With a glossier production this would sound like a big American hair metal album. As it is, it’s an endearingly scruffy attempt at US style anthemic rock by some less-than-glamorous Londoners.
M is for Milk ‘N Cookies: Milk ‘N’ Cookies (Island, 1975)
Milk ‘N’ Cookies are a strangely British sounding New York band, something akin to the teenybopper tail end of glam rock made by bands like Hello, Bay City Rollers, Buster et al. Although not all great, it has a mix of energy and cutesyness that makes it enjoyable in small doses.
N is for The Nutty Squirrels: Uh-Oh! parts 1 & 2 (Pye, 1959)
Essentially a rip-off of The Chipmunks (whose first records were made in 1958, though it would be a few years before they appeared in cartoons), this single was far less successful, probably because where the Chipmunks sang pop hits, the Nutty Squirrels played a far cooler (but guitar based) kind of BeBop/Jazz, complete with (inevitably high pitched) shouts of ‘yeah man!’ etc. It’s fun.
O is for October Falls: The Streams of the End (Debemur Morti, 2006)
As nature-centric, tuneful, folk-influenced post-black metal, Finland’s October Falls preceded (and then were absorbed into) the current post-BM/shoegaze scene. This EP is as good a record of the band’s beautiful yet bleak style as any; lovely and autumnal, even at its most aggressive.
P is for Pilot: From The Album of the Same Name (EMI, 1974)
One of the few successful bands ever to have come from Edinburgh, Pilot suffered a slight lack of credibility due to founders David Paton and Billy Lyall’s connections to an early incarnation of The Bay City Rollers, but in actuality they were good enough musicians to have graced recordings by Kate Bush, The Alan Parsons Project etc, and their own music bore little relation to the glam pop of the Rollers. This album, while essentially a pop-rock record, is sometimes complex, jazzy, subtle and affecting and was the first in a series of underrated albums long overdue for rediscovery.
Q is for Queen: Hot Space (EMI, 1982)
Far from a fan favourite, Hot Space nevertheless features some of Queen’s least characteristic and most underrated songs, such as the disco-inflected ‘Dancer’ and Freddie Mercury’s tribute to the then recently-deceased John Lennon, ‘Life is Real’.
R is for David Rhodes: Baroque Guitar and Lute (Titanic, 1975)
Just the nicest baroque guitar album I have heard; delicate, lovely and with a wistful atmosphere that matches the Watteau picture on the sleeve.
S is for The Staple Singers: Will The Circle Be Unbroken (Buddha, 1968?)
Not at all funky, this mainly gospel album instead features beautiful singing (of course) and the atmospheric, shimmering, reverb-laden guitar of Pops Staples.
T is for The Tigers: The Tigers Story Vol 1 (Polydor, 1970)
The Tigers may be one of the least credible of Japan’s ‘Group Sounds’ bands, but this anthology shows that, like their Western counterparts The Monkees, there was a lot of skill and inventiveness involved in the commercial, bandwagon-jumping pop music they created.
U is for Uriah Heep: Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble (Bronze, 1970)
Derided by the music press as Led Zeppelin clones, this debut is nevertheless one of the greatest hard rock LPs of the 1970s, and rarely bears more than the slightest resemblance to Led Zep and that probably owes more to the band’s blues/hippy roots than to direct influence. If you like 70s hard rock listen to this album. You may not like it, of course.
V is for The Vapors: New Clear Days (United Artists, 1980)
One of the albums of the new wave era, it’s a shame that The Vapors are mainly known for the near-novelty hit ‘Turning Japanese’. Admittedly it is one of the standout tracks, but the whole is nevertheless a good solid album.
W is for Stevie Wonder: Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants (Motown, 1979)
Okay, not one of his classics, but it is unthinkable that Stevie Wonder in the 70s would release a double album with no good tracks; and of course he didn’t. The soundtrack to a rarely seen documentary, this doesn’t include any great soul-funk-pop singles, or even much in the way of vocals, but it’s an often beautiful and evocative piece of work.
X is for X-Ray Spex: Germ Free Adolescents (EMI, 1978)
One of the truly iconic albums of the punk explosion, unlike many contemporaries, X-Ray Spex were not scared to use elements (notably saxophone) deemed uncool by the movement as a whole, and this album is rebellious in its enthusiasm and playfulness as much as in its rejection of things like pitch perfect singing and musicianliness.
Y is for Neil Young: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Reprise, 1969)
A classic. Nice dog, too.
Z is for Frank Zappa: Overnite Sensation (DiscReet, 1973)
This album marked a point where Zappa seemed to have tired (temporarily) of the restless experimentation of the Mothers of Invention and played something no less accomplished, but more dynamic, concise and commercial. Although many find post-Mothers Zappa offensively puerile, that’s the point. And it’s good.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

