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 ‘B’.
Backdoor Blues Band – Backdoor Blues Band (Jayrem)
Like all New Zealand bands that deign to meddle with the music of foreign deities, this bunch obviously figure that emulation is the sincerest form of flattery. Undoubtedly a vigorous live act, but their four-song EP captures four non-original songs in a professional, cleanly recorded and thoroughly inferior manner. Blues/soul without distinguishing character. 5/10
Now to what divine act of inspiration can we attribute the title 10 From 6? Ah! Ten songs from six albums! That’s really something. Like, clever, eh? Clever band, Bad Company.
Their penultimate number, ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’, spawned a whole subgenre of rock songs with soft decorous verses and thrusting, slam-bang choruses. Really, the song was a celebration of male sexual mechanical braggadocio, not even carnality, let alone sensuality.
‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’ was memorable, at least, but as the rest of this collection shows, it was an exception to a rather mundane rule. Bad Company – a bunch of white blues musos – wrote ordinary songs. Even as blues, it’s somehow culturally deficient, devoid of roots. And the lyrics would be insulting even to a retarded duck. 2/10
A gorgeous, positively exhilarating collection of songs. LA’s Bangles make real-girl ‘60s-influenced pop music for real girls and real boys. Last year’s debut, All Over The Place, was pretty astonishing, and Different Light is possibly even better. The songs are full-fleshed and maintain all the freshness of original conception through to live performance. The Bangles manage the very thing many other bands have been self-consciously trying to do ever since the ‘60s bit the big one: real pop by real people with real emotions, gutsy and tender, naïve and cynical. It’s not faked. When did the world last listen to lovely pop harmonies on a song with absolutely charging, raucous backing? Probably never, but it’s here on the title tune and others, and it’s perfect. And like a ‘60s pop album, it never gets boring, because the Bangles dish out variety, from the bubblegum of ‘Walking Down Your Street’ to the novelty of ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ to the folk sadness of ‘Following’. Record of the year, so far. 9/10
Peter Baumann – Repeat Repeat (Virgin)
Ex-Tangerine Dream keyboardist jumps on the sunk ship of Numanoid robotic tedium. His vocal debut takes shaky slices of Gazza and Iggy. The songs are weak-kneed digital dinky-toy ditties. After the impressive instrumental Transharmonic Nights, the limited vistas of Repeat Repeat disappoints. Co-produced by Robert Palmer. 5/5
Jeff Beck – Guitar Shop (CBS)
The best playing in years from one of rock’s top guitarists, and a surprisingly inventive instrumental bag of tricks. 7/10
This one group has shouldered the collective mirth of a world wanting so much more than a sensible snigger at the silliness of it all. An audience needing and aching for just one damn good chortle at the expense of pop’s designated prize chumps.
Finding themselves the butt of some of the cruellest jokes in circulation, and having weathered the hilarious slanderings of a satirical troupe whose name was fondly fashioned after their own, the Bee Gees disappeared, finally, without trace.
The brothers Gibb will never forget The Hee Bee Gee Bees, whose merciless ‘Meaningless Songs In Very High Voices committed virtual, instant genocide on the objects of their affectations. After that, both The Bee Gees and their assassins faded aways, and if we ever thought about them we suspected that Barry, Maurice and Robyn would be licking their wounds till this very day.
In the beginning, The Bee Gees sound glistened with a superficial psychedelic freshness. Crawling out of arid Oztrayleea in the mid-‘60s, their self-written pop gems found instant success in Blighty.
They never had credibility. None of that portentous, self-importance that their heroes The Beatles submerged themselves in during the Summer Of Love. The Bee Gees were nice clean lads. But boy did they have songs!
Like the very best of ‘60s pop, it was manufactured and imitative. Somehow – like other blatant fabrications such as The Monkees – it came out of the wash with its own identity.
Whether or not the brothers Gibb were writing to order, their hits from the ‘60s manage to keep their freshness into the late ‘80s. Songs like ‘Holiday’, ‘Gotta Get A Message To You’, ‘Words’, ‘Massachusetts’. Better still, the songs other people covered: Janis Joplin convincing us we just don’t know what it’s like ‘To Love Somebody’, and Al Green wondering ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart’.
The whole world began laughing at The Bee Gees when they had the unmitigated gall to launch Phase Two of their superfine career as blue-eyed, falsetto kings of the disco ghetto. No amount of facial hair, not distractions such as flying scarves could disguise the fact that the brothers were balding.
The pose was outrageous, the vocalese verging on the hysterical. But in there with the hint of cocaine, decadence and Hollywood gloss was another bunch of tailormade, grooving good songs. Couldn’t deny it. Just take an honest listen to Saturday Night Fever sometime (and the songs thereon).
During the late ‘70s if you weren’t strictly teen or black skinned, you hated disco. Preferably, you wore a Disco Sucks badge and played Graham Parker records. Anyone remember Graham Parker?
