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 ‘P’.
1979/The Evening Post
Grotesquely warted, festering female faces peer somberly through black veils on Eve. This is the fourth album by the Alan Parsons Project, following the highly successful Tales Of Mystery And Imagination, I Robot, and last year’s Pyramid.
The Project was born when Parsons, who had been the engineer on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, teamed up with composer/keyboardist/ideas-man Eric Wooleson.
The concept mercifully has little to do with the Hipgnosis-designed cover. Eve is simply about women and is essentially a selection of ably-played orthodox rock love songs.
Aside from the opening instrumental ‘Lucifer’ and the following ‘You Lie Down With Dogs’, which feature the Project’s trademarked clipped, repetitive electric piano motifs and rich orchestral flavourings, Eve is surprisingly restrained.
The ballads ‘Winding Me Up’ and ‘Secret Garden’, featuring Beach Boy-type harmonies, make for a pleasant change in their work. 6/10
This is an album of songs about working men and women portrayed as struggling, downtrodden but proud people.
Other artists’ songs are well chosen. Particularly heart-rending is Woody Guthrie’s ballad, ‘Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)’, about ill-treatment meted out to immigrants, with tragic results. In the traditional blues song ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, a woman caught in prostitution mourns the sad life, and in Merle Haggard’s ‘Dark As A Dungeon’, he dissuades young men from wasting their lives working in mines.
Parton’s material, while musically safe, realistically and sincerely presents the case for working people. The single ‘9 To 5’ (from the movie of the same name) criticises the lot of working women, and ‘Working Girl’, covers similar ground.
Parton’s music is pop with a background of country. It’s not challenging in the musical sense but neither is it bland or patronising. Parton sings in a little/big, bitter/sweet dolly voice which can pull the heartstrings as much as it can chirp with joy. 7/10
In the July issue of In Touch, Single Of The Month was a little beauty by an unknown British group, The Passions – ‘Hunted’ b/w ‘Oh, Not It’s You’. Nothing more was heard of the group and at last glance the single was going for a mere 20 cents in one local record shop.
Now, some months on, their debut album quietly slips onto the market. A fitting lack of promotion, perhaps. I’m sure the band would shun bullshit-oriented hype, as they appear as philosophically unassuming as they are musically. The artist and (partial) commercial success of The Cure, it seems, has opened the door to a new consciousness: one which acknowledges the worth of music made by normal talented individuals and encourages the creation of such. The cover rams the point home: small dour portraits of the four, two females, two males. It seems to stress the point that they are normal people, maybe talented in their field but with just as much responsibility to practice their art honestly as we have in our respective roles.
Their lyrics are disarmingly simple, and those of ‘Palava’ explain their position: “Everybody tries to be complicated/Never being quite how they appear to be/Won’t you say what you mean/And mean what you say/Talk to me in a logical way? And why do you try to be so obscure/I don’t find it fascinating/Your double entendres/Your impeccable karma/I’m sick and tired of this palava.”
Sadly, the album really doesn’t quite live up to that first single, which isn’t on the album. Chris Parry’s production fails to flesh out the sound, which is at times drastically less than fully realised.
The spare touch does provide for some interesting moments though, oft times reminding one of the first Cure album, particularly in the economically echoey guitar sound. Michael And Miranda displays a very young Passions with much room for growth, but they already have distinctive traits, as in the super mod pop of ‘Brick Wall’ or ‘Suspicion’, with recognisable reggaefied rhythm and sweetly unaffected vocals by Barbara Gogan and Claire Bidwell. I hate to say this, but The Passions are… promising. 6/10
This is one of my top five favourite albums. And that’s ever, babe. Pere Ubu, Cleveland, Ohio’s own, unleashed The Modern Dance on an unsuspecting America early in ’78 via their independent label Blank. Typically, it was soon deleted and languished in obscurity until Rough Trade re-released the masterpiece this year. Now, EMI have released it in New Zealand.
Pere Ubu, because of this and their early 12-inch EP, Datapanik In The Year Zero, are credited with largely creating the bleak industrial genre which later spawned groups like Throbbing Gristle. This has become something of a millstone around the group’s neck, however, as there is much more to the Ubu’s than that.