I'll Be the Judge; when artists are WRONG

It’s nice to be self-deprecating, but although I would never like to tell an artist they aren’t the best judge of their own work, sometimes they just AREN’T THE BEST JUDGES OF THEIR OWN WORK. See below: 

Exhibit A:

Kiss – Unmasked (Casablanca, 1980)
In their authorised biography Behind the Mask, both Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons give Unmasked one star (out of five), but this is largely because they are judging it on entirely foolish criteria (i.e., how ‘heavy’ it isn’t). Aside from perhaps Creatures of the Night, Kiss were never really a heavy band anyway, and their real forte was and is the cheesy rock anthem. On Unmasked (where admittedly they cheated the public by remaining masked), they take the pop-rock sound of Stanley & Simmons’ ’78 solo albums and 79’s disco-inflected Dynasty and make a great collection of songs that compares well with contemporaries like Cheap Trick and New England. Toning down the hard rock posturing a little also allows Gene to give some of his better vocal performances. Plus, the unprecedented three Ace Frehley tracks on here are among his best, showing him once again as the George Harrison of Kiss (kind of).

Exhibit A pt 2:

Kiss – Double Platinum (1978)

On which Kiss remixed a double album’s worth of some of their best early songs, removing the atmosphere and sleazy-glam edge in the process. Anyone who thinks Strutter ’78 is better than Strutter (1974) doesn’t deserve ears.


Exhibit B:

George Lucas – Star Wars (1977 etc)

Have you ever met anyone who didn’t think the original release of Star Wars wasn’t the best version? Nope, it’s just George Lucas - leave it alone George!


Exhibit C:

William Wordsworth: The Prelude (1805 & 1850)

Way to take all of the life out of a poem, William! The original 1805 version of The Prelude (and even more so the 1799 ‘two part Prelude’) is still fresh and moving. The ‘final’ version is Victorian and long-winded. Same goes for his old mate Coleridge’s revisions.


Exhibit D:

The Beach Boys/Brian Wilson: Smile (1967, 2004 etc)               

There are many (until recently mostly bootleg) versions of The Beach Boys’ Smile available and all of them, even the peculiar compromised official 1967 release Smiley Smile are better than Brian Wilson’s technically faultless, but somehow plastic 2004 version. It’s hard to say exactly what is lacking but something is.

 Exhibit F:

Leonardo Da Vinci – Virgin of the Rocks (c. 1486 and c.1508)

The later version of the Virgin of the Rocks shows Leonardo going for a cleaner, harder-edged, more polished effect, but completely changing the atmosphere and, more importantly, losing some of the life and warmth of the original in the process. Details of the angel’s face clearly show the difference; it’s easy to see how the later version is more ‘perfect’, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better.


Exhibit G:
Iron Maiden: Prowler (1980 and 1988)

It’s fairly indisputable that Bruce Dickinson is a ‘better’ singer than Paul Di’Anno, but Prowler ’88 (the B side to the classic Dickinson-led single The Evil That Men Do clearly demonstrates that he is not better at singing Paul Di’Anno’s songs than the man himself. But it’s not just Bruce’s fault; Steve Harris has always criticised the ‘bees in a jar’ guitar sound of the first Iron Maiden album, but it’s all part of the album’s rough, street-metal charm. Prowler, with its atmospheric, edgy, wah-wah tinged tone sounds like the sleazy everyday story of a low-level sex-pest, the ’88 version of Maiden were not capable of anything so undramatic.

Maiden also repeated this folly with the ‘remixed’ artwork of the first album when re-released in the 2000s – who could prefer the overdone ‘red eyes’ version to the classic, not-all-that-metal-looking original Eddie?


Exhibit H:

Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention: We’re Only In It For The Money (1967 etc)
The original 1967 Mothers album is, needless to say, a bit silly; it is ridiculously eclectic and accomplished and has lots of speeded up vocals and things in the classic Mothers style. The Frank Zappa remastered edition from the 90s has been cleaned up and tweaked and made strangely little toylike and even sillier and has removed any kind of dirt, atmosphere or period charm. Frank preferred it that way but really the only thing superior about it is that it sounds very clear.


