Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Cheryl Cole feat. - 3 Words

I was surprised to hear that Cheryl Cole was releasing a new single. Her debut single, Fight For This Love, seemed such a singular, cataclysmic Event I thought that pop music as we know it was thus rendered obsolete aswell as making everything you and I hold dear seem pointless. Such was the foaming-at-the-mouth, piss-your-pants hoo-haa it caused upon it’s release one could be forgiven for thinking it had cured both AIDS and cancer in one diamante'd swoop. How wrong one can be.

Our Cheryl is set to release her follow-up single, 3 Words, on 20th December in what can only be assumed to be her stab at making Christmas Number 1.

The song, featuring album collaborator of the Black Eyed Peas, is unique in its uniformity. It’s not distinctly awful in any particular way, nor is it jaw-droppingly progressive. Instead, it ploughs the steady, no-risk electro-pop field which has served Kylie Minogue so well for the last decade (I keep forgetting the Noughties are coming to an end. Scary stuff). I’d love to sit here with bile dripping from my fangs and lay into it with the venom of a pissed off pensioner but it just doesn’t rile those emotions. It is too darn comfortable.

If anything, the talking point of it's release is the video in which Mrs. Cole wears a blonde wig for a bit. Pop Music is eating itself again...

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Intros Round

This weekend just departed I took a trip to Abingdon, near Oxford, to visit a friend for his birthday. Another friend of mine picked me up from Bath (ironically at a notorious dogging spot) and off we went down the M-something or other, music throbbing from the speakers of the car.

As we approached Abingdon the speakers began oozing the inimitable treacle of a Motown number. It was Heard it Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye. I turned to the driver of the vehicle and said “It has to be the greatest intro of all time”. It’s menacing yet seductive, unsure yet confident – everything all at once. It got me thinking about similarly majestic introductions to songs and here be a small list (Come on, I didn’t think about it all weekend):

Reach Out, I’ll Be There – The Four Tops: Four bars of windswept raw emotion from Motown’s hit machine, Holland-Dozier-Holland. Perfection.

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones: Despite having heard it almost as many times as Mick Jagger has paid off pregnant supermodels, it is probably the greatest riff of them all.

Help! – The Beatles: With so many to choose from it is impossible to pick just one but this 1965 single positively jumps out of the speakers with electrifying insistence.

20th Century Boy – T. Rex: Guaranteed to blow any set of speakers when played loud, never have two solitary notes sounded so bloody raunchy.

This Charming Man – The Smiths: Johnny Marr’s riff dances merrily from his guitar on arguably the Smiths most recognisable track.

Be My Baby – The Ronnettes: Generally lauded as one of the finest pop songs ever written, it’s all about that beat. Not bad for a murderer (Phil Spector).

Wouldn’t it be Nice? – The Beach Boys: Yes, Good Vibrations is probably the better song but this sun-baked, stoned and skewered intro captures the simple, child-like essence which make the Beach Boys so appealing.

Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads: Kicks in with all the bombast of a flaming hot, funky meteor landing in your lap from nowhere.

Fashion - David Bowie: I know, I know; my unhealthy addiction to David Bowie infiltrates every darn aspect of my life to the point where I only like people on the proviso that they like David Bowie but the synthy upbeat is an exceptionally wry observation on the mindless conformity of the songs subject matter. The listener is fooled from the off.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Wolfmother - Cosmic Egg

Having garnered both commercial and critical success with their eponymous 2005 debut album, Aussie retro-rockers Wolfmother fell apart due to musical differences. Seriously. Even their break-up was heavily indebted to Rock’s golden era. However, singer/guitarist Andrew Stockdale clung onto the name, recruited three presumably passive musicians and made a follow up album, Cosmic Egg.

To say that Stockdale continues where he left off on Wolfmother’s previous album is like saying Hitler was a bit of a knob. By that I mean a grand understatement. This latest offering could easily have been packaged as a double album with it’s predecessor such are the similarities and continued themes such as sorcery, staring vacantly into oblivion’s still valleys, naked, having lost your clothes, and yet more sorcery.

In the intervening four years between albums it is instantly clear that Stockdale hasn’t been listening to any new music whatsoever. The inspiration and influences which helped shape the band’s debut are still ever-present: The White Stripes guitar stylings on New Moon Rising screech and scream like a banshee whilst White Feather is AC/DC at their most radio-friendly; elsewhere the colossal Zeppelin-like stomp of Sundial and 10,000 Feet strut cockily onward.

When it’s good the album is a force to be reckoned with. California Queen gallops forth into a tie-dyed sunset and Pilgrim piles on more Priapismic riffage. Ah, the riffs. There are some truly filthy riffs present throughout - riffs so mucky you’ll feel compelled to have a wash after listening.

However, when the album is bad it’s pretty nullifying. The record lets itself down on In the Morning, a self-indulgent track with a genteel introduction exploding into beaming power-chords before descending into a rambling guitar solo/wank. Far Away is a tepid stab at the power-ballad and the song “most likely to encourage holding lighters aloft”. It even has a bit of November Rain ivory tinkling at the end.

Final track Violence of the Sun is the album’s Altamont. A droning, dying beast, thrashing around in it’s own excretia with it’s last ounces of energy, it provides little comfort. In fact, it’s mildly distressing.

