Shiver Me Timbers

May 4, 2012
3 mins read

Gary Steel rediscover’s music’s potential to get right in

THE OTHER NIGHT I was having dinner at home with my wife, Yoko, while taking in the 20 tracks of a new, locally-compiled compilation of female singers, Lady Got Soul.
We found ourselves mocking this strung-out tragi-comedy of Mary-come-latelasses. Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Adele, Gin Wigmore, Lana Del Rey, Ladi6… all of them were searching for that elusive “soul”, but none of them got past pastiche. It was excruciating.
Then, something amazing happened. Yoko shivered involuntarily, a kind of primal full-body paroxysm. She explained that very occasionally, a voice did that to her. Having considered and quickly discarded the idea of getting in an exorcist, I became ecstatic with the news that, although not an obsessive music nut like myself, Yoko was capable of being deeply moved by the art form.
The voice was that of Nina Simone singing ‘Feeling Good’, a tiny piece of sublime on a very patchy album (other peak moments come courtesy of Etta James, Dusty Springfield, and Aretha Franklin, all of whom make the toneless bawl of Adele sound pathetic, indeed).
In large doses, Simone can be a bit testing. But rhapsody can be all about moments, ‘Moments Of Pleasure’, as Kate Bush sang on one of her best songs. The amazing thing to me was that Simone’s voice, on that 1965 recording, had the ability to cut through a very average, four-year-old Philips BTM 630 micro-system in our dining room and deliver a shiver that cut to the case, and that really said something about the transformative power of music, even if it’s in a decidedly lo-fidelity context.
A few nights later I dug out Marianne Faithful’s Broken English album to play Yoko over dinner. (Okay, okay, I know it’s not the most romantic dinner music…) I had played her the sweet convent-girl, 1960s version of Faithful (‘Come Away With Me’, ‘This Little Bird’) and wanted to demonstrate the shocking changes Mick Jagger and hard drugs had wrought. (The conversation had started with Tom Waits, who also went through a complete sound overhaul in 1983 with the astonishing Swordfishtrombones, but that’s another story…)
I hadn’t played Broken English for decades, and was pretty impressed with it all over again, but perhaps not quite as enraptured as I’d been back in 1979, when it seemed more shocking than punk for an older woman to be releasing an album full of naughty words and bitter and spite.
Then I had the urge to take it upstairs and slap the platter on the “real” stereo, and hear the album for the first time through my Martin Logan speakers. It was time for my own paroxysm. The album burst into life, sounding better than it ever did first time round, the incredible production lifting the songs and providing the perfect choppy New Wave waters for Faithful’s embittered rasp to gain real traction. On the “proper” stereo, Steve Winwood’s synthesisers sounded huge, and buzzed and bubbled away behind the speakers, while Barry Reynolds’ guitars and Terry Stannard’s drums gave the project a sense of urgency.
Broken English should have a certain nostalgic cache for me. After all, it came out the year I started writing record reviews, and it was bathed in controversy, especially in New Zealand and Australia, where consumers were angry that the last song, the caustic and profanity-peppered ‘Why d’Ya Do It’, had been omitted from the disc. Naturally, the album did a brisk trade as an import.
The thing is, I’m not really nostalgic about it at all. At the time, I was aware of the album, and owned a copy, but I was more psyched into “genuine” New Wave, and there was a lot of exciting stuff happening that year, including Pil’s awesome Metal Box, and era-defining releases from bands like XTC, Magazine… in fact, too many to mention.
Listening to Broken English now, it sounds incredibly fresh. Albums like this just don’t get made anymore – where an auteur is given a budget to get on board the very best sessioneers and producers to work up a record that really can’t be pigeonholed musically. To me, one of the great things about the record is that you can hear the mix of music styles that had pervaded London by the late ‘70s, and the combination of sizzling reggae skank and New Wave anger on the aforementioned ‘Why d’Ya Do It?’ reinforces just how poorly reggae and rock have been accommodated in ungodly unions in recent years.
It also makes me realise that some records DO need great stereos to really get their message across. While Nina Simone’s voice somehow carried across the tiny Philips micro-system, Broken English gave me spine-tingles only when I gave it the full frequency treatment. GARY STEEL

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

1 Comment

  1. Simone’s Feeling Good has been ruined for me by all the remixes.

    What sends chills up my spine every time is How Long Must I Wander, even if the piano accompaniment is tinny and naff.

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