More pointless record-based nonsense...

One of the fun things about being an impulsive buyer of cheap second hand records is looking back over the collection and seeing some of the stranger little detours that have occurred over the years. Such as...

Lena Lim – Golden Voice of Lena Lim Vol. 6 (Amigo, 1970?)

Bought in a charity shop out of curiosity (and for the sleeve) in the hope that it would be along the lines of Singaporean beat-popster Rita Chao, but sadly not. Lena has a nice (“golden”?) voice but the songs are on the whole slightly forgettable, despite the presence of Singapore’s top Shadows-style backing band, the Stylers. There is, though, a great and strangely enunciated cover of Tom Jones’ immortal Delilah.


Sounds of Judson (Prestige, 1979)

The appeal of this record (another charity shop purchase) is hard to explain; basically it is an aural prospectus for Judson College, Marion, Alabama (the USA’s ‘fifth oldest women’s college’; ) and consists of a virtual tour of the College and its grounds and facilities, with hockey cheers, choir rehearsals, the school song, interviews with staff members etc. According to the sleevenote by Betty L. Campbell of the music department, ‘this record captures sounds of Judson in permanent fashion. It reflects a day, a year [1979], special times and people. Everything recorded was made at an actual event, with nothing rehearsed.’ Which is why it is valuable; or pointlessly boring, depending on your point of view.


Buster – Buster (RCA, 1977)

Basically a too-late cash-in on the Bay City Rollers, this limp glam-pop album sports two good songs, Saturday Night (not the Rollers one) and Sunday. It is also the home of the weakest cover of Born To Be Wild imaginable.


Andres Segovia – Masters of the Guitar (Decca 1956)

Bought (along with King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, Free’s Tons of Sobs and Pete Sinfield’s Still at a church coffee morning (50p each, near-mint condition!), this ended up being the album of the day that I listened to the most. Segovia plays works by two of the great composers for guitar, fellow Spaniards Fernando Sor and Francisco Tarrega. It’s a beautiful and atmospheric record.


The Indo-British Ensemble - Curried Jazz (EMI 1969)

This excellent album was bought on the strength of the (dubious) name & cover. It is basically a late-60s fusion of modern jazz with traditional Indian instruments (notably the sitar). Lovely music that deserved better than the rather silly, kitsch treatment it received from EMI. Kind of glad it didn’t get it though.


Black Widow – Sacrifice (CBS 1970)

Bought in a second hand shop for a pound because of its notoriety-value, this may be one of the earliest Satanic rock LPs, but it’s also pretty boring semi-progressive, semi-jazzy hippy rock. Even the cartoonish demonic illustration in the inner sleeve is kind of stupid.
Still, Black Widow did make some good music, I would recommend the bonus 10” with their recent See’s The Light Of Day reissue for some excellent late 60s occult nonsense.


Rahul Dev Burman – Yaadon Ki Baaraat OST (Polydor, 1976)

Judging by the sleeve (and the music), this album is the soundtrack to the Bollywood equivalent of a James Bond-meets-rock 'n' roll movie. It’s excellent stuff, very 60s for the 70s, with much reverb-drenched guitar and unearthly high-pitched vocals. Many of the tracks are just some fragmentary, very westernised guitar riffs, mixed with more typically Indian elements. Bought with a lot of other Bollywood soundtracks in a charity shop, this was by far the best of the bunch, with the Mehbooba soundtrack (far less western-inflected) a close second.


Jobriath – Jobriath (Elektra, 1973)

This (and the follow-up Creatures of the Street) turned up for £1 each in my favourite record shop at a time when I had just read (unfavourable things) about Jobriath but really wanted to hear him, this was a few years before the Morrissey-championed reissues of his music were released. I was pleasantly surprised; once you get over the not very easy-on-the-ear Elton John-meets-Mick Jagger twang of Jobriath’s voice this is a good album, with some great campy, flamboyant glam songs. Eddie Kramer produced the album and Peter Frampton is a somewhat unlikely guest star. By contrast, Creatures has two good songs and lots of forgettable stuff.


Bugs Bunny – Bugs Bunny Comes To London (MFP, 1973)

I bought this in the hopes that it would be in some way similar to the all-time classic Spin A Magic Tune, which is full of great funky songs with wah-wah and brass. But sadly not so. There is one semi-decent mod-ish/Carnaby Street/swinging London/beat tune (which makes me wonder if this was actually recorded in the mid-60s) but otherwise a lot of limp forgettable crap. Which is only as it should be.