So The Bee Gees were Very Uncool Indeed. And eventually, amid the sort of personal and professional relationship traumas that make Fleetwood Mac seem like The Waltons by comparison, and the inevitable mimicry, the band called it a day.
Phase Three commences with ESP, a new album. Either these guys are shameless, or they have an acute smell for money. Or both.
Not that it’s entirely without merit. Would I suggest such a thing? The cover’s pretty good, for a start. Our boys pose in a sub-Stonehenge scenario, looking like three Druids on a picnic. I didn’t know Druids wore sunglasses, especially in the dark.
All the baggage of the new technology is aboard for the flight. Sequenced bass and drum programs abound. The songs, however – and I’d like to be telling you different – sound like seconds, the work of jaded craftsmen on a treadmill.
In a desperate trade-off between the dance crowd, the immense MOR rock audience, and those ballad admirers who would have sentiment rule the day, The Bee Gees have delivered a slightly stale pink bun of a record; while the icing’s still tasty, the cream inside is by now quite sour.
They can still muster pleasant tunes. They do on the successful single, ‘You Win Again’, and on ‘The Longest Night’, an exceptionally sweet song featuring a rare vocal lead by the best larynx among them, Robin.
The lyrics are off, however. In fact, they’re a real revelation. A journey to the centre of the male sexist egocentric. In their world, all women are mother figures and sluts, worthy of idolatry but somehow, crazily, never attaining life as anything but objects.
Try this for size: “I’m gonna hit you from all sides/Lay your fortress wide open/Nobody stops this body from/Taking you”. (‘You Win Again’). Is this rape or what?
If this male isn’t happy, the whole world stops turning. “What you hold in your hand is a miracle/And it’s dead if I don’t have you,” croons the innocent lecher on ‘Live Or Die (Hold Me Like A Child’). What does she hold in her hand, anyway?
There’s worse. ‘This Is Your Life’ poses as a piece of demystification on the politics of a female selling her pound of flesh, with some cheap hippie philosophising thrown in; and ‘Overnight’ begs the question: “Won’t you stay with me overnight?” promising to “give a little bit to you” Whatever that means!
On the bright side, it can be said that ESP didn’t promise any more than it delivered. Still… right now, not even a plane crash triple death could guarantee The Bee Gees and Brothers Gibberish pride of place in Rock and Roll’s Kredibility Korner. 4/10
Fred: “Surprise!” Cindy: “We’d just thought we’d drop in!” Fred: “Where’s the icebox?” Cindy: “Where’s the punch?”
And so begins the second B-52’s longplayer, which is a case of ‘second verse, same as the first’, and sensibly so.
The B-52’s are about youth, parties, dancing and sex (in reverse order). They don’t eulogise it, they celebrate it. Until the cows come home, in fact.
Wild Planet is less varied and more unified than the first. It’s still, however, the sum of its parts: a collection of exquisitely recorded rhythm tracks overlaid by cheap ‘60s guitar, organ and vocals. The vocals are Fred’s coy, knowing narrative, Cindy’s sexy teenybopper yelp, and Kate’s space howl. Combined, they sound like the collective progeny of those marvy ‘up, up and away in my beautiful balloon’ hipsters.
In parts, Wild Planet sounds too familiar for comfort, and you get sneaky suspicions that you’ve heard it all before on ‘Runnin’ Around’ and ‘Devil In My Car’. But the good more than outweighs the bad. ‘Strobelight’ eclipses the lot. ‘Give Me Back My Man’ and ‘Private Idaho’ follow close behind. ‘Party Out Of Bounds’ is a suitable opener, and ‘Quiche Lorraine’ is the album’s ‘Rock Lobster’.
The B-52’s radiate lustrously in their own orbit, just as other American concept groups from Devo to The Ramones do in theirs. I don’t generally like packaged products, but The B-52’s aren’t so easily classified as some would like to imagine. The conceptualised B-52’s image limits the scope somewhat, but it’s the image that sells in America today, and in an environment where a group has to sell in the vicinity of 100,000 records just to break even, I’ve got no quibbles with a bid for economic survival.
The B-52’s are an unpretentious party band. While a need to move on sooner or later is recognised, there is no reason why they can’t pull a Split Enz on the world. Now there’s a group whose music superseded their own overwhelming image design! 8/10
1986/Wellington City Magazine
When you put a posse of peculiar Flying Nun popsters into a big studio this is what you get: a five-track EP with two very good songs and a somewhat limp production. BNR write (pinch) the kind of instantly memorable riffs that endear, and ‘Ain’t Mutatin’ and ‘Cresta’ – complete with acoustic/electric guitars that sound slightly at odds or even, perhaps, out of tune? – are evidence of this. 6/10
“I can’t imagine anyone wanting to put that much emphasis on a heartbeat… well, I don’t want my heart to attack me so I don’t do that. I won’t.” – Captain Beefheart on ‘mama heartbeat drums’ in a recent Creem magazine interview.
