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’.
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
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
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 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
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