Gary Steel is slowly compiling all his album reviews in one place. This is a work in progress, or what we call a “live document”. Today is the letter ‘J’.
Hey, Joe, I never knew you had it in you. It’s not your progress reports on the World Situation, nor your propensity for the odd Grand Gesture or Universal Statement which makes Big World tenable. No, it’s the fine irony in the excellent arrangements, the sense of humour which stops the ship from sinking in its own worthiness.
Joe, you’re to be congratulated for safely containing your toxic schmaltz on Big World, for confounding our expectations with something a little harder, a little bolder than before.
The three sides are recorded ‘live’ before an audience which has been told to shut up, and the result is superior to most studio efforts.
But Joe, your observations on love, (lack of) communication and the resulting deprivation infuse themselves with a realism that your issue songs – no matter how heartfelt they may be – could never aspire to. One side of three is definitive Jackson; the rest ain’t bad at all. 7/10
Michael Jackson – Off The Wall (Epic)
Michael Jackson seriously threatens to steal Stevie Wonder’s crown in the 1980s with Off The Wall. 9/10
After witnessing that preposterous million-dollar Scorcese video, one could be forgiven for withdrawing from the masses and their current consuming passion: Watching Michael Jackson’s every move.
Admittedly, the man moves with style and panache, but this watching seems to have more to do with a morbid voyeurism than anything. Will wacko Jacko cracko? Watch for signs of impending insanity and a new pop casualty, right here on Hyper-vision!
Dissecting the contents of instant soup packets has more moral mettle, more purpose, than revelling in Jackson’s inexplicable, freakish journey from fat-nosed negro kid to incredibly pretty Diana Ross clone. Sure it’s sick. It’s times like these pop fans remind me of those sub-humans who always gather like vultures around the scene of fatal car accidents or the aftermaths of messy fights.
Add these unsavoury elements to the expected hyperbole surrounding pop’s biggest icon, and you have a potentially lethal combination. But somewhere within the belly of the beast is a real talent – or, realistically, a number of talents – as exemplified by Bad, the album. Bad isn’t as good as the fans hoped it would be, it’s better. Like Thriller before it, the new record taps right into the pulse of the moment, and the result is stunning.
Extricated from the video’s excess, ‘Bad’ the song proves the perfect way to begin a seriously funky album. The song’s merits are numerous: Like the rest of the record, the sound quality is incredibly rich (the result of utilising the mysterious “Acusonic Recording Process D”?), the bassline is seductive and memorable, and the message is commendable. Yes, you can be “bad” without doing bad.
‘Bad’ and the next two cuts are the record’s instant highlights. ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ is as close as Jackson ever gets to Prince, with its “You really turn me on” chorus, exciting dance-floor synthesiser programming and phenomenal production. As the following song, ‘Speed Demon’, demonstrates, the latest technology has at last made it possible to multi-track a truly awesome sound. Five years ago, all the sounds here would have become altogether too much by the time it reached humble second-rate consumer vinyl. ‘Speed Demon’ is a massive, stereo-testing whirl of synthetic drum effects, engine roars, squealing synths and truly pulverising bass rhythms. And it is good to dance to!
‘Liberian Girl’ is a pleasantly cruisy love song, and ‘Just Good Friends’ is an ordinary duet with Stevie Wonder, in which the guest singer cranks up his vocal range a few notches to compete with Jackson’s unnaturally high voice. This is the first non-Jackson-written song on Bad, and the other is ‘Man In The Mirror’, which incidentally, also fails to get off the ground.
‘Another Part Of Me’ doesn’t feature Stevie Wonder, but his influence pervades the song structure. Its lyric about everyone being part of everyone else is the kind of cosmic cannelloni that I thought died with the Moody Blues. Oh, they’re still going, you say?
