The Ultimate A To Z Of Album Reviews By Gary Steel – V

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 ‘V’.



Van Halen – Fair Warning (Warner Bros)

1981/In Touch

Here’s what metal fans want to hear: “Van Halen’s latest, Fair Warning, is heavy. After last year’s tepid predecessor, this one delivers the real good again. The sound is thick and pounding, and there’s a fairer sense of dynamics in the mix than most similar bands allow – there are soft and loud bits.” Here’s what the metal opponents want to hear: “This is a violent, plodding album full of the usual sexual humiliation and violent imagery. Its horrific cover is truly a winner in the grotesque bad taste stakes.” The truth is probably somewhere between those two poles of thought. All of it is probably true. Me: I’ve given up trying to pin down exactly what’s wrong, morally and spiritually, with music like this. Let’s just leave it at that, eh? 5/5


Various Artists – Dance Craze (Chrysalis)

1981/In Touch

This is not merely one of the best ever party records, it’s also one of the true few live records I’ve heard that gets the concert atmosphere down on vinyl. Also, and most importantly, it’s the best possible introduction and representation of British ska.

It works double well because there is/was a unity between the movement’s representatives, though the album also clarifies and clearly reputes any claims that all ska sounds the same.

Side 1 is rage nearly all the way, while side 2 calms down in tempo, if not in terms of tempo and audience participation. Group efforts are balanced democratically.

The bands represented are the 2-Tone bands, past or present: The Specials, Selector, Madness, The Bodysnatchers, The Beat and Bad Manners. And all bands come up shining.

The Specials, the impetus behind the whole thing, are in this reviewer’s opinion still the best of the bunch. Their sound is special, their contributions here being ‘Concrete Jungle’ (which opens the album to the beat of “Da-da-da-da-dum/Da-da-da-da/Milo!” and sets things in a festive mood, ‘Man At CIA’ (serious stuff with strong horns and war rumbles) and the rousing set finisher ‘Nite Klub’.

The Selector demonstrate their very different form of ska-going-on-rock’n’reggae on ‘Three Minute Hero’, ‘Too Much Pleasure’ and ‘Missing Words’, which is “another song dedicated to the Tory government and the shit they’re leading us into.”

The Beat have a chunky, strong but graceless sound which I find less than appealing in general, but their ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’ is a great pop song in anyone’s book of rules. Audience feedback carries anticipation through the social conscience of ‘Big Shot’, but nothing can save a filler like ‘Ranking Full Stop’.

Madness, who most of us are over-familiar with in the wake of the recent tour, do predictable faves ‘One Step Beyond’ and ‘Night Boat To Cairo’ – trashy and overrated. They redeem themselves on the serious ‘Razor Blade Alley’.

Bad Manners, a rather inconsequential group but a lot of fun, play one of their silliest and best songs, ‘Lip Up Fatty’, and a slight, chunky semi-instrumental, ‘Inner London Violence’. Lastly, the now-defunct all-girl group The Bodysnatchers contribute ‘Easy Life’, a ramshackle but dynamic performance.

And that’s it. It takes a lot to get me interested in suffering the sweat and danger of a live concert these days, but this album nearly convinced me that concerts are worth going to for those rare times they really do serve a purpose. I say nearly, because I’d rather stay home and listen to this, which has most of the advantages and none of the disadvantages of the real thing. 8/10


Various Artists – **** (Sausage)

