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 ‘S’.
Santana – Marathon (CBS)
Marathon proves how the mighty have fallen. 5/10
The Sex Pistols – Carri On Sex Pistols (Virgin)
Carri On Sex Pistols, being interviews and banned adverts, is at once the ultimate rip-off in record marketing and an intriguing souvenir. 6/10
Inevitably, rock music is a great stamping ground for bandwagon jumpers. New York band The Shirts have suffered much chastisement from overseas rock press for trying to join the dregs of the New Wave movement and missing the boat in the process.
The Shirts’ background negates this criticism, however. Their music is simply the sum of its influences – most prominently Jefferson Airplane and Lou Reed, plus the genre that man helped spawn.
The crux of the biscuit, so to speak, is that The Shirts’ debut album combines incompatible mutations of New Wave cliches and hippy psychedelia, to awkward and sometimes patently neutered/diluted effect.
The opening three songs, ‘Reduced To A Whisper’, ‘Tell Me Your Plans’ and ‘Empty Ever After’ are solid, memorable pop pieces, but elsewhere the album sinks in the muddy mire of Mike Thorne’s production.
It’s worth noting that this was recorded in April of ’78, though, so The Shirts may well have resolved their problems.
If the real thing was too potent a mixture for you, The Shirts may just appeal. It’s heartening to note that for once the token female vocalist, Annie Golden, certainly wasn’t chosen for pinup value. 5/5
There is one crevasse into which so very many capable New Zealand rock groups continue to fall. This dilemma gets the best of all but the hardiest. Should a band attempt to make their music appeal to as many members of the public as possible – after all, it is a small, supposedly middle of the road population in New Zealand – or should they remain true to themselves and plough their own furrow in the way they think best?
Most Kiwi bands take the first option, and by trying to appeal to all they actually appeal to few. Bar patrons may drink to their music, but why waste beer money on their records?
Only a few bands have had the gumption to stick to their original vision. The notable example is Split Enz, who had a large cult following from the beginning because their music was genuinely bizarre and unusual.
There are several New Zealand groups with vision, originality and commitment to what they are doing and believe in. Take away the Government’s 40 percent sales tax, and there would soon be a healthy export of records by these artists to Europe, a continent that laps up such material in large doses. With restrictions still imposed however, records by such groups are unlikely to be made in the first instance, and even more unlikely to be noticed with interest by any but the few.
An example of such a band is Wellington’s Shoes This High, whose EP (their first) was recorded in Auckland. To say it is exceptional is an understatement. It is fair to say that if Shoes This High were a British band, this record would be a much sought after item. It is an independent release, produced by the group. The cover and distribution are also handled by the group.
Their music does contain elements of music heard elsewhere: Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, Pil, The Fall, Gang Of Four… but overall the sound is unmistakably Shoes This High.
‘The Nose One’ is an addictive trance dance with nagging bass and guitar lines by Jessica Walker and Kevin Hawkins respectively, and lyrics that perhaps reflect the band’s own philosophy: “I just follow my nose/I don’t care about my clothes/I close my eyes/I fall asleep… nothing, nothing, nothing!”
‘Foot’s Dream’, played with the air of inevitability of the average New Zealander’s limiting lifestyle attacks in particular, the institution of marriage. In ‘A Mess’, vocalist Brent Hayward gives examples of mindless violence and self-abuse, screams a fierce “I don’t think it’s so funny”, and reinforces it with a hurt: “It’s a mess, a horrible mess.”
‘Not Weighting’, the finale, is an ominous almost-instrumental, with xylophone/breaking glass sound effects. Spare and jarring, it is quite unlike anything recorded in this country.
With bands like these New Zealand has come of age. It’s time we realised it. 9/10
1981, Evening Post
On rare occasions, one stumbles across a record that truly defies such descriptions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Empires & Dance, the third album by this British group (their first was released here but their second was not) is one such record. It is both original and derivative, and can make for both captivating and tortuous listening.
Influences come through in Jim Kerr’s Bryan Ferry vocal mannerisms, and in the music can be heard random slices of Joy Division, The Cure and even Pink Floyd (circa ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’).