Anyway, ‘Nights In White Satin’ it is not, because it has the groove; a saving grace if ever there was one. ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ is as eminently yawnable on album as on radio, but it sounds nicer, and the record’s rhythms begin working again on ‘Dirty Diana’, a song about a groupie, performed in a style which bears marked resemblance to ‘Beat It’, complete with guitar solo (this time courtesy Steve Stevens of the bleached blonde Idol one’s band). The grand finale, ‘Smooth Criminal’, creates an eerie environment in which someone is about to become the victim. It’s fast and frantic and on-edge.
And that’s it. The new Michael Jackson record. Better than the over-rated Thriller. Inferior to the brilliant Off The Wall. Bad is patchy, and who can tell if it will stand the test of time. It is also the most exciting thing happening, and I couldn’t see myself not possessing the thing. What to make of that? 7/10
Michael Jackson is fast becoming the true heir to the Wonder throne, though those who can remember ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ may still have their doubts.
Certainly his masterful Off The Wall solo album will be the one to beat. In the meantime he’s rejoined his brothers The Jacksons on Triumph, on which he not only composes most of the songs, but sings lead on all.
The best tracks are on the first side (‘Your Ways’, ‘Lovely One’, ‘Can You Feel It’), with the second side dissipating into mostly filler material. Neither the recording, the songs or the arrangements have the class of Michael’s solo LP, with crass brass and screechy strings the order of the disc. Still, the sound is gutsy and Michael’s vocals are in a class of their own. One question remains: How does he reach those notes at 24 years of age?
A major feature of both Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July and Triumph is the flame of optimism being kindled so brightly and the life-joy expressed throughout. Listen to Wonder’s ‘Masterblaster’ or The Jacksons’ ‘Can You Feel It’: “Spread the word and try to teach the man/Who’s hating his brother when hate won’t do/When we’re all the same ‘cause the blood inside me is inside you.” 7/10
Jah Wobble’s Betrayal is the first solo album by Public Image Ltd’s bass player since he departed from the band, and it’s a commendable effort. Less spooky or threatening than PIL, Betrayal is actually quite accessible and entertaining in the normal sense. An addictive listen, the mix is mostly airy synthesisers and Wobble’s own bass (though the local pressing ensures the need to turn the bass knob up considerably) and various other instruments used with dub consistency.
The best tracks are ‘Blueberry Hill’, which he matches with a bass progression from PIL’s Metal Box; ‘TV’, a sort of video nightmare (“Turn off the TV but the image won’t go-oh!”); and ‘Dan McArthur’, a slightly sad instrumental with bass explosions which hit you in the chest. 8/10
The more things change, the more they stay the same. So they say, and though a cliche, this certainly holds true for the majority of musical history.
Look at The Jam, from punk/mod 1977 to punk/psychedelia 1980. Always 13 years late, but in this case that’s no bad thing. Their first two albums, In The City and This Is The Modern World, were minor punk/mod classics. Their third, All Mod Cons, saw a radical change and was acclaimed by the rock press. They had graduated from 1965 to 1967.
Setting Sons continues along the same path as its illustrious predecessor, except for one distinct change: it’s a concept album. No screams of mirth and derision please. The songs all succeed both in and out of context, and the ‘concept’ is not restrictive. But it does bring a sense of purpose and unity to this project.
The Jam’s music retains a portion of its punk bite and energy, but goes also for the whimsical, semi-psychedelic minor chord ditties of The Beatles and The Move. The lyrics display a social and moral conscience similar, but more outright and direct, than that of The Who of The Kinks.
Setting Sons covers related, yet diverse topics of considerable importance in 1980. Topics like war, corruption, government, living, unhappiness, commerce. ‘Burning Sky’ is a letter by someone who has been sucked in and corrupted by Big Business, and he’s making his excuses: “The values that we had once upon a time/Seem stupid now, because the rent must be paid/And some bonds severed and others made.”
Paul Weller, the brain behind The Jam, in ‘Little Boy Soldiers’, sees the futility of war and deceit of government: “Our only contact was a form for the election/These days I find you don’t listen/These days I find we’re out of touch/So why the attention now?/You want my assistance – what have you done for me?” And from the same song: “With a letter to your Mum saying ‘find enclosed one son – one medal and a note’ – to say he won.”