This isn’t groundbreaking in any conceivable interpretation of the word yet it is never meant to be. This is Guitar Music for the Guitar Hero generation; guitar solo as proof of ability, riff as king. A celebration of the glorious overblown pomposity of Rock music, Cosmic Egg is a stoned, shaggy album, tailor-made for beach parties whose attendees are Gap models with Rolling Stones tongues on their t-shirts. Tell Jim Morrisson I said Hi, maaaan.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Revolving Door Policy: Ever-Changing Faces in Pop and Rock

As you may have heard last week the earth-shattering news was delivered that Keisha Buchannan, the only original surviving-member of British girl-group Sugababes, was leaving. She claims she was forced out, but that’s not the point. The point is that Jade Ewen, Britain’s fifth-placed singing doll at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, will be the seventh person to have “sung” in the group in eleven years – looking more and more like a political coup by the day: Founding member, gathering dust, ousted for fresher blood by the sexy, sexy underlings.

And that got me thinking. Music groups, just like groups of people in general, are inevitably going to have rifts and arguments and full-blown bust ups. New people will come and new people will go. In the music industry however, does the original line up necessarily mean the best?

It’s a tough one to answer. You may think John, Paul, George and Ringo had been mates for many, many years before encountering stratospheric success as the Beatles, but that’s not the case. John’s friend from art school, Stuart Sutcliffe, and drummer Pete Best made up the original line up during long days and nights, pilled up to the eyeballs in seedy Hamburg clubs. Sutcliffe was to later die from a brain haemorrhage, Best was replaced by the more showbiz Ringo Starr. Cue the changing of the world.

Then there are the Rolling Stones. If ever a band had a revolving door policy it was the Stones. Due partly to the fact that the list of musicians who have played on their records over the years is as long as Mick Jagger’s list of conquests (well, not quite) the Stones may pose for photoshoots as a quartet but really, since the late-sixties at least, they have always employed a wealth of backing singers and musicians. Original bassist Bill Wyman left in the early nineties. He was easily replaced. It is the role of Keith Richards’ guitar partner which has seen the most chopping and changing down the years.

Originally Brian Jones, his tenure was brought to an abrupt end after he drowned in his swimming pool. Replaced by Mick Taylor, the Stones then embarked on the most productive phase of their career, producing a string of albums which they have failed, often spectacularly, to top since. Taylor, like so many others, was drained by the vampiric nature of the Stones and their lifestyle and Ronnie Wood was brought in to fill the void. Keith Richards’ best buddy, Wood has been playing solid lead guitar with the band for the best part of 34 years now, yet in that time the Stones have failed to reach the exhilarating peaks of the Mick Taylor years.

A more contemporary look will lead us to Take That, reincarnated as Topman mannequins, all stubble, earthy tones and turtle necks. Their success in the early-nineties was founded on a blend of personalities: Gary Barlow as the homely songwriter; Mark Owen as the baby-faced cutie; Robbie Williams as the daft lad-about-town; Jason Orange and Howard Donald as, well, muscled dancers. When Robbie Williams left it also showed that he was the only one with the balls, or vision, to do so. Could you have imagined Howard Donald storming off in a maelstrom of cocaine and booze to venture into the unknown, into the land of the solo career? It took a lot of guts, I hand Williams that.

After plodding on for a few more singles the band finally split, only to re-emerge in the mid-noughties. People now said how mature they were to which I thought, “How could they be any less mature than what they were? In one of their earlier videos they were writhing around in jelly and ice-cream for heaven’s sake...” They are now more successful than they ever were. The screaming girls may be mothers now but the band can count themselves amongst British pop’s elite.

And then there are those dedicated, faithful groups, cohesive units closer than family itself.
One that instantly comes to mind is U2. Originally called Feedback, the band has been together for the best part of 33 years, lasting longer than a worrying amount of marriages. They, like every other band, have had their heated moments yet instead of anyone walking out or being sacked (not even bassist Adam Clayton was punished when he missed a gig in Sydney due to being drunk; instead the other members skilfully guided him towards spiritual enlightenment) they re-invented themselves from post-punk kids to stately, globe-harnessing rockers, via pony-tailed, religious charmers of America and nihilistic Rock Gods. This way they always kept things fresh.

ABBA are another group who, for better or worse, remained with each other until they stopped making music. You couldn’t imagine another member replacing one of the originals though, could you? For a start it would be dangerous to upset the cosy palindrome effect of their name: could you imagine ABAG? DBBA? ZBBA? This would make auditioning a new member a curious process (“Name must begin with an A...”)

Personality also plays a significant role. The Beatles, as John, Paul, George and Ringo were so distinct. The same applies to the core of the Stones; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ relationship is one of Rock’s most treasured possessions.

Personality, in that respect, isn’t often mentioned in the same sentence as the word Sugababes. They are essentially backing singers mashed together like a hideous creature from the Island of Dr. Moreau. They are simply not loved enough for anyone to give a shit.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Top 10 Les Paul Players

Only within the last couple of hours has news filtered through that Les Paul, the creator of one of the most iconic guitars in music, has died at the age of 94 in New York.

Along with the Fender Stratocaster, the Les Paul is instantly recognisable as a design classic, yet it is the Les Paul which is favoured more among rock musicians.
So, here is a hastily compiled list of ten Les Paul players in the Rock idiom:

1. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin, pictured) – With his Les Paul slung down by his knees, Page is the template by which all Les Paul users go by.
2. Slash (Guns ‘n Roses) – Remarkable is the fact that he could actually put the thing on.
3. Mick RonsonThe Les Paul player in the glam era.
4. James Dean Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers) – Used a Les Paul thrillingly on the Manic’s snarling early records.
5. Jeff Beck – Now a Fender Stratocaster player, Beck was, in the 60s, synonymous with the Les Paul.
6. Eric Clapton – Like Beck, Clapton is seldom seen nowadays without a Fender Stratocaster, yet his early career saw him use a Les Paul replete with a Marshall amp and more tone and sustain to wave a stick at. Perfect for bludgeoning Blues.
7. James Hetfield (Metallica) – With a pneumatic right hand, Hetfield’s Les Paul takes one hell of a beating.
8. Marc Bolan (T Rex) – With that pout, perm and Paul (Les), who could possibly resist?
9. Neil Young – When rocking out, Young usually goes for a well-worn black number.
10. Nigel Tufnel (Spinal Tap) – “The sustain, listen to it...”