Beefheart summed up, right there, why he’s always destined to be less acceptable to the sound-thrill rock gaggle than The Birthday Party. Beefheart music speaks more of organic things, and almost all of the many bands that have taken large chunks of Beefheart for their own thing have been city/industrial-chemical based.
The Birthday Party have taken more Beefheart into their collective whatever than any band since Pere Ubu. Where Ubu differ is that they were influenced mainly by the absurd humour/sadness and risk-taking of Beefheart, but always chased their own distinct vision. The Birthday Party come rather closer to emulating the legend, but from a rock-based concept – no matter how obscure, weird and extreme that base may be.
They never steal from Beefheart, though, so don’t go thinking that this will be an easy band to avoid. The listening of it is both incantatory and mandatory.
The master’s presence comes into play on a) song titles like ‘Zoo-Music Girl’, b) lyrics like “I had a dreadful diehood diehart, drunken, sunken, monk-heart/Oh I had a wonderful diehood thanks to my la-la family” and c) the rhythms, vocals and instrumentation of ‘Zoo-Music Girl’, ‘Capers’, ‘Figure Of Fun’ and ‘A Dead Song’.
I heard snatches of other bands: mostly Gang Of Four (guitars on ‘Zoo-Music Girl’, the scuttled rhythm on ‘Cry’) and Joy Division (‘Ho-Ho’, ‘Dull Day’). I’m not saying that their material is derivative, just that their equations have led them to similar conclusions in several respects.
The thing that surprises me the most about The Birthday Party is a) the extremity of their music and b) the fact that they’re bloody Ockers! Under normal circumstances surprise number b would have probably stopped me exploring the group, as my kneecaps are prone to pucker in with the mere thought of fetid Oz fare. But there’s no denying it, as their cult European audience will testify: The Birthday Party have delivered one of the albums of the year.
As previously explained, the dreaded ‘mama hearbeat’ is there, which counts out Beefheart as a Birthday Party boy and will no doubt alienate other ethnic types, as will the white noise. And noise this record makes; far more than the new Van Halen as a matter of fact. Try ‘Cry’ or ‘Figure Of Fun’ for earsplitting effect. The Birthday Party have a penchant for using sound dimensions with rather more immediate effect than their hero.
As for personal favourites, I would have to nominate ‘Cry’ again, along with the eery, remote double-tracked monster vocal of ‘Capers’ and ‘Yard’ with its dead-deep bassline and vocals like you’ve never heard. ‘Just You And Me’ finishes the LP on, if not a cheery note, at least a macabrely humorous one: “First… I tried… to kill it with a hammer!” and so on.
Although this album (the band’s second) is originally on Australia’s Missing Link label, and 4AD in Britain, it will be released by indie Propeller in NZ. Look for it late June/early July. 8/10
Aaargh! ‘Sonny’s Burning’ is one of the Birthday Party’s best-ever screams. Look, the other speaker on my stereo’s fucking up already. ‘Release The Bats’ did it to the old speaker, and I’ve been waiting for yonks for replacement parts. ‘Deep In The Woods’ is lovely, sickly. A Birthday Party ballad, yet. With a sting in the tail. Nicholas Cave (real name): what a voice. ‘Wild World’ digs up Iggy’s corpse and gives his rotting rock and roll carcass a massive enema. Horrible. ‘Fears Of Gun’ is the greatest riff-song EVEREVEREVER! A chainsaw sick-sex spiral. Too strong for the living, too fast for the dead. 9/10
Last year the Victoria University Student Building resounded to the passion of The Birthday Party and we lived to tell the tale. It was a rare occasion, a once-in-a-lifetime. The Dominion wouldn’t write anything about this rotten band because they were too obscure. Other people tried to see the gig banned for ludicrous sexism charges. A few hundred attended what was an intensely moving and unforgettable experience. It wasn’t the crazy, frenzied bunch New Musical Express had hailed, but instead individuals on the edge of collapse playing dark, desperate, primal songs for themselves.
The most weary, desperate song of all finished with a splutter and singer Nick Cave apologising: “That one’s got a few bugs in it.” At which point an audience member added: “It’s a terrible song!” and then, “Bring on Jim Morrison, yay!”
Funny, because it’s Jim Morrison’s ‘The End’ which is in some unlikely way related to ‘Jennifer’s Veil’, which turns up on The Birthday Party’s post-mortem EP Mutiny. Except that where ‘The End’ is a nasty hamming-it-up exercise, this is the real stuff: the confused dying remnants of a real demon flower. ‘Jennifer’s Veil’ is a good story brilliantly told/sung/played. It’s a different form of BP: less noise and no obfuscation. I’ll play it until the cows come home.
After this, the rest touches me less, but it’s worth pursuing. ‘Say A Spell’ is a song by guitarist Rowland Howard, and as such is a mood and a feeling brilliantly executed but with less to say. ‘Mutiny’ itself is an essay of words, and a rejection of life in heaven: “Mutiny in heaven… if this is heaven I’m bailing out.” ‘Swampland’ screams the terror of one who has passion in a scenario where that very thing is stamped out: “So cum mah executioners! Cum bounty huntahs! Cum yah county killers – for ah cannot run no more.” It’s a feeling very close to simultaneous victory, death and damnation.