In these subjects, cautionary and outwardly depressing, Weller is premeditating the next step in Britain’s current wave of National Front/Thatcher-induced patriotic fervour. Be warned.
But the music’s what it’s all about. After all, this is no Bob Dylan record. ‘Girl On The Phone’ is indicative of the style found on most of the album. It’s tuneful, with jangling, upfront guitar. Like the rest, it bites and sings. Paul Weller’s vocals are notably different from previous outings. On ‘Thick As Thieves’ he could be a Beatle, and on ‘Private Hell, the Moody Blues come to mind.
As if that’s not change enough, they use cello and acoustic guitar on ‘Little Boy Soldiers’, recorders on ‘Wasteland’ and The Jam Philharmonic Orchestra on ‘Smithers-Jones’. The last-named track makes the best use of string instruments heard within a rock setting since early ELO. The sound is pompous but rich and properly arranged to full effect.
The one oddity on the package is the old Holland/Dozier/Holland classic, ‘Heatwave’ which, although given an enjoyably energetic treatment, lacks the passion of even the Linda Ronstadt version.
The musical styles may not be new, but neither are The Jam revivalists. Paul Weller obviously has his roots in the 1960s but creates new music within the several genres of influence. Setting Sons is a brave album by one of the more important British groups. 7/10
They were called Jason And The NASHVILLE Scorchers, and their country reality was raucous and undeniably scorching. Then they signed to EMI America, their sound took on a rock element, and their record covers got that airless airbrushed look.
If it weren’t for the educative facilities of local expert in all things good and true in white American music W. Lasky, this much I would not know. I don’t know what my friend thinks of Still Standing. While the beast’s been patently tethered and taught circus tricks for the greater entertainment value of the general audience, I too, keep coming back for more.
I’m now a cowboy fan, but the Scorchers still don’t care, and that still makes them special. Maybe the edge has been taken off the electric fences of their adrenal-pump farm, but the sound still sears where it’s meant to, and the songs still live and breathe larger than life, despite an occasional stilted lyric.
The biggest danger for The Scorchers is that they’ll become to country music what The Pogues are to Irish music: echoes of a community adrift and fated for a future of ever-decreasing circles, a trendy representation of a dubious cultural fantasy/identity.
But if there’s any justice in the world, they’ll turn into the new Rolling Stones. If their version of ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ is anything to go by, that’s on the cards. It would be a good thing. The Stones long ago got even too boring to laugh at. 7/10
By-the-book Dixieland jazz tunes spoonfed by New Zealand band. Apart from acute patriotism, one wonders why a music fan shouldn’t go to the original geographical source of the music. 5/10
Jefferson Starship – Freedom At Point Zero (Grunt)
Old hippies never die, it seems. This, the first Starship offering since the unfortunate departure of ice queen Grace Slick, has more life in its grooves than any of their many 1970s albums.
It’s only a partially successful LP, as new blood Micky Thomas (formerly vocalist for the Elvin Bishop band – you’ll remember ‘Fooled Around And Fell In Love’) and Aynsley Dunbar (session drummer supremo) do not write as well as they perform.
Though a spotty album, it’s definitely worth the while of ye olde Airplane fans for the nostalgia of ‘Lightning Rose’ and ‘Things To Come’. Of the new-styled material, only ‘Jane’, the single, stands out amongst the anonymity. Maybe next time. 6/10
The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience – Love Songs (Flying Nun)
The minimalist approach may deter all but the genuinely curious, but there’s charm going spare here. 7/10
1986/Wellington City Magazine
The latest next bit thing from Blighty, critically acclaimed and all that. All I can add is spam and piffle. J&TMC don’t live up to the name, or the reputation for outrage. Away from the hype, the derivative componentry of the music’s assembly is clearly discernible: melancholy Joy Division vocal mannerisms, Spectoresque pop noise, headache-inducing feedback squealing and juvenile lyrics. Inspirational sample: “God spits on my soul/There’s something dead/Inside my hole.” 2/10
Jethro Tull is a funny band. Not as in ha, ha, ha but as in “funny”. Once upon a time, “queer” would have been the description, before that turned into a bogie word. In my youth they were exciting; this manic wild-eyed flautist, Ian Anderson, who adjusted the time signatures of their song-pieces as often as their leader changes his codpieces. They even played soft and loud in the same song, and Anderson’s lyrics (which you could never understand so they must be clever) implied some bitter criticism of society.