Sure, The Modern Dance is bleak, undoubtedly the product of growing up in a place like Cleveland. There is, fortunately, nothing in the least bit robotic about their music: it’s extreme, sure. It’s unhappy, sure. But it’s also full of passion and sadness. It could be called modern expressionist.
What makes this album so important and so necessary is that it’s one of the best rock albums ever released. Listen to the opening ‘Non-Alignment Pact’ or ‘Streetwaves’ or just about any of them (except for the abstract ‘Sentimental Journey’) for proof.
Perhaps it’s what’s not heard that makes it such a powerful statement. There’s nothing else like it. Early Wellington punks were into this band from the word ‘go’. You can hear why: the frustration in the music, the extremity. Time for the whole nation to hear. 10/10
This record should have “for Ubu freaks only” stamped on the cover. Thank God I’m one! 390 Degrees… is not the best place for beginners. It is the first volume of a live set – two more volumes should be forthcoming, providing contractual hassles can be sorted out. This volume contains material mostly from the early days, from the first indie singles through the Datapanik EP through The Modern Dance. Though the material itself is early, the recordings vary between the years 1976 to 1978. It goes without saying that the next volumes will contain later material.
390 Degrees… amounts to a well-annotated and stuck together document of the great band as a live unit. The music is awesome, and the performances as extreme as we have come to expect from the band. The versions here go to demonstrate just how ‘live in studio’ their studio records are: very. The only remarkably different version here is the apocalyptic ’30 Seconds Over Tokyo’ and the very early recordings of ‘Laughing’, ‘Over My Head’ and ‘Believe It’.
But the album is really more of an Ubu fan club public service than an album unto itself. As can be expected, the recording quality at times is shocking – no better than the average bootleg quality, and considerations such as these do limit its appeal. Pere Ubu’s music is always vital, but make sure you have the originals before you venture this far. 7/10
Teddy Prendergrass – Teddy (PD)
TP co-won best soul singer in the American Music Awards, and gets good reviews in rock magazines like Rolling Stone, but he’s just another macho stud with an oafish inexpressive voice and no songs to sing. 3/10
This record contains previously released material from the ‘60s for which the backing has been re-recorded. The producer has removed overbearing orchestras and backing vocals so that Presley’s singing is heard in all its glory.
In later years, Presley’s music was often the watered-down product of managerial manipulation, but this album is mostly excellent country-oriented material.
Whether it be rock tunes such as Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’, shuffling country numbers such as Hank Snow’s ‘I’m Movin’ On’ or country ballads such as ‘She Thinks I Still Care’, Presley further demonstrates why he was one of the greatest popular interpretative vocalists. The backing band also plays with consummate taste. 7/10
The Psychedelic Furs: contemporaries of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and The Velvet Underground? Not likely. Their name is purposefully 1960s, but the band, as heard on their self-titled debut album, is very much Britain, circa 1980.
The psychedelic connection is evident in the spiralling, metallic guitars of John Ashton and R. Morris and in the serious (some say pretentious) group compositions, but many other influences sway the sound this way and that, usually successfully.
‘India’ begins the album on a soft, melancholy note, before racing ahead in full throttle with a jarring boom sure to send the cat screaming for the cellar. It’s a fast, frenzied dirge, with densely-textured instrumentation which, with its spacey edges, comes off as the album’s immediate all-out winner.
‘Sister Europe’, the second track and single release, comes a close second. Its bleakness is characteristic of much current British music, but unlike contemporaries The Cure, The Furs’ sound is cluttered and larger-than-life.
The bulk of the album doesn’t offer the immediate highlights of those first two songs, but conversely, the standard never falls to mere filler, either. The tone throughout is depressed, with tirades against society’s many hallowed institutions (marriage on ‘The Wedding Song’). They sometimes even stoop to (admittedly well-honed) sarcasm, as on the harmlessly-titled ‘We Love You’: “I’m in love with the factory/I’m in love with the BBC/I’m in love with the old TV/And they’re so in love with you and me.” And that’s only a sample.