One can but hope that this essential epitaph to The Birthday Party is released here pronto.
In 10 years or so of applied soaking up of new sounds I’ve never been “into” reggae music. All too often it sounded all the same. Unhip as I’m sure I was (or am), reggae just didn’t work for me, and it wasn’t for lack of trying.
A couple of months ago, something finally clicked when I listened to the Black Uhuru compilation released here through RTC. Although this was vital reggae, in no way making concessions to white tastes or values, it seemed to bridge the gap between recent dubwise new white music and the real thing. Its pleasurable, tasteful use of dub and well-placed echoed vocals (and what vocals!) made it accessible to even to these very white ears.
Sinsemilla fell on my doorstep soon after, and it’s a harder LP, with taut, tight rhythms, but just as good in its own way and rightly lauded by the overseas music press.
The basis of the Black Uhuru sound are the vocals of Michael Rose, Puma Jones and Derrick Simpson: light, harmonised and simultaneously preaching. The rhythms of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare are the icing on the cake and quite essential.
There’s nothing new in the music’s sentiments: Rasta rhetoric trotted out yet again, the ‘erb and Africa eulogised. But musicians with convictions, whether hedonist or spiritual, for some reason tend to produce the most extreme, interesting music – with the exception of born-again Christians and aging drug casualties.
The core of the thing is soul. The music uplifts. It satisfies the heart, settles fears and doubts without coming over all saccharin or being in the least bit escapist. As a novice myself, I wholeheartedly recommend this as a great starting place. 8/10
With the famed Sly Dunbar/Robbie Shakespeare rhythm section, Black Uhuru defined the post-Marley Jamaican sound. Their early sides were stunners, but lately, singer Michael Rose’s exhortations – militant and cliched – had begun to sound tired. The music had also changed, taking the American market into account.
Brutal is the first album with new vocalist Junior Reid. Inconsistencies mar the product. Puma’s haunting backing singing isn’t matched by her lead take on ‘City Vibes’, and the persistent use of blaring rock electric guitar soloing is wearying to ears trained in the subtleties of de riddims. But Reid’s fast-talking patter works well and at its best, new life is breathed into the reggae monster. 6/10
Blue Oyster Cult – Mirrors (CBS)
Former hard rock kings Blue Oyster Cult go soft but do it well on Mirrors. 7/10
Dust my broom, it’s the British blues boom (take two). Fifteen years have elapsed since swags of earnest young Britons, spearheaded by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and lesser-known names like Cyril Davies and his Allstars, set about carbon-copying American blues and rhythm and blues.
Fifteen years on (afar and asunder), in the wake of the concentrated energy of punk and new wave, music fans are once again searching for new fads to latch onto. Consequently, in the space of one year, we have endured powerpop, mod, ska and now full-circle back to a good ol’ blues revival.
Ironically, the Blues Band consists of old pros who were in the midst of the first British blues boom, most remarkable of which is the case of drummer Hughie Flint, former sticksman for the legendary Bluesbreakers along with Eric Clapton and John Mayall.
Of the others, Paul Jones is best remembered as vocalist on many of Manfred Mann’s biggest 1960s pop hits, Tom McGuinness played guitar and sang in Manfred Mann and later formed his own group, McGuinness Flint, Dave Kelly backed bluesmen such as Howlin’ Wolf, and Gary Fletcher has a less famous background in country, soul and of course, blues.
Official Blues Band Bootleg Album does not win any awards for originality but makes for a great old fashioned party album (as in dancing – remember dancing?) It’s a hot’n’sweaty offering in which the group play (for enjoyment’s sake alone) largely blues standards with an agreeable lack of reverence for the originals.
The songs are all pretty much on an equal footing. From Elmore James’ opening ‘Talk To Me Baby’ to the finale ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’, the rhythm section pumps out a fat, driving backing, and Jones’ golden rust blues harp dominates solo proceedings.
If there was to be one criticism, it would be the lack of variety. The band seem to treat every song in approximately the same way, which is great for partying, but not such a good thing for the record listener.
But that’s a minor consideration. What Bootleg does offer in abundance is a rare commodity among today’s studio sterility: charisma. 7/10
A limited edition re-recording featuring recent addition Wendy Calder seems like an interesting proposition, but having listened, and listened again, I can’t quite help wondering… why? Why both, that is. TBE fans will no doubt find this eminently collectible, and it may even succeed the original version as a dance-floor fave, being technically superior and of longer duration. But essentially, ‘Pulsing’ is the most cliched song in the band’s repertoire, and I bet they know it.