Their original sound consists of hypnotic rhythms, over which colourfully layered textures are weaved. Sound as image-evocation is all-important; the instruments are often mixed in such a way that you cannot imagine which instruments are creating the sounds. This prevents the listener from creating an image of the band and leaves the music alone to think about.
Because the rhythms are repetitive, however, they easily obscure the sound textures and colourings from a listener who is not concentrating, and it is then that the music becomes a chore.
Surprisingly, Simple Minds is an instrumentally conventional rock lineup: vocals, sax and guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. It’s obviously the treatments, electronic and otherwise, they give to these instruments that make the difference.
The only distraction is Kerr’s lyrics which seem to cloud and inhibit the music instead of letting it speak for itself – of course, instrumental music an make statements.
In retrospect, I’m confused. I’ve an inkling that this is one to slowly grow to appreciate over a month or so. 8/10
Dec 1981/In Touch
The music on Sons & Fascination is more identifiable, more accessible than the first Simple Minds album to gain a large following, last year’s Empires & Dance. This is the one that will create a mass audience for the group. It’s instantly pleasurable on a sonic base alone with a lovely, rich, big sound that deserves the volume treatment, yet which doesn’t go for abrasiveness.
Simple Minds have rightly been taken to task for launching a new phase of pomp/techno-rock. We should be aware of this genre’s inherent pretentions and pitfalls. In the meantime, Simple Minds are making some of the most anthemic, spirited and uplifting music of the ‘80s.
Here for the first time, Simple Minds are recorded to the fullest thanks to producer Steve Hillage. This allows the music to fly – a truly grand traveling Euro dance music that does stand the listening test.
The album is there to be listened to as a totality, but if you must pick and choose, start with the great disco of ‘Love Song’, or the huge synth riff-dominated ‘70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall’. Or perhaps the tour-de-force ‘Boys From Brazil’, or…
A pity that we in NZ won’t get to hear the companion album Sister Feelings Call, given in the UK as a freebie with Sons. It’s of a similar standard of excellence and contains brilliant tracks ‘The American’ and ‘League Of Nations’. ‘Courage of dreams’ and ‘Fire for the times’ are scratched into the run-off groove of my copy. Could mean something. 8/10
The Sinceros – The Sound Of Sunbathing (Epic)
Here’s an album of happy summer songs (a new wave Beach Boys?) by Lene Lovich’s backing band. 6/10
Skids are a young Scottish group whose music transcends the fickle whims of fashion – it’s original, committed, ferocious, inventive, yet mainstream. And you can dance to it.
Vocalist Richard Jobson penned the lyrics to most of the debut album Scared To Dance and depending on your views regarding the compatibility between rock and poetry, these sketches in manic-depressive paranoia will either seem compassionate and illuminating, or downright pretentious.
But it’s the music that matters. William Simpson and Thomas Kellichan on bass and drums respectively, make for a tight, energetic rhythm section, but guitarist Stuart Adamson is the group’s musical force. Most of Skids’ songs are built around Adamson’s biting riffs and distinctive guitar sound, which he attains by open-tuning one string to provide a bagpipe-type drone effect.
All 12 songs cut the mustard, showing considerable maturity for such a young group. ‘Into The Valley’ is the opener and an immediate attention-grabber, but the frightening title track and bizarre ‘Hope And Glory’ are most indicative of the serious nature of Skids’ material.
Skids music is 1979 – cold and paranoiac – but ultimately human. Skis spit tacks. Better first albums are rare indeed. 8/10
Well, this is a nice surprise. The first ice-queen of psychedelia is back with a vengeance, and her re-entry into the rock arena ain’t half as embarrassing as it could very easily have been. In fact, I expected it to be embarrassing. Not that I cared – I gave up caring about the whole Airplane/Starship/Slick/Hot Tuna conglomerate long ago.
Our Grace has lost none of her awesome voice on Welcome To The Wrecking Ball, and in fact, it has never been caught on vinyl in such good form. It’s a hard rocking, semi-heavy belting, screaming amend for last year’s ballad disaster, Dreams. It’s a great pity she chose such standard heavy American rock musos to back her up, though, because her powerful vocals deserve a less leaden, more vital musical support.