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Peter Andre - Behind Closed Doors

As Peter Andre continues his charm/nausea offensive following his split from Katie Price, this week sees him release the first single from his ever-impending album.

Behind Closed Doors is stodge-pop by numbers. It starts, it finishes. The bit in the middle has crunchy guitars, a beat which is an abhorrent attempt at creating Timbaland-style balladry, and a new approach to vocals from Andre. Gone is the over-sexed saccharine squeal, swapped here for a gruff, pseudo-mature husk which is as transparent as Andre is expendable.

Expect the lyrics to be interpreted as a looking glass into the Andre-Price’s pea-brained world. Expect everyone to like it in an ironic way too.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Coffee and Cake - 8th August 2009

Addison Road in Kings Heath is quiet as the sun sits high above in an immaculately clear sky. Strolling down this street with a bag of cold beers, I was wondering where I was being taken for I was in the Midlands for the weekend paying a visit to a certain young lady and one of the things we had planned as entertainment was to go to something called Coffee and Cake. My host had been before and described the situation to me: Local freelance journalist Cassie-Philomena Smyth hosts a free, monthly event which showcases local musical talent in the serene setting of the back garden of her terraced house. Whilst some invites are sent out it also relies upon word of mouth promotion; ultimately you are encouraged to just come along and enjoy the music, all very relaxed y’know.

I am real nervous.

We finally reach the house and, tentatively shifting down a darkened side-alley, we make our way into the garden. It is a long yet narrow space with moderately tall fencing either side and a scattering of people are sitting on the grass, looking dreamily up at Tom Peel who is sat with just an acoustic guitar, the first act of the day.

There is a heady cocktail of utopian contentment, beaming sunshine and great music which grabs you by both hands, leading you towards the music, as soon as you enter (I was half-expecting someone to put flowers in my hair); everyone seems to be getting on well, plenty of smiling and woozy grinning, and the quality of the music is astonishing.

Despite many of the acts being restricted to the minimalism of acoustic instruments, the differing styles provide enough contrasts to keep the audience interested; from the loose rhythms of Tom Peel to the youthful exuberance of Tantrums, no act could be charged with sounding like the one before.

Goodnight Lenin! perform for the first time in front of an audience and deliver a highly confident set, binded by luscious vocal harmonies; Greg Smith’s self-deprecating humour wins the crowd over, his music a scuzzy, scratchy indie fare. We are then treated to some performance poetry from Jodi Ann Bickley whose sharp, funny and painfully honest observations (on the rockiness of love in particular) have the audience both captivated and howling with laughter.

Other highlights include Ali Forbes whose delicately measured vocals and guitar, receive rapturous applause from the ever-increasing crowd. By now the garden is a blossoming, bustling place as more and more people slip in. Anna Palmer (aka Little Palm) wows the crowd as she is accompanied by her electric keyboard and drummer (don’t worry, he is only using a snare drum with his bare hands – it hasn’t descended into MTV –style pseudo-acoustic wooliness). Her jaunty pop-jazz, coupled with her acrobatic vocals, provide yet more variety to the proceedings.

It’d be far too easy to compare it with something like Woodstock and its naive hippy idealism (and besides, the haircuts were far too edgy) but one certainly had a sense of being part of something whilst sitting there with what essentially was a small amount of people but enough to make the day feel like an event. Is this the future? Is this how all gigs will be in five, ten, years’ time? I can’t provide such answers, I’m only a humble farm-boy, but by the time it was dark and everyone was all fuzzy from drink, I found myself blabbering away to whoever was sat around, telling them how great I thought it was. No doubt I’ll see them there next time. A wonderful day.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Green Day - 21 Guns

Hurray! Green Day are back to show us all how messed up politics and the world are at the moment. The problem is no one seems to have told them George Bush jnr. isn’t President anymore and that God’s cool older brother Barack is here to save the day (unless he ‘does a Blair’ and fucks it all up).

The song itself is a stagnant ballad if ever I heard one, a spluttering regurgitation of the previously-released Boulevard of Broken Dreams. It plods along in such a turgid fashion it makes a ticking clock sound like majestic fireworks.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Michael Jackson Memorial Service - Staples Centre, Los Angeles, California - 8th July 2009

“They’re not taking his body to that concert, are they?” my mum asked incredulously as we watched Michael Jackson’s coffin loaded into a gleaming hearse which was soon gliding along a Los Angeles freeway bathed in beautiful sunlight, making its way to the Staples Centre for the King of Pop’s memorial service.
“Yep,” I said, with an acceptance only a child of the 90s could possess.

And so Michael Jackson was wheeled into a packed out arena for the lucky few thousand to mourn his passing and celebrate his life.