Anyway, what we have here is basically a rehashed elongated version of ‘Pulsing’ on the a-side, and on the b-side an ‘Electro Dub’ which is actually also ‘Pulsing without the vocals, or at least with electronically treated lines. I dunno. I guess I’m grizzling. But isn’t it all a little bit regressive, at this early stage in TBE’s career? Meanwhile, we wait with bated breath for the first LP.
One very frustrating facet of a reviewer’s task when confronted with artifice minus art, or ass minus aesthetics, is that the enjoyability quotient of such material – such horrible populist scam shams – is often quite high. But, of course, we cannot admit it. Shit can smell like roses thanks to the wonders of modern science! And in a wonderfully roundabout way, The Body Electric are proof of this profundity.
Well, I’m going to come clean. I told my friends that when the man from the record company slapped this into my little Walkman I immediately went back to my Howlin’ Wolf tape. I lied. In fact, I turned it right up loud and ambled my way down Courtenay Place actually enjoying The Body Electric’s Presentation & Reality.
I still, however, do not think it’s a very good record. Aesthetically, that is (of course).
Let’s be positive for a minute, though, and look at the good points. First, it has a luxury gatefold sleeve. When you actually get down to listening to the record, you immediately appreciate the state-of-the-art production and sound quality, which simply has to be amongst the best to come out of a New Zealand studio (Marmalade, in this case).
The other good thing about Presentation & Reality is the synthesiser melodies that play as under/overcurrents in many of the songs. ‘Babies On Parade’, for instance, has a deep synth bit straight from some long-forgotten TV horror theme. ‘Zanzibar’ is another, this time with a squiggly little number which is half the time hidden in the mix but which subconsciously seduces the listener with its attractive repetition. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget to mention the earth-shattering synth-bass in the otherwise not-so-compelling ‘Compelling’, the very last track and an instrumental.
Essentially, though, there’s little here that hasn’t been done better before by less populist stars like Kraftwerk. Real turn-offs include lyrics which sound forced and read embarrassing, and several half-hearted attempts at songs with nothing to say and even less to emote (‘Night Pictures’, ‘Dreaming In A Life’) – Garry Smith’s recent decision to mimic the pseudo-operatic vocal stylisations from silly old Blighty.
Aside from everything else, what worries me about The Body Electric is this: they have (are considered to have) mucho commercial potential. Now this in itself is fine. But consider two NZ groups of three years ago, Mi-sex and The Knobs. Okay, forget The Knobz! Consider Mi-sex. The Body Electric may lack the guitars and drums, and the whole ridiculous macho rock’n’roll charade, but like Mi-sex, what they have to offer is a little too close to being a gimmick for lasting value. Computer Crimes obviously had its merits at the time, but where does that leave the band in 1983?
I wish The Body Electric every success. I do, under the circumstances, find it hard to believe that Garry Smith was at one time a big Pere Ubu fan. If only The Body Electric had a little of David Thomas’s crazy random spirit about them! And yeah, ain’t the title just a little too close for comfort to Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s Architecture & Morality?
Not so long ago The Boomtown Rats were verging on the kind of success reserved for those few who land in exactly the right place and time. It was not to be. This purportedly new wave group, led by Irish former journalist Bob Geldof, foundered on the rocks when they were in reaching distance of fantasy island.
This time last year they were the most popular group in Britain, but their controversial song ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ inhibited the expected commercial inroads to the essential American market. US radio banned it, claiming it was in bad taste.
A year later and practically forgotten, the band is licking its wounds, The Police having done what The Rats should have – conquered the world, as it were. The boys have finally got together another album, which has slipped into record shops with little fuss or furore. However, it hasn’t escaped a blanket damning by the overseas critical establishment.
Mondo Bongo is one of the most listenable Boomtown Rats records. When one comes to terms with the fact that the Rats were always at heart a less-than-brilliant old-fashioned rock band much like the Strolling Bones, one can see this LP for what it is – a reasonably honest effort. Fate dealt the Rats rather a cruel blow – one that has obviously encouraged them to retreat to the recording studio and take solace in the closeted world therein.
Mondo Bongo, while bitsy on the whole and definitely devoid of the rock’n’roll swing of their first two albums, has plenty to enjoy for audio buffs and noise addicts. It’s unsuccessful, basically because it’s too disjointed a work to be otherwise. However, it’s worth a selective listen for the drum sound and the random craftsmanship that takes place. 6/10
Six years in the making. Millions of dollars. And what do we get? A concept album!
No one could deny the slick power of Boston’s early sides, but Third Stage is a national disaster. While they’re not naval-gazing on undistinguished ballads such as ‘Amanda’ or ‘My Destination’, they’re launching their redundant rocket boosters on crud such as ‘The Launch’, or exercising their dissipated rock and roll muscle on weedy rampages such as ‘Cool The Engines’.