The material itself is pretty much all uptempo, with softer exceptions in ‘Shooting Star’ and ‘No More Heroes’. Yeah, it’s great to have that voice back, but I don’t know if I can handle the culture shock of her band. 6/10
If the cover sells the record it’s a reflection of the buying public, not the Slits. Without it, this may not sell, but it deserves to be consumed and, if possible, in vast quantities.
The Slits were Britain’s first all-girl punk band back in 1976 – contemporaries of the Pistols, Clash and The Damned – and like several others from that era, they’ve waited a few years to make good on their promise.
The nucleus of the band is Ari Up (vocals), Viv (guitar) and Tessa (bass). Helping out on Cut are drummer Budgie and producer Dennis Bovell. The material on this album was all co-written with ex-member Palmolive.
Bovell carries the weight and influence on Cut. He’s the top British reggae producer and it shows. Cut sounds of a delicious mellow crispness, and the music, though retaining a fragment of punk (similarities with Siouxsie crop-up inevitably) is predominantly reggae-influenced.
Cut is a very tasty, unorthodox yet easy to take album. It’s great as in enjoyable, fun, danceable, listenable and irrelevant in the general scheme of things. It’s an interesting little diversion. 7/10
Rex Smith – Sooner Or Later (CBS)
This latest American teenybop idol sings dreadful songs from the motion picture in a dreadful post-pubescent voice. Hit single: ‘You Take My Breath Away’. 2/10
Leaving Snakefinger’s profound collaborators for a moment, I must profess that Greener Postures is sure a swell piece of plastic. The hole in the middle actually fits over the average record turntable, and the record itself, especially side the first, plays in a manner not alien to accustomed Smurfs afficionados. You know: the patented compressed peculiar chipmunk-hammed-up-puzzle. The drums! The muffled sound of a bed-head rhythmically hitting the other side of a bedroom wall! So strange? And so much for that. The second side is an infinitely more accurate, one presumes, assessment of what the character Snakefinger will sound like in a concert setting: real instruments! A real band? Guitars and drums! A real song song in a weird but conventionally unconventional manner. 7/10
Snakefinger – Chewing Hides The Sound (Ralph Records)
Dec 1981/In Touch
Chewing, released in NZ for the first time, is actually Greener Postures’ predecessor, and it’s a better album. Owing much to The Residents (they play on the LP), Chewing is very cool and very funny. Great title: ‘Jesus Was A Leprechaun’. 7/10
The Specials live up to their name. They’re like nothing but everything else: special. They make music with the humanity of ska, rocksteady and reggae; and the youthful dynamism of prime punk. And I love it. (And this from one with about as much acquaintance and enthusiasm for roots rock reggae as yer average Pallavi Indian flautist.)
The Specials originate from Coventry, England, forming around mid-’77. They number seven guys, two Jamaican-born, five whities. But they’re all as one, pacifist Rudeboys. Come out of numerous soul bands, they tried mixing punk and reggae ala The Members, but were not satisfied with the result. They ended up doing it anyway on this debut (more or less).
Reggae came to fruition out of ska via rocksteady, and The Specials have tapped these two earlier sources. Who’d have thought anything as wonderful as this album could have had its roots in Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’? Well, for this boy at least, ska and rocksteady are both more danceable and a much more attractive proposition in general than a lot of reggae.
The Specials, it seems, were noticed stealing the show from the likes of The Police and The Pretenders at outdoor fests, and soon after decrepit talent scouts like old Jumpin’ Jack Flash himself became interested in signing the band. But being the sensible individuals they are, they first released a single independently and then secured a unique deal with Chrysalis allowing them an extraordinary amount of freedom.
Line-up: Neville Staples handles most vocal chores with the help of Terry Hall. John ‘Prince Rimshot’ Bradbury drums like three and Horace Panter plays spunky bass. Jerry Dammers contributes tinny, bubbly organ, Roddy Radiation guitars and Lynval Golding guitars rhythmically.
Tracks: ‘Message To You Rudy’ is a single and a cover of a Dandy Livingston or G. Thompson toon, depending on who you believe. (One and the same person, perhaps?) It’s an instantly infectious little number given a blacker than blacker sound. This is seven guys enjoying themselves: exuberant, happy ska with a streetwise, urban bent to it. Farting trombones and all, I swear this is one never to get sick of, possible radio over-exposure included.