As expected, a whole cavalcade of ‘slebs shared their memories of Jackson. These fame-drenched admirers ranged from the over-achieving (Queen Latifa) to the genuinely genial (Berry Gordy – not realising the irony when he said Jackson “...was driven by his hunger to learn…to constantly top himself”), all the while giving their verdict on the man’s talents and legacy. The most interesting stories came from those who had known Jackson personally for a number of years, those from the Motown family (all of whom had an unsettling waxy quality about their appearance). Their stories offered an insight into Jackson the practical joker, the loyal friend, the dutiful young man. All of this was delivered in front of the Jackson family who occupied the front row; the exhausting amount brothers, each wearing a single spangled glove, sisters Janet and LaToya, mother Katharine and the villain of the piece, father Joe.

Others recycled the same crap which has been repeated, parrot-like, since his demise. Crap such as “He was a one off” and “He made the world a better place”. When Usher claimed “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Michael Jackson,” I thought to myself Then he has a lot to answer for...

The musical tributes were as patchy as the details of his death. Mariah’s hatchet job of I'll Be There, Stevie Wonder’s tender Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer (a voice of truest gold), Jermaine Jackson’s brittle Smile, Usher’s bog-fucking-standard Gone Too Soon; this was clearly not the time to celebrate his best music, the funkier upbeat numbers, but instead to wallow in melancholy and Jackson’s ballads.

A final Hey Judian hurrah ended proceedings with group singalongs of We Are the World and Heal the World before one of Michael’s children, Paris, spoke. For a child who had spent a sizeable chunk of her life behind a shroud or a veil for reasons of privacy, here she was, in front of thousands at the Centre and millions watching around the world, to deliver a simple message of her father. Only the most granite-hearted were not moved. One of the lesser Jacksons thanked the masses as the Jackson clan quickly exited stage right.

You may not believe me but such is the twisted, gnarled and horrifying world of Fame that Jackson once occupied as it's mad Overlord I was genuinely expecting him to somehow rise from his coffin and declare the whole thing a publicity stunt. I was also expecting dancing elephants, African tribesmen moonwalking in unison and lots of wind-machines. I certainly wasn’t expecting the brutally sombre affair delivered. Then I watched something else.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Franz Ferdinand ~ Can't Stop Feeling

Ok, try to overlook the fact that the introduction sounds like a naff early-noughties Bacardi ad or the opening music to a chat show even shittier than Graham Norton’s. Now try to ignore that there isn’t really a chorus and that it’s stultifyingly cosy.

What you need to tell yourself is that it has a clammy charm, a tight-chested intimacy which is perfect for those sweaty bars and lurid clubs you frequent (yeah, I’ve seen you) and, above all, they haven’t lost it just yet.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Freemasons ft. Sophie Ellis-Bextor ~ Heartbreak (Make Me a Dancer)

Sophie Ellis-Bextor's latest attempt to resurrect her 'career' sees her joined by chart-bothering dance production team Freemasons.

EB's plummy diction aside, one could easily imagine hearing this embedded somewhere in the middle of the Eurovision Song Contest, sung by a lovely Hungarian 'woman' or by a teeth 'n tits Latvian.

Summery enough, yet sounds as convincing as me telling you I'm fully clothed as I write this.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Brian Jones 1942-1969

French philosopher Rene Descartes once remarked that the greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as the greatest virtues. This is Brian Jones, who died forty years ago on the 3rd July, in a nutshell. His death can be counted as one of the more mysterious rock deaths, but Jones has the distinction of being rock’s first major casualty – and the first member of the idiom’s notorious '27 Club'.

Born Lewis Brian Hopkin Jones on 28th February 1942 into a neat middle-class family in leafy Cheltenham, Jones found himself in and out of trouble almost from birth. Having fathered three children by his early twenties his rebellious, uncontrollable nature was matched only by a dazzling intellect, often excelling academically, as well as a prodigious musical talent which saw him gain an understanding of any instrument put in front of him.

After quitting school (not before getting his then fourteen year-old girlfriend pregnant) and nomadically travelling Europe, he returned to England, relocating to London in the late 1950s. It was here he met Michael Jagger and Keith Richards for the first time; the two of them hearing Jones in a London club, mesmerised by the boy with the perfectly conditioned blonde hair and crystal blue eyes, playing sensual, soaring slide guitar. Their mutual love of the blues drew the three of them together and, accompanied by Charlie Watts on drums, Bill Wyman on bass guitar and Ian Stewart on piano, they became The Rolling Stones.

And it was his band. He came up with the name, attracted all the women to the gigs when Mick and Keith were still just spotty, awkward kids and acted as the group’s manager in their embryonic state (Jones would often receive more money than the others for gigs, something he kept secret from them for years). Jones couldn't write a tune to save his life and it was only when Mick and Keith were forced by the Stones' eventual manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, to write their own songs that Jones lost control on the one thing in his life which seemed to bring him solace.

Alcohol, drugs, paranoia, busts and bust-ups; these were the thing which punctuated the latter years of Jones’ life.

Having been ousted from any position of real authority within the band, Jones found he had little to contribute as Jagger and Richards went about forming their rock-solid songwriting partnership, with each song building on the now runaway success of the last hit. He would often turn up to the studio blind drunk, stoned out of his mind or in a different state altogether thanks to the vast array of pills he used to wash down with bottles of brandy. Just about able to sit slouched on the studio floor he would drift in and out of consciousness, leaving the other band members to slyly unplug his electric guitar, a musical euthanasia which put him out of his, and their, misery.

He seemed to find a degree of happiness with Swedish beauty Anita Pallenberg, yet his capricious mood led him to frequently hit her. She wasn’t the first of his girlfriends he had beaten. When Pallenberg left Jones for Richards during a holiday the three of them took to Morocco in 1967, it appeared that this was the final nail in Jones’ fastly-approaching coffin.