The world grew up and realised that Anderson’s musical imagination was limited (if distinctive), and his observations now seemed dull and needlessly wordy.
The pros and cons are all obvious on Original Masters, a reasonably definitive collection that includes all the old favourites: ‘Aqualung’, ‘Locomotive Breath’, ‘Living In The Past’ (well…). Docked a blob for tacky packaging devoid of bio information or song details. 6/10
The Johnnies – Who Killed Johnny? (Johnarchy Records)
December 1982/IT Magazine
Christchurch punk with a laugh and meaning. The Johnnies make enough noise, but lack invention or originality. Great cover! 5/10
Australian groups often lack the distinctive flavour of their Kiwi counterparts, but Oz rock makes up for this deficiency with a large number of quality mainstream units, one of which is Melbourne’s Jo Jo Zep & the Falcons.
The group’s third album, Moving Targets, while lacking the adventure of a Split Enz or cool calculation of a Mi-sex, excels in the quality stakes.
Zep’s music is largely unclassifiable, which probably explains the raw deal this album is getting from much of the music press. But it has rock’n’roll magic in abundance – the kind that makes you want to get up and dance, not listen.
Sometimes Zep uses a reggae beat (as on ‘Hit And Run’, and on a tune worthy of Bob Marley himself, ‘Open Hearted’), but mostly they use a blend of soul, rock and new wave, created to suit the group lineup which features most prominently guitar and sax interplay.
Pete Solley, a British producer, was hired for this venture, and the resulting sound quality is cinemascopic in its wide-screen grandeur.
A limited-edition free live LP is included. This provides adequate demonstration of Zep in a hot’n’sweaty performance, and the sole track on the last side, a nine-minute opus called ‘Cuthulu’, is worth the price of admission alone. 7/10
For a decade the J. Geils Band has been practising their brand of raw, gutsy rhythm and blues oblivious to changing trends. This Boston sextet weathered the onslaught of sterile pomp and turgid heavy metal of the early ‘70s to make some of the most exhilarating, energetic dance music of the modern world.
Unfortunately, exhilaration and energy, as Dr Feelgood and others have discovered, transfer to final vinyl only on rare occasions. To Geils’ credit, they produced a spate of worthy albums: studio efforts such as Bloodshot and Ladies Invited and live bashes such as the classic Fullhouse.
Technology is an overwhelming drawback for such a band though, and more recent albums have been largely uninspired, patchy affairs. But it seems their time has come again with Love Stinks, a mostly successful marriage between modern technology and Geils sound and fury. They haven’t diluted their music so much as assimilated their approach into America’s current fixation for heavy, harmonic power pop.
With the exception of the no-holds-barred energy of ‘Night Time’, all tracks were co-penned by keyboardist Seth Justman (who also produced and arranged the album) and former DJ vocalist Peter Wolf. The standard is well up to scratch. The rest of the band (unchanged since inception) consists of J. Geils himself (guitar), Danny Klein (bass), Stephen Bladd (drums) and Magic Dick (he of the best blues harp this and that side of the great late blues masters).