I couldn’t think of a better candidate for Turkey Of The Year. Haven’t these guys even heard of The Young Ones? 0/10
Phil Bowering – Hiatus (self-released)
April 1982/In Touch
Hiatus is a cassette release by former Protons bassist Phil Bowering. Here he plays a variety of instruments, the most predominant being synthesiser. It’s a collection of brief, calm and somewhat reflective/meditative pieces. The monophonic synth playing is simplistic by any standards, but I guess that was part of the principle of the project. Pleasant fragments that go to broadening the cultural horizons of NZ popular music, however tentatively. 6/10
One of Wellington’s most valuable musicians, bassist Phil Bowering teamed up with cohorts old and new in Auckland’s 8-track Basement Studios November last year. Quiet Streets is the result. Initially, the most striking factor is the sound quality, which is of international standard. Likewise the level of musicianship on display. The music is a natural melting pot of funk and jazz strains filtered through reggae and several other genres. ‘Glass Cage’ is the most overtly funky and aggressive number. ‘Alone Tonite’ is a ballad which is unusually honest in its confrontation of personal vs Political frustration/freedom. Favourites are ‘Insurrection (They Call It Democracy)’ with its reggae lope, and the tranquil instrumental title track. I’m not so sure about grand finale ‘The Eternal (Full Circle)’ – a little too 1967 for me, man. Quiet Streets takes the UB40 subtle approach to subversion theory and applies it, in the main, with aplomb. Every song has something to say, but instead of ramming it down people’s throats, Bowering’s band woos the listener with a selection that does not, stylistically, challenge musical boundaries. Here, the eye of the storm is found within. 7/10
David Bowie’s importance to 1970s popular culture was manifested in the relative mass notoriety he gained in an image. Today, he keeps a lower profile. In his last three albums (Low, Heroes and Lodger) he explored musical landscapes and psychological boundaries rather than the hedonistic fashion image pursuits of his former characters.
The fan corps remain devoted. Bowie has been over-estimated in some quarters as a musical innovator but his new album, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) is solid justification for the more rabid claims of his devotees. Here, Bowie looks both backwards and forwards. Backwards in his dissection of former pretensions, both lyrically and musically. Forwards in the emotional honesty and world-weary tinge of desperation in his singing.
The musical backing is almost a parody of his first popular era, particularly on ‘Up The Hill Backwards’, on which old cohort Tony Visconti plays acoustic guitar. His chosen musicians appear to represent different periods of the past decade right up to the present with Robert Fripp’s spine-chilling electric guitar on six of the nine cuts, and way back down the line to Pete Townsend on ‘Because You’re Young’.
The album’s sounds are harsh, aside from the atypically beautiful ‘Ashes To Ashes’, which amply demonstrates a possible imminent shift into a mellow groove. But unlike Bryan Ferry’s version of mellow, this is style with content.
While Bowie may represent to most the (former?) kingpin of pop fashion, he expresses his in terms of individuality, and is not above criticising the parrot-fashion crowd: “Fashion – turn to the left/Fashion – turn to the right/We are the goon squad/And we’re coming to town/Beep-beep” (‘Fashion’).
On this album Bowie’s for real – a soul singer for the 1980s. There is no readymade, encapsulated character presented here. Bowie is instead little bits of conflicting character vying to express themselves, much like the real world. At the same time, the artist realises that this is too much of a dangerous time to mess around with artifice and pretence: “I am barred from the event/I really don’t understand the situation/So where’s the moral/People have their fingers broken/To be insulted by these fascists – it’s so degrading.” (‘It’s No Game’). 9/10
With Let’s Dance, Bowie provides audible confirmation that his defection to a career in acting is spiritually and physically, if not financially, complete. It doesn’t stain the Bowie track record; all good-quality stuff, ably performed, professionally conceived, conceptualised and packaged. But why?
Bowie has never been a musical innovator, but he has played an important dual role as a kind of ‘good taste’ barometer in fashion and music in a social context. His ability to avoid bandwagons and create his own by joining forces with those musicians with style and vision has cast him in the light of a catalyst. Think of how many people suddenly decided Eno was hip when Bowie released Low – just one example.
Okay, so what are Bowie’s musical contributions to the current decade thus far? Scary Monsters in 1980 was an excellent summation of the previous decade which shone a light into the present. But since then… nothing. And now, Let’s Dance, a record that, for all its definite merits, is piecemeal.
Nile Rodgers’ co-production has taken the emphasis back into the world of American disco-cum-soul. No bad thing, but hardly constituting a major new career move. The songs expose Bowie’s dilemma: they are culled from various places, sources and times. ‘Criminal World’ is the only bona fide non-original, but the title track and ‘Modern Love’ at the same time are the only numbers to really announce “This is 1983!” (And that’s because of their unfortunate shallow ’83 dance sheen).
Let’s Dance: not so much a wrong-headed career move as a piece of respectable product which will neither embarrass Bowie’s army of fans, nor convince me that his head’s not in a different space altogether.
For a decade or more, a man of scrawny physique and as much macho appeal as Kermit The Frog has been an object of female sexual fantasy. In eight years of interviewing musicians and commenting on their work, I have encountered numerous extremes of Bowiefanophilia, including several young women who fervently believed they were destined to meet and even marry their maestro.