Since he was found face down in his swimming pool, his death has been the subject of many lurid tabloid tales and is firmly located within the stained corridors of rock folklore, yet one thing is certain: Jones was an exceptionally insecure, narcissistic man who could treat people with both vulgarity and sincerity in equal measure. He was one of the first casualties of rock yet one feels he would have burned himself out eventually, rock star or not.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

A Glimpse of a Wednesday Afternoon

As I was on the bus earlier I eavesdropped on a conversation with a couple of old ladies. One said to the other, "I'm reading a lovely book at the moment. I forget what it's called but it's about a young woman who becomes pregnant before the war, but then her husband dies. Eventually she begins working in a cinema, and cinemas were privately owned back then mind, and she works her way up to become the manager. It really is a lovely book."

Then I thought about what I was currently reading: A book in which a class of 42 Asian students are selected by their authoritarian government to wage war on one another in a brutal and blood-soaked fight to the death until there is one remaining survivor who is cruelly labelled the victor. The book? Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. And it really is a lovely book.

Monday, 1 June 2009

And last, but not least: Criminally overlooked musicians in the modern era.

You know the sort of moment I mean. That moment when you’re listening to a song you’ve heard hundreds of times before, a song which has tattooed itself onto your very soul, and suddenly you notice some new dimension to the track; something you somehow failed to notice yet which makes the song that much more revelatory. It happened the other day when I was casually listening to The Smiths’ Barbarism Begins at Home from their album Meat is Murder. The song is up there with the band’s funkiest moments but all of a sudden I found myself physically locked into the groove provided by the bass and drums. Sure, Morrissey’s lyrics are astoundingly astute and Johnny Marr’s slinky guitar gets the limbs a-movin’, but the rhythm section suddenly broke free, demanding to be recognised.

So, here is a hastily assembled list of criminally overlooked musicians who have struggled to muscle past chiselled frontmen or cool-as-fuck guitar heroes. Enjoy. (WARNING: You will have heard of all of these bands)

*Andy Rourke + Mike Joyce ~ The Smiths: Considering it was these two gentlemen who inspired me to write this it is only right that I begin with them. Unable to bustle past Morrissey’s ego and Johnny Marr’s arrangement prowess, these two likely lads provided an unshakeable rhythm section to the 80s most treasured peddlers of glum. From the happy-go-lucky bounce of the band’s more jangly moments to the soft, tender grooves of the more heartfelt numbers, Joyce and Rourke never let you down. They could rock it with the best of them aswell. Take the title track from The Queen is Dead: that rhythm section takes some stopping.

*George Harrison ~ The Beatles: For all the genius of Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting, George Harrison was always on hand to deliver a preposterously cool riff or tasteful solo. Practically inventing the notion of the lead guitarist, his own songs weren’t bad either: just as the band were falling apart amidst petty arguments and messy legal wrangling, Harrison dug deep and wrote some of the bands most iconic songs (While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Here Comes the Sun). Never one to bask in the limelight, he was, as Dave Grohl once put it, “the secret weapon”.

*John Paul Jones ~ Led Zeppelin: You’re probably thinking Who? but Led Zeppelin wouldn’t have been the same without him. The heaviest band of them all needed a special type of bass player to work alongside John Bonham and that man was mild-mannered John Paul Jones. A former session man, his knowledge was as vast as it came. Simply, he could play anything. As quiet as a doormouse, Jones’ basslines made Zep that much heavier.

*Mick Taylor ~ The Rolling Stones: Stepping into a dead man’s pair of snakeskin cowboy boots can’t be easy but when Mick Taylor replaced Brian Jones after the latter had decided to go for an impromptu swim it heralded a rapaciously creative period for the Stones, arguably their finest era. Joining the band as an introverted vegan and leaving as a full blown junkie, Taylor always let his guitar playing do the talking yet it didn’t so much talk as sing the sweetest tune imaginable. His flowing melodies danced a merry dance over Keith Richards’ raunchy riffs to create a string of records not matched by the band since. And Richards will never find a better guitar partner.

*Carlos Alomar ~ David Bowie: When David Bowie put his glitter jump-suit back in his dressing up box and embarked on a romance with Philadelphia soul in the mid-seventies, he replaced guitar legend Mick Ronson with slick sessioneer Carlos Alomar. Alomar’s influence was immediate; steering clear of distorted riffs he instead helped Bowie move towards and altogether smoother sound, taking the occasional co-writing credit in the process. Arrangements were now grander and Bowie found a brand new audience with his album Young Americans. Alomar stayed on the Bowie payroll longer than any other musician and helped the latter push boundaries well into the 80s. Bowie never sounded funkier.

*Stuart Copeland + Andy Summers ~ The Police: Don’t worry, it’s still cool to think Sting a twat, but his cod-Jamaican vocals would have sounded infinitely dafter were it not for messrs Copeland and Summers unique playing style. The former’s drum prowess borders on the genial, providing the clipped, syncopated rhythms to which the foot cannot help but tap to; the latter’s guitar technique was probably considered too technically accomplished in post-punk Britain. The band broke up hating each other, so nothing new there then. Then they got back together in 2008, but who didn’t?

Rest easy dear friend, I’m sure you are raging at that the fact that there are others who should be on this list but who aren’t. If so, then feel free to send me your suggestions. I would naturally be interested to be enlightened to more fantastic musicians.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz! (2009)

When I first saw a picture of Karen O, spoon-faced singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I entertained unsavoury thoughts such as I reckon she knows how to service herself with an empty beer bottle. I couldn’t help it, she just had that look about her. I then had the pleasure of listening to the band’s debut album, Fever to Tell, and found that the songs were about things like, well, servicing yourself with empty beer bottles and non-committal oral sex. Not that that was a bad thing, mind. Instead Ms. O’s manic, often hysterical vocal style aligned itself perfectly with the scuzzy, grimy New York sound produced by two geeks who looked like they still lived with their mothers, creating a revelatory vacuum of noise.