1980/In Touch

Along with The Gordons’ magnificent debut single, **** is one of the most exciting releases this year. Not only is the music incomparably nonconformist, but it’s uniformly of world standard. Each band is distinctly original, yet the tracks complement one another through a common cause: rebellion, subversion, anti-police and authority (or something along those lines).
Without more ado, the people on this record are: The Wallsockets (whose idea this was), Life In The Fridge Exists, Naked Spots Dance, and Beat Rhythm Fashion. Wellington bands all, though it is unkindly parochial to emphasise that fact.
Life In The Fridge Exists, a loosely-assembled collective of whom photographer/writer Michael Gallagher is the brainchild, contribute three tracks. ‘Have You Checked The Children’ is the most convincing. It’s a menacing slice of teenage rebellion/subversion with Lady Sam providing voice of steel narrative: “Your children hate you!” ‘First Death Take’ is a manic-depressive Gallagher-led pained-voice tirade, but I can’t hear the words so comment is reserved. ‘Peter The D’ closes the album. It is a manifestly ponderous riff, a vivid, descriptive sax complementing Gallagher’s narrative about, well… buy the album. Pity LIFE’s most famous tune, ‘Phil O’Brien Song’, had to be omitted for legal reasons; fated to lie in the vaults of libellous infamy. Though LIFE do become tiresome on too many repeat listenings, they’re the surprise of this record in that their tracks aren’t as disposable as many thought they would be.

The Wallsockets are a comparative disappointment. Their performance is strictly sub-standard garage punk. Their main assets on vinyl are the songs and Lynette’s vocals. They have a knack in composing nifty little anthems, the samplings here being ‘H&C’, ‘Euthanasia’ (which puts forward the case for putting granny in her grave), ‘Blue Meanie (anti-cop harassment) and ‘Snerl’ (a lovely little novelty with one of the classic simple guitar solos of all time).
Naked Spots Dance have by far the most potential of these bands – apart from the fact that they’re now the only really functioning one. Their music is already so evolved and curiously complete. It leaves spaces that remind one of Jefferson Airplane (don’t laugh) without the ponderous pretension. Yet the musicianship is genuinely creative, with Levene-type guitar and a great pouting-voiced lady singer. ‘Secrets’, and particularly ‘Crescendo/Circle Moon’, are the most impressive. The latter begins with a spiraling invective against a career-

orientated type, and then sinks into a heady, atmospheric vein repeating: “The moon came out tonight/I sat there watching it/The moon came out tonight/There was no stopping it.” ‘Banana Baby’ appears to be a mean put-down of sexual stereotypes, while ‘Subtractions’ is surprisingly conventional by comparison.
Beat Rhythm Fashion are a studio conception and creation. Their two tracks are ‘None In The Universe’, an almost American-sounding pop tune with sneer, and ‘Not Necessary’, which boasts the immortal lyrics: “Not need no house/Don’t want my own home/I would prefer to be made of air/It would make me so happy/Not to be here.”
Unfortunately this review is rushed due to impending deadlines. I can only stress that this is one to buy, folks! 8/10


Various Artists – How Was The Air Up There?

1980/Evening Post

Applause to rock historians. And accolades to K-tel – marketers of dozens of el-cheapo TV-promoted records – which has brought to realisation a project of quite considerable retrospective significance; an album of 1960s NZ pop hits and obscurities called How Was The Air Up There?

The music falls essentially into two categories: that of rhythm and blues, and pop. Both fields are in the main fully derivative of their British influences, though much of it has a particularly Kiwi flavour.

At a more-than-generous 11 tracks per side, an in-depth description would be space consuming. Its compilers have obviously gone into New Zealand rock history in some considerable depth to come up with such an excellent cross-section of big hits and quaint oddities.

The most professional-sounding music here belongs to our biggest ‘60s pop success. The Fourmyula, represented here by the naïve charm of ‘Come With Me’ and ‘Nature’, which continues to stand as the all-time greatest New Zealand single. The Fourmyula, it is interesting to note, contained members Wayne Mason and Carl Evensen, later to surface in Rockinghorse, and a drummer called Chris Parry, now manager of British group The Cure, and owner of Fiction Records.

Clean-cut heartthrobs Larry’s Rebels provide mainstream, lightweight, likeable pop tunes ‘Mo Reen’ and ‘I Feel Good’, the latter of which was to be revived a decade later by another New Zealand group, Citizen Band.