‘Do The Dog’ is another cover and a token punky effort. ‘Gangsters’ is the other extracted single release. It’s slightly mysterious, gloriously cluttered, and is a hammy James Bond theme joke.
If ‘It’s Up To You’ is not already another single and top spot candidate, then it should be. What a glorious hybrid of everything good and great and cheap about modern music. Great tune, haunting performance.
‘Nite Klub’ is yet another potential hit single. “What am I doing here/watching the girls go by?” Real energy, not faked aggression. ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright’ hits an altogether more serious note. “Just because you’re a black boy/just because you’re a white/It doesn’t mean you’ve got to hate him/It doesn’t mean you’ve got to fight… It’s the worst excuse in the world.”
The only number written by Roddy Radiation (the remainder penned by Dammers) is an uninspired if workmanlike theme, ‘Concrete Jungle’. No doubt rousing chorus stuff in performance.
To Side 2. ‘Monkey Man’ has crowd noises and group commentary (“This one’s for all the bouncers – big, big monkey man”), segueing into another infectious, bouncy, uptempo number, ‘(Dawning Of A) New Era’: inventive, upbeat rock-ska. ‘Blank Expression’ is an immensely enjoyable joke which goes: “(Where) Where, did you get (get), that blank (blank) expression on your face?”
‘Stupid Marriage’ is social comment: In a court case, a guy defends himself, the judge sentences, the group criticise him for getting into a ‘stupid’ marriage in the first place. Social comment. ‘Too Much Too Young’ is along similar lines, but this accommodates one of the best tunes in this package. Again, it’s not without humour, scathing as it may be. “You’ve done too much, much too young/You’re married with a song when you could be having fun with me.”
Another reggaefied punk thrash is ‘Little Bitch’, and then the last track, ‘You’re Wondering Now’, wonders what the listener is going to do when he finishes listening to The Specials.
The Specials (band and album) have flaws. They’re young, naive, and need in the long run to define their art somewhat, but they’ve got time. It’s to be hoped that they won’t lose the all-important spontaneity in the process. The charm is not strictly musical, though that helps.
The debut album of the year already. (I know this was released last decade in Britain, but remember, we do live right across the other side of the world you know!) 10/10
The Specials – The Specials (Chrysalis)
Let us allow The Specials to twist our jaded sensibilities back into shape.
Forget, for a moment, what the music of the 1980s should be (1984 isn’t quite with us yet) – droning synthesisers, interminable throbbing drum machines and soulless singing robots.
The Specials can instil some warmth to a record collection. They demonstrate what it’s like to be nice and youthful, and yet not Donny and Marie mawkish.
The Specials is the debut album from this Coventry sextet, and every one of its 15 songs is a cracker.
The music is an amalgam of ska – a Jamaican predecessor to reggae – and new wave. It’s refreshingly naive, and winningly infectious.
The album and its resulting singles (”Gangsters’ and ‘Message To You Rudy’) have dominated the British pop charts for the last month. And on this showing The Specials warrant every last bit of fame coming their way.
The tracks are too numerous for all to be mentioned, but favourites include the message-rife ‘It’s Up To You, ‘Stupid Marriage and ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright.’
These boys tell real-life stories. But the music parties.
Bouncy, tinny organ by Jerry Dammers (who writes most of the material) is reminiscent of Elvis Costello, who (coincidentally?) happened to produce this album.
The distinctive, original sound is mainly due to the aforementioned Dammers and his organ, plus John Bradbury’s magnificent drums, and horn men Rico Rodriquez and Dick Cuthell.
The Specials will be one of the most played albums this year. 10/10
Jon McLeary’s Spines have certainly developed a distinctive musical voice – one which is as addictive to fans as it is foreign to outsiders who cannot fathom the difference between one Spines song and the next. Despite a clean production job, ‘Punch’ is a peculiarly unlikely choice for the A-side of a 12-inch single. The song is fiddly to play and the outcome is an arrangement somewhere on the stodgy side. Maybe it would sit better on an album. ‘Your Body Stays’, however, is an essential addition to McLeary’s catalogue of patented anguished ballads in the singer/songwriter mould. It’s moving. 7/10
Those who would have Split Enz as a minor-league intellectual ex-art school band are set to swallow their hasty, ill-considered words, in double time.