Legend has it that post-Bowie concert bashes often resemble a kind of latter-day virgin sacrificial ceremony, complete with legions of willing, sweet young things obsessed with and hypnotised by Sir David. While the Aids scare may have halted such frivolous activities, no scare in the world can freeze a girl’s imagination.
Mankind has much to thank David Bowie for, too. Us unfortunate hairless apes no longer need suffer terminal embarrassment at the gymnasium trying to waken non-existent muscles or risk self-inflicted brain damage at the local rugby club. Nor do we consider it necessary to hulk down the street with hands plugged in pockets, legs astride an invisible motorcycle and feet pointing outwards, to indicate our gender.
It’s reassuring to know that Bruce Springsteen and Don Johnson are not the only available pop-sexual prototypes, and although past idols have hinted at slightly more sophisticated chemistries, only Bowie has openly flaunted the ambiguity inherent in the bisexual lifestyle.
Having acknowledge Bowie’s singular major contribution to Western Civilisation, I must inevitably move towards his music, and more specifically his new album, Never Let Me Down.
Let’s do the time warp. It’s 1972, the age of Glam Rock, and Bowie is unceremoniously squabbling over the title prize with arch rival Marc Bolan. I listen to his music, and begin to get a little suspicious of the media’s obvious fascination with this character. Not that the music is bad… just inconsequential. An actor playing out roles, a reasonable singer and songsmith – and media manipulator.
Ten years later, the rock’n’roll world had survived the media-plundering tactics of Malcolm McLaren and his ilk. Unlike these cynical manipulators, however, Bowie teased the media with talent, not PR tactics. He simply came up with some colourful, evocative and slightly naughty images which a bored media lapped up.
As the teens satisfied themselves with David Essex, Gary Glitter and Duran Duran… erm, sorry, Slade… the serious rock fan (RIP 1976?) enjoyed the obvious intelligence of Bowie’s alternative, while finding further stimulation in his multimedia approach.
Unfortunately, all the bandying about with personae and images – as he recently revealed – was simply camouflage. He was such a normal kind of a guy that he was afraid of revealing himself.
His image and music shrewdly marked the decade, year by year, from Stones riffs and Spiders From Mars to a take on US city soul and more. His cosmetic vanity held a special allure, and the hint of meaning in his lyrics meant more to the subculture he appealed to than the obvious lack of real depth, identity or profundity.
Ultimately, there’s more fun and insight to be gained reading Orwell than basking in the 1984isms of Diamond Dogs, a record many consider Bowie’s masterpiece.
When Bowie came clean and – like Leo Sayer (who?) and Peter Gabriel years before him – dropped the façade, his old fans watched, disturbed as he peeled layer after layer of masks off his diminishing head.
When the real Thin White Duke appeared, he had all but become invisible.
In 1987, he constantly stresses how normal he really is, slags his bisexual past, and makes disarmingly charismatic appearances in motion pictures.
In a gross error of judgment, David Bowie continues to make records. Let’s Dance and, to a lesser extent, Tonight (his last proper album some three years ago) were boring but professional, tasteful product nevertheless. The arrangements moved, even if they wore gas masks.
On Never Let Me Down, the arrangements are right out of kilter. A sub-Simple Minds drum sound pushes everything along in haste, creating clutter upfront and a vacuum behind.
Uncredited guitar hero Peter Frampton graunches out his horrid licks without a glimmer of taste or subtlety, which takes on a special irony given the calibre of previous Bowie guitarists.
Everything sounds wrong here. After six listens I can’t even remember the tunes to any but the title track, which is a relaxed, user-friendly pop ballad. And it’s the only song – except ‘Beat Of Your Drum’ – where Bowie uses his voice distinctively; it’s the only song to create a singular atmosphere.
How did he ever end up with this mess? Really, it’s not for you or me to worry. But even his kids’ songs in Muppet-movie Labyrinth are better than the waist-deep sewage seepage this record wades in.
Maybe the man should stick to acting. After all, there’s a whole new generation of teenyboppers grooving along to the aging actor in his latest box-office success.
When I think of Billy Bragg I think of Rick from The Young Ones. Bragg, not Cliff Richards, should be Rick’s idol. Bragg’s trendy, politically correct (ie, towing the red-left line with the ideological and humanitarian immovability of a true wally) and has as much trouble getting his inarticulate vocals through what sound like incredibly fleshy lips as Rick does with his teeth.
On this latest 12” EP, Bragg gives fab value for money, of course. We’re blessed with four songs, and surprise, two of them are practically non-political! Two of them are, in fact, ‘sensitive’ soft things.
The title tune is the closest your hero gets to performing a ballad. Only the usual nondescript guitar thrashing and Bragg’s own thug-of-a-voice mar what can only be imagined are heartfelt soul sentiments.
Similarly, his version of the ‘60s classic ‘Walk Away Renee’ is almost poignant. It consists, simply, of skeletal acoustic guitar playing the tune in question, and a spoken monologue about one of our lad’s early loves.