The pop psychedelia of ‘How Is The Air Up There’ by The La De Da’s (featuring Kevin Borich on guitar), and the Hi-Revving Tongues’ serious social commentary ‘Tropic Of Capricorn’ are both worthy of America’s legendary Nuggets garage band compilation.

The big surprise of the package, to those who weren’t old enough at the time, is that Ray Columbus (of The Invaders) once had it in him to produce a classic such as ‘She’s A Mod’, which was even released in the United States.

But in many ways, it is the oddities that make this such a fascinating collection. The Four Fours (‘Go Go’) sound like they’d trash their instruments at a moment’s notice, yet they are the band that later evolved into the successful Human Instinct. And did you know that Christchurch once boasted a fine sleazy r’n’b group named Peter Nelson & The Castaways?

The high point for many could be the trash aesthetic of The Pleazers’ strained, over-the-top version of Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ or The Librettos’ ‘Let’s Go’, a definite contender for the all-time bad taste award circa ’66. Their sub-Shadows contribution is even introduced by the fab TV host Pete Sinclair.

There must be lots more where these came from and it’s to be hoped that second and third volumes will ensue. 8/10


Various Artists – Machines (Virgin)

1981/Evening Post

At last, here’s an intriguing compilation album with coherence and unity. Machines, featuring 12 electronically-inclined rock bands, is of interest to both connoisseurs and the not-yet-initiated to the synthesiser-based subgenre.

There is of course a measure of paranoid futuristic ditties (by Gary Numan and John Foxx) but the overall effect is one of variety and even humour.

Henry Bukowski’s ‘Making Love With My Wife’ is particularly novel and the album also contains some previously unreleased (in New Zealand) treasures by, among several others, Public Image Ltd. 7/10


Various Artists – Max’s Kansas City Volume 1 & 2 (CBS)

1980/Evening Post

Max’s Kansas City Volume 1 & 2 comes in a double package for the price of one. The second volume was recorded in 1977 and is a slick rock marketing exercise using the guise of the famous punk nightspot to promote a number of no-hoper mainstream rock groups.

The first volume originates from 1976, and the sound quality is of bootleg standard. Apart from the novelty value of Wayne (later Jayne) County and uneventful synthesiser duo Suicide, there is nothing of merit.

Except for the one track that makes the purchase price worth every cent, that is; Pere Ubu’s brutal ‘Final Solution’ completely shames the rest. Borrow a copy and tape this brilliant track. 5/10


Various – Metallurgy (Epic)

1981/In Touch

A disgraceful collection of the type of stuff that gives heavy metal a bad name, most of which would fade to pale in the presence of Motorhead’s Lemmy. The only cut that rises above the execrable is Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Monsters’. Trust, a French band with the social conscience lyrics of punk puppet Jimmy Pursey, are worth a laff or two. 3/10


Various – The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (Island)

May 1982/In Touch

This is a very special live compilation. It’s an Amnesty International benefit concert which features pop stars out of group context. Sting does a melancholy ‘Roxanne’ and ‘Message In A Bottle. Bob Geldof does ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’. Phil Collins does ‘In The Air Tonight’ and ‘The Roof Is Leaking’. What a joy to hear pop music minus bass and drums! Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton get to duet on three songs, and there’s some more nostalgia in Donovan Leitch performing ‘Catch The Wind’ and the topical ‘The Universal Soldier’. The finale is a unison effort of ‘I Shall Be Released’. The spoken word humour of its companion piece is also worth a look-in. It includes skits by Rowan Atkinson and the usual crowd. 7/10


Various – Urgh! A Music War! (A&M)

Dec 1981/In Touch

Double LP soundtrack to film of same name. Roughly in ‘new wave’ territory, it is simply a variety of groups and artists recorded “live” (one song each) – so essentially it’s a sampler album containing versions of songs elsewhere unobtainable. Lots of good moments (Magazine, Devo, Au Pairs) and a couple of brilliant ones (Pere Ubu and The Cramps), but these are sandwiched unattractively between uncomplimentary inferiorities that tend to diminish effectiveness. From great to pitiable. Tape the best. 5/10


Various Artists – Virginity (Virgin)

1979/Evening Post

Mike Oldfield and the Sex Pistols have but one thing in common – Virginity, a New Zealand-compiled cost price double album sampling choice cuts from the Virgin catalogue.