For True Colours, the new LP, shows such sacrilegious verbiage vendors that here stands a band not about to give in to the average Kiwi’s anti-New Zealand music apathy.
From the first to the last note, the Enz give us what we want in top-league style.
True Colours was recorded in Melbourne with producer David Tickle at the helm, and represents the turning over of yet another fresh green leaf. A brash, commercial sound, previously partially exploited on ‘I See Red’, is adopted. The songs are essentially infectiously simple (simply infectious) with complex embellishments.
This, the sixth Enz LP disc sees two major changes. One: Split Enz for the first time really sounds like a tight unit – a real group. Two: True Colours is the first Enz LP produced in the hard-headed 1980s fashion of Cheap Trick’s Tom Wermann.
Cheap Trick similarities don’t stop there. Both bands are overwhelmingly influenced by The Beatles. But whereas the Trick are American, and have arrived by way of Chuck Berry, Split Enz are NZ-British, arriving by way of Genesis.
Both are talented tunesmiths with flashes of brilliance, but short of genius.
The songs on True Colours are mostly interchangeable. That is not to suggest they are necessarily “samey”, but that simply the uniformity of sound, the unity of the whole package, results in a certain antipathy after long listening hours.
At the same time, every individual song carries singles potential.
‘Shark Attack’, ‘What’s The Matter With You’, ‘I Wouldn’t Dream Of It’, and ‘Nobody Takes Me Seriously’ are all great pop songs with the power of rock (powerpop? Surely not!)
Neil Finn takes lead vocals on two tracks here, the single ‘I Got You’ and ‘Missing Person’. His voice gives a different perspective to the Enz sound.
‘I Hope I Never’ is the obligatory soft mushy, Manilow-like ballad. I like it, against my better instincts. Tim Finn here sings with such aplomb that you’d hardly recognise the 1975 model against the mature 1980 version.
‘Poor Boy’ is my vote for best track. It doesn’t jump out of the speakers and grab you around the throat. Its charm works subtly, gaining in magic through constant listenings.
‘How Can I Resist Her’ sounds disappointingly trivial standing side by side with the rest of True Colours.
The biggest departure, however, ‘Double Happy’ and ‘The Choral Sea’, are both instrumentals. Keyboardist Eddie Raynor is here tapping the same lucrative vein as Gary Numan: synthesiser used up-front in a commercial context. Both these pieces are nagging, buzzsawing, unforgettable delights.
So that’s it (not in chronological order). A new sound with roots in the old Enz style – but the connections are becoming increasingly nebulous.
True Colours – better than Dream Police, and the first well-produced Enz to be both aesthetically as well as commercially (we hope) successful. 9/10
Everybody’s local heroes, Split Enz, have finally hit the big time: this latest vinyl instalment achieved Platinum sales in pre-orders before it even reached the record shops.
Split Enz is in a most unusual situation in that it is tasting success at its musical peak.
The pressures to produce a follow-up to last year’s successful True Colours must have been immense but the band has avoided the temptation to repeat itself and has come up with an album of merit.
If Waiata lacks the obvious singles choices of its predecessor then it can be said that it is a more unified and substantial work. David Tickle’s production captures the full dynamic range of Enz music. The compositions are never less than good pop songs, though it must be said that the slightly frenzied offbeat pop of the opening ‘Hard Act To Follow’ transcends the derivative (not to mention repetitive) ‘History Never Repeats’.
The combination of creative recording techniques, interesting musical asides and top-notch performance and composition makes up the total effect of Waiata. So where the Tim Finn whimsy of ‘I Don’t Wanna Dance’ would have sounded trite on an average record such as Dizrythmia, here it is an absorbing facet to a multidirectional record.
The real charm of latterday Enz is the ability of Messrs T and N Finn to compose tunes which hark melodically back to The Beatles, to add a thread of sub-Genesis mock-orchestral backdrop and to throw in unexpected and sometimes bizarre shifts and turns. This recipe works.