My biggest doubts lie in the area of Richard Butler’s hoarse vocals – which tend to disguise lyrics which sound as though they deserve to be heard – and the use of saxophone. Its unfocussed quality tramples all over the sound where a synthesiser, perhaps, could bring some exactitude to proceedings.
Less than fully realise, but essential listening nevertheless. 8/10
Vocals on the Furs’ second album are the same strained monologue style favoured on the first, but in most areas things have changed: gone is the murk and bass drum boom. Gone too is the bitterness, the totally down feeling of the debut.
The sound is a little lighter and a lot cleaner. Horns splice through the top of the mix instead of wallowing and blurting in the mud. The screeching crescendos and angry invectives are still there, but more thoughtfully presented.
I like it a lot, though it is overwhelmingly derivative of 1960s/’70s approaches. The Furs have a particularly English melancholy and sense of melody. ‘Pretty In Pink’ is the stick-in-head number, while the opening ‘Dumb Waiters’ (the single) is the most different – and not altogether satisfactorily so.
The album’s got the works: an epic in ‘All Of This And Nothing’, a ballad in ‘She Is Mine’, furious workouts like ‘So Run Down’. My faves are scorchers like ‘It Goes On’ and ‘Into You Like A Train’. Don’t believe the overseas reviews. This is a goodie. 8/10
I bear a deep grudge against Metal Box. Who would want to ruin years of sweating and saving in 60 minutes and 32 seconds with the pulverisation of their stereo speakers? Who would intend to make life-long enemies of the top flat because they “can’t stand the window frames rattling – the whole house shakes”?
It’s all the more difficult when you realise how addictive this is: a daily habit.
The metal box itself could be a film canister, but more likely a pizza tray. It consists of three 12-inch 45s: an interesting but awkward concept. And at 39 bucks, the locally-pressed second edition is as good an investment. Second Edition is a double album containing the same material, a slightly reshuffled running order, a shorter running time on several tracks (by seconds only), and a minimal loss of sound quality. The package is intact and you even get the lyrics painted on the back cover.
Lack of space prevents a full dissertation. ‘Albatross’ is 10 minutes and 32 seconds of speaker cones moving like muppet mouths. The music can be a joke or deadly serious depending on your purpose and pretence, but for me it’s a lifesaver, the voice not a Rotten nor a Lydon but a sad, deep voice of rebellion echoing repression thru the aeons.
‘Memories’ is almost punk but more Beefheart than Vicious: art. ‘Swanlake’ is ‘Death Disco’ remixed and is representative of true psychedelia 1980s-style, minus all foggy-headed connotations:
“Final in a fade/What her slowly die/Saw it in her eyes/Choking in a bed/Flowers rotting dead/Words cannot express/Words cannot express/Words cannot ex…” (‘Swanlake’).
‘Poptones’ and ‘No Birds’ are both totally alienated/alienating, and therefore unpenetrable musically (at this early stage), but the latter is the most lyrically accessible track on the set.
‘Graveyard’, an instrumental, makes for agonising and concurrently blissful listening, spacious sound and diametrically intense riffing, while ‘Careering’ (we know what that’s about) turns violently in a mutated world of synthesised swirls and random screams. ‘The Suit’ is the nearest we’ll get in this new age to the Rotten of old, sneering and sarci, and is the closest yet to pretentionless avant-garde.
‘Bad Baby’ features Lydon in his inimitable vocal fashion, and ‘Socialist’, while lyrically ambiguous, sees synthesiser used in a totally complementary fashion in the present Pil context. ‘Chant’ is (I think) “mob… war… feel… hate” amongst a wash of phased drums, and the finale, ‘Radio Four’, tries for a pisstake of the awful orchestral bilge the National Programme dishes out all day, but succeeds in that it is an evocative, moving synthetic string (Peyton Place revisited) arrangement with bass (of course!) accompaniment.
PiL (John Lydon vocals, Keith Levine guitar and drums, Jah Wobble bass, and everyone on synths, effects and electronics) have made a second LP that’s more than admirable, more than simply brilliant. Instead, it’s profound music, of a kind which cancels out all possibility of adequate explanation through its sheer depth.