Then something peculiar happened: Karen O suddenly found an otherwise unrealised maturity and started singing about ethereal subject matter as the band ‘grew up’ on their second long-player Show Your Bones. Maturity – the moustachioed bastard antagonist of Rock. But wait, it didn’t matter because the songs were still as stylish as before but they were just a smidgen more evenly produced. Gone were the chainsaw guitars and walls-came-tumblin’-down drums, replaced instead by vast expanses of synthesizers and ‘Big’ drums creating monstrous, unoccupied canyons into which you could jump gleefully.

I’m now told it is 2009 and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ride into town once more on their spangly horses, brandishing ten new songs on their new album It’s Blitz!

If you haven’t heard album opener Zero by now then I’m afraid you are a Philistine at best. What an opener though! Exploding with a euphoria designed purely for sweaty dancefloor encounters, the song can easily count itself amongst the tracks of the year already. Following this dizzying tirade, Heads Will Roll entices the listener in with its vacuous synths before the guitars pound along with muscular abandon keeping the party mood afloat.

The band have always insisted that they can pull at the heart strings with the best of them but all of a sudden, three songs in, they throw a couple of maudlin bad boys on the listener. Not that they’re bad songs: Softshock is a beautifully intoxicating number, continually gaining frenzied passion and makes a convincing case of being the album’s highlight, whilst Skeletons mines the dewy-eyed tenderness of Maps to great effect.

Then it all gets a little muddy as the band seems to run out of ideas, relying upon predictable riffs on Dull Life and the safety net of the quaint ballad. That’s not to say that it’s a clear-cut, black and white album of two halves. There are still magical moments to be had: Shame and Fortune has the menace of one hundred schoolgirls brandishing kitchen knives, whilst Runaway harnesses icy feelings of loneliness with expertise. Dragon Queen gets all funky and sounds like CSS (remember them?) but, for fuck’s sake, there it is again. That voice. Whilst Karen O has one of the most distinctive female voices in modern rock, don’t you just wish she belted out a few numbers from time to time like her protégé Beth Ditto? (Although I’m informed Karen doesn’t have the range, darling).

The album parts with the ears in unremarkable fashion: Hysteric is a sunny pop song whilst closing number Little Shadow delves into the irritating ‘Look-How-Fucking-Quaint-And- Smug-We-Can-Be’ hamper one last time.

So, is the album a glorious success or a failure ne’er to be mentioned upon these shores again? Well, it’s neither really. It seldom sounds as visceral as they once were, nor does it appear to break any new ground: ultimately it sounds like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs making a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album. It seems to wrap itself up nice and tightly in a purgatorial fur coat and just feels damn good about itself, which is a shame because for an album that starts with truly unbelievable promise it ends up not putting up much of a fight. Why do people have to grow up?

Thursday, 2 April 2009

David Bowie - Young Americans (1975)

No one does re-invention quite like David Bowie. After moving from hirsute Folk-Rock to trashy Glam in the early-seventies, his next move would prove to be his most shocking yet. Confounding his Glam disciples he re-emerged as a smooth operating practitioner of Philadelphia Soul with the album Young Americans. True, the transition had been coming; embarking on the second half of his infamous Diamond Dogs tour in 1974 the Philly influences were apparent – a slicker sound, grander arrangements – as Bowie had absorbed blue-eyed soul music like only he could: by drowning himself in the music and its concurrent scene.

Always, always, surrounding himself with the most brilliant musicians Bowie’s dalliance with Soul yielded a remarkable album that proved he was capable of mastering any field of music he turned his hand to. Opening with the lusciously lucid title track the listener is treated with a design of things to come: a big, confident sound full of yearning emotion. The elegant ‘Win’ is as heartfelt as you are likely to hear whilst ‘Fascination’ (co-written with Luther Vandross who is part of the sumptuous backing vocal group throughout) delivers a funky bounce as infectious as the bubonic plague.

Elsewhere, ‘Right’ delivers a cool latino shake and the opulent ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ is delivered with religious fervour, played in the funkiest church you’re likely to visit this side of Suffragette City.

Was his version of the Beatles' ‘Across the Universe’ a wise move? That’s for you to decide but it certainly is a valiant attempt. The delicately poised ‘Can You Hear Me’ makes amends and could easily be sung by Dusty Springfield or any other soul great.

The album closes with the highly-stylised funk of ‘Fame’. Co-written with guitarist Carlos Alomar and John Lennon, the song takes a wry look at globe-eating stardom and, ironically, delivered Bowie his first US no. 1.

The music here is distinctly upbeat, positive and relaxed, something which was incongruous with Bowie’s whirlwind, drug-addled life at the time. Ditching the theatrical wail of his glam period and instead mining his sumptuous baritone, Bowie’s voice lends the songs here an almost soothing quality yet fortunately it all verges just the right side of easy-listening. A gloriously intoxicating album and one which furthered his ever-rising star.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Lady GaGa - Poker Face (single)

Who the hell does Lady GaGa think she is? Actually, who the hell is Lady GaGa? You turn your back from the pop scene for thirty seconds and suddenly a new peroxide-blonde upstart is wearing a bin bag and gyrating your way on screen. This latest pop offering releases her second single, Poker Face, on Monday and you just know the song is going to be played in Turkish discos.