Waiata does have its share of failures. The easy listening schmaltz of keyboardist Eddie Raynor’s ‘Albert Of India’ and the noisy, anarchic ‘Clumsy’ are but two. But I’d sooner see a group experiment and make their share of resounding flops and successes, than to rest of their laurels in sterile perfection. 7/10
May 1982/In Touch
Time And Tide is the new, mature Enz. True Colours displayed all the options at that point in time, and it was a pleasant if mild kaleidoscope. Waiata has the feel of a rerun, so it’s great to report that Time And Tide consolidates past experiments, explores further afield and becomes the first all-round Enz LP. The rhythms are the outstanding change. Noel Crombie has developed a syncopated drumming style that lends the group a whole new angle. Tim Finn is also collaborating his writing chores with the others on a more regular basis, which has guaranteed a less whimsical approach for the most part. The only song where Tim goes unchecked is the Jethro Tull-like ‘Haul Away’. Enz may never become important in the overall scheme of things, but they do have a natural talent at creating esoteric pop music with style and taste. 7/10
Bruce Springsteen epitomises the wholesome middle-class side of the cult hero-worship coin. He spends his vinyl minutes mythologising various aspects of Americans – notably fast cars, women, rock and roll, and the realities (imagined or remembered) of life on the street.
The most ardent fans (many of whom are rock critics) savour his every banal utterance and often defend their fanaticism by crediting Springsteen with some wondrous, elusive, magical quality.
Fans have waited with baited breath a long two years for his double album The River, which retreads familiar lyrical ground. Musically, Springsteen and band dish out standard-issue, regressive, dramatic (as in West Side Story’s contrivances) rock and roll and soul, along with a few ballads for contrast.
I fall asleep listening to Bruce Springsteen. What is the big mystery? 4/10
Steel Pulse – Tribute To The Martyrs (Island)
British reggae band Steel Pulse dish up a superb set that praises the likes of Steve Biko and scorns the neo-Nazi National Front on Tribute To The Martyrs. 7/10
Unlike stablemate/labelmate Sharon O’Neill’s newest, Jon’s debut lacks any interesting production diversions.
Worst of all, Stevens never reassures us that he even understands, let alone believes, the lyrics he’s singing.
But Stevens has an amazingly versatile voice. If he can inject a modicum of taste and artistic commitment (those words again) into his music, he could go places.
The marketing men can sell you, Jon, but is it worth the price that you will have to pay? 5/5
Religion: a giant hoax perpetrated by evil aliens. The human race: play things of The Meninblack.
The latest Stranglers album purports to be ‘The Gospel Of The Meninblack’. Provocative? Yes! So is the cover. In the foldout is da Vinci’s Last Supper painting with infiltrating Meninblack. The back cover includes a takeoff of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ addressed to you know who.
Musically, this is possibly the best of all Stranglers albums. It is unfortunate that the album is too short on explanatory lyrical content to adequately convey the concept. Here, as in early days when The Stranglers were accused of being sexist, the band falls prey to lyrical ambiguity. However, this hardly merits complete dismissal of a band whose merits are many.
The Meninblack is a bass-heavy, evil-sounding album; totally in tune with its subject matter. The Stranglers are not the most subtle musicians but they always show a willingness to experiment from within the boundaries of their formula.
Innovations for The Stranglers are quirky, futurist leanings, squealing synthesisers and nasty, chipmunk-type voices on some cuts. Overall, this is an album well worth investigation. 7/10
Streetband – London (Logo)
Streetband’s London makes up in professionalism what it lacks in identity. 5/10
Stuff – Live (Warner)
Recorded at the Yubincholin Hall in Tokyo, this is a laid-back jazz and funk jam by American session supremos Cornell Dupree (guitar), Gordon Edwards (bass), Steve Gadd (drums), Eric Gale (guitar) and Richard Tee (keyboards). 6/10
The Sutherland Brothers – When The Night Comes Down (CBS)
A slick, classy Los Angeles production for British singer/songwriters whose biggest claim to fame is writing the Rod Stewart hit ‘Sailing’. 6/10