Then there’s the other two. Bragg’s own ‘Between The Wars’, and the traditional protest song ‘Think Again’. I probably sympathise with the sentiments, if the truth be known, but couldn’t stay awake long enough to find out.
Billy Bragg is the Country Joe McDonald of the ‘80s. At least McDonald wrote some groovy love songs. 5/10
For a band with its background in the apocalyptic maelstrom of Killing Joke, Brilliant are a bad joke indeed. Cut the association, expect less, and their directionless dance hybrid seems less compromised.
Brilliant have a trilling black female vocalist who – if one were to be cynical – could be described as a token dash of surrogate soul. The music itself switches between several modes: synthetic reggae, techno, disco/soul and cosmopolitan silky-smooth schmaltz.
It’s banal and derivative, if slickly produced, and tailored to a market. But there’s something strange going on. The song ‘Somebody’ is a good example. It is standard disco with a few New Order-type techno discords thrown in for effect. But just when you think it’s simply predictable disco crossover material, they throw in this ridiculous heavy metal guitar solo. This patented sound is to be found in every two or three tracks, though it is suitably muted.
When you’ve glided through 40 minutes of Brilliant, you are left with the impression that the most distinctive thing about them is also the most inappropriate element of their music. 3/10
Following up last year’s eloquent, introspective piano-trio album Song Of Home, Further Down The Road features more delectable Broadbent piano stylings with able accompaniment from Andy Brown (bass) and Frank Gibson Jnr (drums).
Again, the accent is firmly on other people’s songs. Only three of Broadbent’s compositions are offered, which is a little sad. No quibbles with the standards selected for interpretation, but it would take a genius to reinterpret Horace Silver’s beautiful ‘Peace’ and make anything more of it than the original. Or Charlie Parker’s ‘Au Privave’. Or Cole Porter’s ‘Night And Day’.
That said, there’s distinct artistry and integrity at work here which makes this record perfect for end-of-evening listening. 6/10
Praise Jah, the reggae drought is over. Broggs’ release won’t blow you away, but it’s as natural as the title, and despite its partial recording in America, the content is still certifiably biodegradable. Session pros provide the music and Broggs sings in a delightfully off-key style that’s carefree and just tuff enuff. There’s politics here – any guesses what ‘International Farmer’ is about? – but you can’t pin too much on a guy who can sing things as beguiling as ‘I Admire You’. 7/10
Gary Brooker – No More Fear Of Flying (Chrysalis)
Gary Brooker (former leader of Procol Harum) proves how the mighty have fallen with No More Fear Of Flying. 5/10
This is songwriter Browne’s “protest” album. You know, the one in which the sensitive one slinks inside the skin of Big Issues and waxes lyrical about them. Unfortunately (for him) it follows in the footsteps of Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog, which sang about similar issues with (albeit muted) passion, without sacrificing the creativity of her music.
Browne’s musical line is generally the one in the middle of the road. He’s pretty much your typical singer-songwriter who doesn’t go much for musical invention, but who has encased himself in the musical Stillwater of LA sessioneers for want of better ideas.
Lives In The Balance is a patchy record, but it does care. While the sound might mimic the abysmal Billy Joel occasionally, one cannot fail to admire the guy for having the guts to criticise aspects of the America he loves.
Two songs finally hit gut level and rise to meet the heart. The title track is a real protest tour de force, thanks to the immaculate arrangements featuring the haunting accompaniment of a Nueva Cancion group, and direct lyrics: “You hear one thing again and again/How the USA stands for freedom/And we come to the aid of a friend/But who are the ones we call our friends?/These governments killing their own/Or the people who finally can’t take anymore/And they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone?”
Also affecting is ‘In The Shape Of A Heart’, a song of hurt which is too real to be based on heresy. An extra blob for the two decent songs. 6/10
The Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady is already nostalgia. It is in fact a collection of the group’s singles, up until now unreleased in this country. In short, it’s a delight, and is punk inasmuch as the guitar sound is a niggling, ugly background buzzsaw and the lyrics occasionally go for slightly more explicit meanings than the average Max Bygraves album.
But the tunes (yes, real ones too!) are worthy of The Beatles, and the Buzzcocks’ performance of such is filled to the brim with youthful enthusiasm.
Pete Shelley’s lyrics are the eye-opener. They’re love songs all, but always pessimistic to the point of depression. They explore relationships with a detail that may seem egotistical but is in fact honest. Chances are we can relate to them.
Most of the 16 tracks are excellent, but particularly notable is ‘What Do I Get’, ‘I Don’t Mind’, ‘Love You More’, ‘Ever Fallen In Love’, ‘Promises’, and a tune which sounds like it should have been a 1960s pop classic, ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’.
Like The Shoes or The Records, Buzzcocks make modern pop, but unlike those two examples, Buzzcocks play and write it with passion, rather than perfecting it stylistically as an art and thereby losing its charm. Recommended. 9/10