The best tracks are the long heavy blues of ‘Tryin’ Not To Think About It’ and the old-time Geils sound of ‘Takin’ You Down’ and ‘Night Time’. The rest, while by no means classic Geils, sees the band experimenting and mostly succeeding with sounds such as the single and title track, ‘Love Stinks’ – untypical, jokey yet charming. The subject of the song provides some solace for us unlucky jilted ones. 7/10
This seems like a very shrewd, rude cash-in on Jones’s part. Y’know, hick country singer exploits crossover country-rockers to further his own declining career. But that’s not what we’ve got here at all, folks. Instead, we have fine interpretative country singer Jones duetting and accompanying James Taylor, Elvis Costello, Waylon Jennings, Mavis Staple, Linda Ronstadt and a whole host of others – and coming up trumps.
While the results are short of profound, essentially disparate, the general impression is of a soft-care, pleasantly unwimpish LP… with the exception of Taylor’s cameo. Naturally, it’s only as good as the material, the guests and the way the guests perform, and unsurprisingly the pick of the crop is ‘Nightlife’ (with Waylon), ‘Here We Are’ (with Emmylou Harris) and ‘Gotta Get Drunk’ (with Willie Nelson). Ironically, the best guests are within the country market.
The only embarrassing moments come with the grossly misjudged ‘Proud Mary’ (with Johnny Paycheck) and ‘Stranger In The House’ (Elvis Costello singing country, gawd). Otherwise, worth investigation. 7/10
Like Bowie before her, Jones is substantially more Grace than Substance. Her best work succeeds by doing it in all the right places; it’s a dance movie incorporating a combination of musical elements from the rhythms of reggae to sophisto-disco, and it’s just slinky, sleazy, ambiguous and hard enough.
The best shots are all there on Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life. The best of the best get regurgitated here on this greatest hits, of course, along with lesser material from early disco stabs.
So, if you’re looking for the definitive selection of Great Grace, this is not the place to buy. It is, however, the only way to get gems like ‘Private Life’, ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’, ‘Walking In The Rain’ and ‘My Jamaican Guy’ all on the one package along with the only essential song from her last album, ‘Slave To The Rhythm’. 7/10
Closer will be my album choice for 1980, yet it is not available in New Zealand and is unlikely to be available in the near future.
The reason? This album, by highly rated British band Joy Division, is on a small label called Factory Records. This means that unless a New Zealand company sees fit to buy the rights to New Zealand release, we will miss the most essential music of the year.
Perhaps I’m overstepping the bounds of critical convention in pushing an album which consumers cannot easily obtain. But this music – true music of heart and mind – has been haunting me now for weeks, chained addictively to my subconscious and surely deserves mention for that feat alone.
The combined effect of the music and lyric content is nothing short of awesome. It summons forth a rare power and a total honesty of emotion, devoid of artifice and deceit, seldom if ever heard within the rock genre.
It is no joke to class Closer as music to hang yourself to because 23-year-old vocalist/lyricist/lynchpin Ian Curtis committed suicide in this fashion prior to its release. The low-profile, but criticially lauded Joy Division called it quits, their testimony being the two albums (Unknown Pleasures and Closer). A fanatical cult following built up through their occasional concert appearances.
Closer is very much the final litany of a man whose fate is already decided. Ghouls will cherish Curtis’s death wish, but happy souls should not let this unhealthy preoccupation deter them from investigating the sentiments and appreciating the often beautiful melancholic cadences.
Surely it is worthwhile to open mind and emotions to music which acknowledges that all is not well in society, social or politically. As the power of technology as a device for both political control and a leisure tool becomes apparent, we sense a breakdown of social bonding and communication. It is not enough for man to be an island: he must build a treacherous reef around himself. This music’s open austerity provides food for thought on matters of such crucial importance.
The album begins with ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, with almost disco rhythms overlaid by nagging, gnawing synth/guitar figures, dramatizing Curtis’s gruff grey vocal imagery. It slowly retreats to the final defeat of synthetically orchestrated dirge procession ‘The Eternal’: “Tried to cry out in the heat of the moment/Possessed by a fury that burns from inside”, and “Cry like a child though these years make me older/With children my time is so wastefully spent.”
Words like these stick in the throat.