Up to 1976, the Virgin roster was typified by their first release (in 1973), Oldfield’s multimillion-selling Tubular Bells, but an about-face transpired with the coming of punk and new wave.

They were the first major company to realise the worth of this music, hence their near-total monopoly on much of the best British music today.

Surprisingly, side three of Virginity, which features several of their early signings, is largely disappointing.

Mike Oldfield rehashes Tubular Bells once again, synthesiser group Tangerine Dream trot out a tired-sounding atmospheric soundscape (mood music), songwriter Kevin Coyne proves he’s as bankrupt of musical ideas as he is exceptional lyrically, former new wave group The Motors go disco, and Johnny Rotten and his mum spew out an overlong, self-important interview.

The remaining sides are sheer delight though. On Side 1, Magazine – brain-child of intellectual Howard Devoto – and XTC get two tracks apiece. Interview and Penetration throw some exceptional power-pop our way, and John Lydon’s (aka Rotten’s) new group Public Image floor us with ‘Low Life’, at once a cry of pain and derision.

Side 2 is predominantly disco. Former glam-rockers Sparks team up with Donna Summer’s producer Giorgio Moroder for the ingenious ‘La Dolce Vita’, and Sparks crop up again producing ‘I Want A Man’ by Noel, whoever that may be. Supercharge weigh in with an overlong and slight disco satire. The Records appear with the straight pop of ‘Girls That Don’t Exist’, and Steve Hillage plays a lengthy virtuoso guitar solo on Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’.

Two classic new wave songs, the Members’ ode to living in a bed-sit ‘Solitary Confinement’, and the Skids’ ‘Into The Valley’, open Side 4, and two from the Virgin reggae catalogue (one by the religious Culture, the other by the extravagant Sly Dunbar) close the album.

In between are sandwiched the Sex Pistols’ version of The Who’s ‘Substitute’ and the straight-ahead energetic rock of the Ruts’ ‘Babylon’s Burning’. Anyone even casually interested in contemporary music should be loath to miss this. 7/10


The Velvet Underground – 1969 (Mercury)

1970/1980/Evening Post

One thing at which the music industry is particularly adept is creating (or exaggerating and marketing) saleable cult rock heroes.

The most reliable varieties of cult rock heroes are the dead, permanently incapacitated or incarcerated ones; unfortunates fooled into believing their record company’s press releases about themselves.

Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin (oh the list is endless) languish in ad-copy heaven either because they became convinced of their own immortality (in Presley’s case) or saw it as an essential that they carry out the inevitably sad, stupid, extreme conclusion of the better-to-burn-out-than-fade-away ethic (in Joplin’s and Jim Morrison’s case).

The brain behind early, inspired Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, is now a celebrated empty-headed acid casualty. Some maintain that Lou Reed belongs in a similar category.

Irresponsible critic circles and other fashionables by the lure of decadence and drugs bestow upon Reed near-legendary status, which stems from his spell at the helm of seminal New York ‘60s band The Velvet Underground, a unit many claim to be the important forefathers of punk rock.

Listening to their reissued classic 1969 yields little explanation of this phenomenon. The tastelessly tacky cover hides 103 minutes of supposedly innovative (I would prefer the epithet “dirgefully dated”) music, including well-known ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Waiting For The Man’ and the notorious ‘Heroin’.

These are songs which, according to The Rolling Stone Record Guide (which incidentally rates this album five stars) reflects lyrically “…the horrors and joys of drugs, the realities of life on the street.” Transpose the word ‘glorify’ onto that last ‘reflect’. Then look (and listen, if you dare) to the (un)natural evolution: the mellow washed-out shadow of a Reed on the 1980 effort Growing Up In Public (Arista). 4/10

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