The difficulty in reviewing LPs such as this which exceed the norm is that words only carry one so far. There are no words for the highs that music can produce (this album evidence of such) and this is good reason why so many reviews are over-literal in content. It is music, after all.
Metal Box or Second Edition (whichever) is definitely un-easy listening, but at the same time as accessible as you want it to be. But unlike much immediate music, this grows and there’s more to discover in each listening experience.
It’d be awful to think that the best album of the ‘80s came out in November (in Britain) 1979, but it’ll take a lot of beating.
Remember tho, the words cannot express, words cannot ex… 10/10
John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols) is the main brain behind Public Image Ltd (Pil). The Sex Pistols were important as symbols of punk rebellion against society and the dead dog that rock music had come to represent for a new generation, but Pil are thought of as genuine innovators, putting their artistic integrity where their mouths are.
Though The Flowers Of Romance fails to eclipse its awesome predecessor, Metal Box, it is a successfully adventurous album on which the group (Lydon and Keith Levene) experiment with a battery of percussion effects. The absence of Jah Wobble’s earth-shaking bass is sorely felt, however.
The album offers no antidote to the depressing times in which we live: its tone compounds the paranoia of the time – and it is very harsh for sensitive ears. But it’s commendable that Levene and Lydon have utilised the recording studio as an instrument itself, rather than thinking of it as a necessary evil. 7/10
Public Image Limited – The Flowers Of Romance (Virgin)
Poor John Lydon. Perennial punk beast of burden. Forever figurehead of all those minimalist-brain who hail anarchy but only if it fits the three chord Pistols straitjacket.
But the boy looked at Johnny, and Johnny wanted Art. ART not AN-AR-KEE! Presumably a veritable legion of original fans have followed John Lydon’s every move forward – even if only for purposes of idolatry or mimic value, which I suppose is better than staying stuck on swastikas and glue sniffing.
Lydon’s moving forward to art is seen in terms of sound experimentation and lyric-writing. Not that he has lost any of the vitriol, anger and frustration. And, to meet the mood of the times and show that he is more human, cynicism and in particular confusion, rear their ugly heads in spotlit profile.
The Flowers Of Romance can be regarded as a success, but is a disappointment in light of previous moves, with particular reference to the awesome Metal Box. Pil is a different proposition here. Jah Wobble’s earth-shaking bass is sorely missed – such an important ingredient to Pil’s former flavour.
Pil call themselves a corporate. The board of directors numbers two: John Lydon and Keith Levene. Between them they utilise voice, guitars, synthesisers, drums and other random noises and studio sound treatments. They play the mixing desk, so to speak.
The sound is often sparse, powered and dominated by drums. It is a big noise, and as Lydon himself says, those with so little respect for sound as to play the album on cheap’n’nasty record players deserve what they get. (Yeah, let’s have government-issue stereo systems for all – Ed).
Most of these music tracts steer away from complete moodscapes. Exceptions are ‘Hymie’s Hymn’, an instrumental with orchestral overtones, and ‘Go Back’, which has some good old-fashioned Levene fretwork.
Despite the gi-normous drums, the general effect is mono-dimensional, probably because the music serves the function of illustrative back-up for Lydon’s words/vocals. Lydon’s voice dominates. His admittedly masterful vocal technique is here an inescapable oppressive rant and rave.
His voice is more extreme, more sarcastically toned and more plain crazed than previously (check out ‘Banging The Door’, ‘Track 8’ and the title track), but the words themselves lack the consistency and discipline of those on Metal Box. They are confused lyrics, written in kamikaze fashion, a mirror of the album’s generally claustrophobic feel, the feel of musical anguish at the Pil development quarantine; brains so unnaturally divorced from the soaking-up of influences needed for healthy growth.
Come the end of the year, the album will probably seem as brave and commendable a work as Pil supporters could have wished for. But I have so many doubts in this paranoid year, and this scared record simply encourages those doubts to ferment into fatalism. I need hope, not confusion. 7/10