Earlier, in ‘A Means To An End’, Curtis’s singing assumes an aching, eerie power reminiscent of The Doors’ Jim Morrison on his final solution, ‘LA Woman’ – as the voice expresses barely suppressed hurt and rage: “I put my trust in you!”
The clearly intoned lyrics of ‘Heart And Soul’ are spliced into a spacey construction and sung in a highly emotive, just-below-pitch half-speak which can bring tears to the eyes.
’24 Hours’, alternately mournful and savage, puts the cap on it: “Oh how I realise/How I wanted time”, and “Just for one moment/Thought I’d found my way/Destiny unfolded/I watched it slip away.”
After listening to Joy Division, most everything else seems like so much confetti. 10/10
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
16 May 1981/Evening Post
At last, Joy Division music is available in New Zealand. On the independent British Factory label, chances of New Zealand release seemed slim. But these records are the first, and there is more to come.
A considerable amount of hyperbole has gone down about this legendary band, most of it arising from the tragic suicide of vocalist/lyricist Ian Curtis. But in clear terms, Joy Division is among the most important of bands: this is that rarest of music which affects the heart and intellect. It has relatively mainstream appeal with the rock audience, yet it is revolutionary.
‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (a single) is one of the most beautiful songs ever heard in a rock context. Being Joy Division’s final single, its unforgettable melody is imbued with the deepest melancholy and resignation: “You cry out in your sleep/All my failings exposed/Bitter taste in my mouth/As desperation takes hold.”
Adult angst music par excellence. Grown-up rock music, at last.
If New Zealand radio does not play this single, which is selling in huge quantities, the programmers will have much to answer for.
Unknown Pleasures is the debut album, released in Britain mid-1979. The rock is a little more traditional and the sadness does not cut quite as deep as on their later work. Though I find it more tentative than their other work, Closer, it is still a classic from beginning to end, and essential to all relevant record collections.
Suffice to say that all 10 tracks are of equal stature. As there is not space enough to detail them all, it would be unfair to pay lip-service to a few.
Unknown Pleasures is the album, and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is the single. They are for any heart that beats. 10/10
PS, Update 23 June 1981 – It is interesting to note that the records featured in last week’s review, Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ single and Unknown Pleasures album, are both Number 1 on the national record sales chart this week. However, radio play is conspicuous by its absence. Does this mean radio playlists depend on programme directors rather than the tastes of record buyers?
Nov 1981/In Touch
This album is as much a rip-off exercise as any of the posthumous releases currently on the market. Even an indie label like Factory can’t resist the temptation for exploitation, it seems. That said, the major difference between this and most other similar grab-bags of unreleased material by defunct/dead groups/artists, is the quality of the music.
That’s not to say Still is as essential as the official studio albums – it’s not. But it’s certainly an eye-opener and a further insight into one of the great groups of our time.
The first album contains a selection of tracks that includes JD doing versions of old Warsaw songs (‘Walked In Line’, etc), unreleased recent music (the alarming ‘The Sound Of Music’) and live material (their version of The Velvets’ ‘Sister Ray’, would you believe).
The second album is a live recording of their last-ever live performance, and it’s one of the saddest 40 minutes I’ve ever experienced. From the earliest Warsaw songs to the most recent, there is a horrible aire of desperation about the whole performance. Curtis either mumbles or screams his lyrics.
If studio JD always held some hope, then this performance is almost an admission that there’s none left. The final two songs are among the most affecting I’ve ever heard. Closer’s ‘Decades’ has a synthesiser which appears to be wildly out of tune, and this gives it a totally different, sickening edge that can’t be forgotten. ‘Digital’, that old Warsaw song is the last, and it’s an abrasive scream, total pain, a nightmare.
I almost wish that this performance was never released because JD at their best are never morbid, just realistic. This is morbid, and although any self-respecting JD fan will no doubt rush to own it, there is now a bitter taste to the story that cannot deny the claims of the group’s detractors. Depressed? You bet. 7/10