Drawing that great parallel between gambling and love (whether to stick or twist, keep your cards close to your chest, blah blah fucking blah) the song betrays GaGa’s Wild Child image and opts for cosy synths and a particularly limp chorus. Alternately it could be about oral sex – try and picture the boisterous geezers on dancefloors shouting “‘Ere, I’d like to Poke ‘er Face! Oi! Oi!”

She’ll probably be huge because I just don’t know anymore.

Iggy Pop - The Idiot (1977)

It’s hard to imagine just how fucked up Iggy Pop was back in the mid-seventies. As the Stooges crumbled in a murky swamp of drugs and death Pop found himself a broken shell of a man, the result of an intense heroin addiction. After an ever-increasing series of embarrassingly pathetic incidents, both on-stage and off-, he checked himself into a mental institution where he claims his only consistent visitor was David Bowie, something of an old acquaintance from headier, bygone days in London after Pop re-located there after yet another Stooges meltdown. It is fair to say that Bowie helped Pop tremendously in his recovery from his serious problems yet Iggy returned the favour, assisting Bowie through a period of crippling cocaine use.

So, as Bowie absorbed the Pop into his now-downsized inner-sanctum, the two set about writing and recording an album to be known as The Idiot. It certainly holds its own place in Rock history: it was the album Ian Curtis listened to when he decided to hang himself. Contrary to Curtis’ dramatic reaction to the record it is, in reality, a mighty fine offering from the pint-sized rocker.

Partly recorded in France and Germany (Bowie’s fascination with Krautrock present throughout) the album is notable for Bowie’s role as producer and co-writer. It says something so deliciously apt about Iggy Pop, the perennial almost-was, that one of his finest, most focused and personal albums has someone else looming ominously over proceedings; here it is Bowie as puppetmaster. Despite some mystery over who features on the album it is generally perceived that the music is practically all Bowie’s whilst Pop deals primarily with lyrical duties.

The album opens with 'Sister Midnight', an exercise in measured funk courtesy of Bowie’s superb rhythm section of Dennis Davis and George Murray complimented by the grandly talented Carlos Alomar on guitar (here taking a writing credit).

From here the album wears it’s electronic, postmodern influences on its sleeve, most notably on the clunky 'Mass Production' and the post-punk classic 'Nightclubbing'; the latter is as sleazy and lecherous as you’re likely to hear, its lobotomized beat and stabbed synths creeping along with menacing detachment . The creepy 'Baby' sees Pop’s croon at its most melancholy and features the delightful line ‘Maybe there’s nothing to see/ I’ve already been down the street of chance’.

Delving deeper, Pop casts a nostalgic eye back on his days in the Stooges with 'Dum Dum Boys', a song which exposes the singer as a lonely soul, abandoned by his brothers when he most needed them. Shouting, ‘Where are ya now I need ya?’ he sounds battered and bruised, yearning for a simplicity the past, and drugs, have laid waste to.

The albums centrepiece, however, is the impossibly brilliant 'China Girl'. Far superior to Bowie’s glossy attempt six years later, this version grooves around euphoric melodies before Pop adopts a pained, strained vocal as the song gallops away into the distance, leaving this listener slack-jawed in awe. A breathtaking song.

For those thinking that this is some sort of ‘rehab’ album for the Motor-City native, they are grossly mistaken; he was still battling many demons during this period of his life and the album chronicles a man merely picking up the pieces. Generally overlooked in the Iggy Pop canon, The Idiot is a pale, anaemic album (check out the vampiric 'Funtime') which rarely looks optimistically on proceedings. It does, however, chronicle a particular flux one of Rock’s most inimitable characters was going through and the listener can’t help but root for him throughout. Just don’t mention car insurance.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Rolling Stones - Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out (1970)

Live albums can often be patchy affairs. Live Rolling Stones albums are often patchier. However, one thing which can be said about them is that they certainly reflect the particular phase the band would have been going through at the time. From 1982’s Still Life when they just didn’t care anymore to 1991’s Flashpoint which captured them as the well-oiled money-making monster we know and love(?) today, the evolution of the band has always been caught on tape. The quality of the recorded show is also dependent on Keith Richards’ own dependence on drugs.

The Rolling Stones first official live album, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, was recorded in late 1969 as part of an American tour, their first tour anywhere since the halcyon days of 1967 when the band couldn’t hear themselves over the screaming girls who would leave auditoriums stinking of piss. The band now faced a different challenge: the audience were there to actually listen to their music, so the band bumped up the amplification, the length of the show, everything.

The album begins with the band’s now-trademark recording claiming them to be ‘The Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band in The World’ – first used on this tour – and, on listening to the album, one really can’t argue with the claim. Capturing a band embarking on the peak years of their career as both a live act and as a recording group the album is drenched in the sex and death blues which they so excelled at.

The tracklisting isn’t instantly recognisable for fans expecting yet another run through of 'Satisfaction' or 'Get Off of My Cloud' – but doesn’t that make it all the more exciting? Here the Stones flex their blues muscles with renditions of Robert Johnson’s lonesome 'Love in Vain' - sounding like one of those perfect concert moments where time and unexplained emotions are perfectly crystallised - as well as the creeping 'Stray Cat Blues'. Yet it is the utterly menacing 'Midnight Rambler' where the true magic of the album lies. Stretched out to nine minutes Keith Richards’ raunchy riff (does he know any other?) is gradually replaced by a bluesy breakdown, the essence of the blues dripping from Richards and Mick Taylor’s fingers.

