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

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’.

 

B

 

Peter Baumann – Repeat Repeat (Virgin)

1981/In Touch

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

 

The B-52’s – Wild Planet (Warners)

1980/In Touch

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

 

The Birthday Party – Prayers On Fire (Propeller)

1981/In Touch

“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

 

Birthday Party – The Bad Seed (4AD)

1982/TOM

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

 

Black Uhuru – Sinsemilla (Island)

1981/In Touch

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

 

Blue Oyster Cult – Mirrors (CBS)

1979/Evening Post

Former hard rock kings Blue Oyster Cult go soft but do it well on Mirrors. 7/10

 

The Blues Band – Official Blues Band Bootleg Album (Arisa)

1980/Evening Post

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

 

The Boomtown Rats – Mondo Bongo (Mercury)

1981/Evening Post

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

 

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

 

Phil Bowering/Low Profile – Quiet Streets (Jayrem)

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 – Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (RCA)

1980/Evening Post

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

 

David Bowie – Let’s Dance (EMI) 6/10

1983/TOM

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.

 

Gary Brooker – No More Fear Of Flying (Chrysalis)

1979/Evening Post

Gary Brooker (former leader of Procol Harum) proves how the mighty have fallen with No More Fear Of Flying. 5/10

 

The Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady (UA)

1980/Evening Post

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

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