For those who possess a sketchy knowledge of the Stones there is enough here to remain satisfied. 'Jumpin Jack Flash' is played with heady abandon whilst 'Honky Tonk Women' is dispatched with glorious enthusiasm. 'Sympathy For The Devil' bounces along intoxicatingly as Mick Taylor screams and wails on his Les Paul (his playing deliciously gorgeous as usual) and the welcome inclusion of 'Live With Me', including a fantastically bum note right at the start of the song, harks back to the band’s R ’n B roots (never has a group of skinny white cockneys sounded like a troupe of black Chicago natives). There is of course a couple of Chuck Berry numbers, 'Carol' and 'Little Queenie', to keep Keith Richards happy.

They were the baddest band on the planet during this epoch, a time when hippy idealism was being booted in the head, and no band anywhere possessed such an inherent sense of danger or a knack of backing it up. The performance recorded here captures a band in fine live form and, more importantly, having a hell of a time on stage. And to think Altamont was just over a week away...

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Late of the Pier + Support - Komedia, Bath - 23.02.09

Standing across the street from Bath’s shiny new Komedia club I puff on my cigarette. The red neon sign bathes the pavement and washes over those in the respectably hefty queue. An aesthetic dominates: angular haircuts and fine facial hair for the boys, similarly geometric haircuts and shimmering, multicoloured leggings for the girls. I think I spot someone who is over 21.

Komedia’s neo-classical opulence appears better suited to opera than sweaty Rock ‘n Roll but no one minds as groups of students and teenagers huddle in groups in front of the stage, no doubt exchanging tips on what shampoos to use (or not, in some cases).

‘Thank you for clapping; people sometimes throw things at me after the first song’, says Connan Mockasin, standing alone with his guitar. Flitting from the psychedelic to the haunting to the unashamedly catchy, he manipulates his guitar like a Hawaiian Jimi Hendrix, bending and twisting notes out of all recognition. His songs take off properly when he is joined by his drummer, gaining a ramshackle bounce which would make Jack White proud.

Four young men walk on the stage looking like they’ve just spent the day in Topman. They are Post War Years and they are criminally ripping off Foals. It is so painfully predictable, so painfully now that half of the audience are resigned to obligingly pay attention whilst the other half lap it up like Pavlov’s dog as the band lay on synths and clipped guitars over jarred, fidgety drums. Keep looking interested and move slowly towards the bar...

As the house lights go down, a wave of clammy anticipation washes over the venue. Late of the Pier launch headlong into singles 'Space and the Woods' and 'Heartbeat' and the sound is thunderous. The brittle synths and keyboards are replaced by thick zaps of sound, the bass threatens to bring the walls down and my nostrils actually start quivering.

Looking like the confused offspring of Gary Numan and Freddie Mercury, they are dressed in capes and binliners as they storm through Fantasy Black Channel. The band whip the pit of teenagers at the front of the stage into a hot, sticky frenzy; 'Focker' is a particular highlight grabbing the audience by the neck and refusing to let go until it has its way. Which it does.

As they play their final song, 'Bathroom Gurgle', the band is looking drained. Vocalist Samuel Dust is sitting on one of the speakers dangling a beige dap on the end of a hospital-thin leg out towards the audience who are trying to get a touch of their hero. They don’t quite reach. They never will.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

David Bowie - Low (1977)

Ask someone what 1977 represents in music and the answer is invariably the explosion of Punk. Punk Rock’s primary policy was to bulldoze the Establishment into touch yet David Bowie was always aloofly separated from the Establishment despite his stratospheric success. Whilst Punk was gobbing away in London, Bowie had set up shop in Berlin with Brian Eno to begin work on a set of albums which would come to be known as his ‘Berlin trilogy’.

However, this was no holiday. After spending the first half of the seventies in a vacuum of cocaine, Bowie’s move was a type of rehab: shutting himself off in a bleak and fractured Berlin wrought with social and political tension, he was rid of the slimy hangers-on, the yes men and (the majority of) his drug dealers which had been following him for the previous five or so years as his star rose and rose.

Low was the first album of this new musical path. The album could easily be viewed as an apt metaphor for Berlin itself; an album split into two distinct halves – the decadent and the bruised.
If Bowie was experiencing a new clarity of mind then it is obvious from the off. Opener Speed of Life (one of four instrumentals on the album) strides forward triumphantly with the determined optimism of someone who thinks the only way from here is up. The perky Breaking Glass follows with its strolling funk, showing that Bowie had lost none of his precision showmanship.

The album’s first single Sound and Vision continues the upbeat mood with its rubber drums before Be My Wife (verging on self-pity) and Always Crashing in the Same Car (a sombre admission of clumsiness, both physical and emotional) ease the listener into the album’s more textured landscapes.

The tracks co-written with Brian Eno have the ubiquitous producer’s mark stamped all over them. Warszawa is a grand gesture complete with primal howls whilst Art Decade is unsettling and haunting; both songs perfect for a German Art-House flick never released in a cinema (not one near you anyway).

The album has something of a futile, limp ending. Weeping Wall comes and goes without kicking up any fuss whatsoever whilst Subterraneans meekly rounds things off (although it does feature some cool smoky sax).

Bowie’s glam disciples were thrown off track with his previous effort Station to Station, yet these were the same fans who felt bemused at his foray into ersatz-Soul. Low heralded a new era of experimentation and furthered artistic restlessness and the album shows an artist unafraid to confront demons and forge new musical expression. It alienated fans even further but by this point Bowie had more than earned his right to do what he damn-well pleased. (8/10)