Tuesday, 23 September 2014

100 LPs shortlist #42: Primal Scream - "Give Out But Don't Give Up"

Primal Scream were darlings of the English music press in 1991, with their soundtrack of the then-burgeoning rave scene "Screamadelica". The album is regarded in the hallowed annals of publications like Mojo and the NME as a masterpiece, capturing the zeitgeist of a brave new underground movement.

So what do you do when you're the darling of the hipper-than-thou music rags, to follow up said masterpiece?

Commit something close to career suicide: release a rock album.

The band had released two indie rock albums in the late 1980s that were quite average sellers. "Screamadelica" saw a huge shift in sound and saw them at the vanguard of a new sound influenced heavily by house music and other forms of European dance music. They became the accessible and visible face of an otherwise hidden, clandestine cultural movement.

When "Give Out but Don't Give Up" landed in stores and journalists desks in 1994, the reception was hostile. The criticism was largely the same. In summary: "Who the hell does Bobby Gillespie think he is, making an album that sounds like a poor imitation of 'Exile on Main Street'?" The NME even went so far to label the band as "dance traitors".

So what is the problem here? The album's biggest crime is that it wasn't "Screamadelica Volume 2". It wasn't anything like the extended heavy dance grooves of its predecessor. There were very few drum machines or synths to be heard.

Mind you, all the tracks here all pack mighty danceable grooves within their structures. The difference is that they are all played on real instruments: acoustic drums, electric guitars and basses and brass. It even features guest vocals from soul singer Deneice Williams and Parliament/Funkadelic leader George Clinton. To further round out the P-Funk connection, the back cover even has a grainy photo of Funkadelic's recently deceased guitarist Eddie Hazel.

If anything, the grooves are not as high energy as what they were previously or as they would become on subsequent albums such as "Vanishing Point" and "XTRMNTR". But that does not mean this is a wasted effort.

The record starts off with the two best and strongest tracks "Jailbird" and "Rocks", both guitar-heavy jams that are just plain good fun, as is "Call on Me" later on. Mr Clinton runs riot on a few tracks, most notably "Funky Jam" and the title track. While the latter is a sexy slow burning groove, the former is a bit of a throwaway, overlong by half and failing to develop the themes, opting to keep them the same.

Not being a huge fan of dance music, the charm of "Screamadelica" has largely been lost on me. While I'm also not a fan of slavish imitations of vintage artists (take Jet for example) the Stones, Faces and P-funk nods on this record are obvious but not derivative. While the middle of the record has a few flat spots, it's still a far better record than the then-recent effort by a more famous band of Faces copyists, "Amorica" by the Black Crowes...

Take a listen to the album below and give us your opinions in the comments section below.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Silverchair and the tall poppy syndrome

20 years ago Silverchair released "Tomorrow", their debut EP. Faster Louder were reporting that no major label would go near the band based on their demo, before winning a competition jointly run by Triple J and the SBS TV program Nomad in 1994.

A bit of disclosure here. I received a diploma in Sound Engineering from Platinum Studios in Newcastle, as they were known then. As I finished my degree, I remember hearing a demo that had recently been recorded in the studio during what was to be my last visit there. It was the Innocent Criminals, and the guys in the studio were saying how they predicted them to be huge. I was impressed at the time that the band were only 14 - he sounded much older than his years. And so the buzz had started.

They thought the name "Innocent Criminals" sounded a bit childish so they changed it to Silverchair (they should have kept the original one, I reckon). The EP was issued, it hit number one, largely because "Rage played the shit out of it. As did every radio station.". As the writer of the companion piece to the Faster Louder piece above, writes: "...And no one ever got sick of it.". Maybe from her little patch of life on the northern beaches of Sydney, but not in their hometown....

I was 18 and a private guitar tutor in and around Newcastle at the time. At the time, the music was impressive for the fact that the band were all in Year 9 at school, but musically it sounded like every other grunge band to me. I thought "Tomorrow" had a high burn rate, as I was sick of it by about the third or fourth listen. Upon closer inspection, I didn't even think it was that great a tune. I felt it was a pretty budget effort, even for a 13 year old, with lyrics that made no sense and a garden variety riff. And the fact that "Pure Massacre" was a direct lift from a Pearl Jam riff slowed down (it's "Glorified G" for the trainspotters) didn't endear me to them either.

It turns out I was not alone. If Newcastle people are good at anything - besides working hard and drinking hard - is cutting down people who get too successful. Stories became rife among my students that the band would become smug little brats at school, not handing out autographs unless the requestor went to the tuckshop for them a minimum of 10 times, along with a number of just general displays of teenage arrogance. There was even a rumour that their guitar tech had to play the guitar solo on the recording because Daniel couldn't play lead guitar at all. It was all petty, and the validity of these stories cannot be authenticated, but it all fueled the growing hatred of the band.

The backlash was further heightened by the (legitimate) fact that they were booed off stage during a poorly planned opening slot for Pantera at the Newcastle Entertainment Centre on 11 November 1994. Again, not necessarily their fault (I mean seriously, in what lifetime is adding Powderfinger and Daniel John's boys on a Pantera tour ever a good idea?) but it all adds up. The experience so wounded Daniel John's ego that he used to rant about Newy audiences on stage, and at one point I vaguely remember him pledging never to play in town ever again. None of this did anything to endear him to the townspeople.

During this time Newcastle people didn't buy the records in droves. Silverchair fans were laughed at at school. Second hand stores were flooded with copies of "Tomorrow" once this shit hit the fan. In retrospect it was ugly. Very, very ugly.

I was actually shocked at just how profound the influence of "Tomorrow" was. None moreso than when the recent Hottest 100 of the last 20 years on Triple J happened. But then it occurred to me - the young bands of today all were kids when this record first hit the stores. They'd saved up their pocket money to buy the EP, fell in love with music and went out and bought guitars and started their own bands.

Those same kids also gave me heaps of work as a guitar tutor. So while having to teach "Tomorrow" drove me nuts, at least it kept me employed...

Monday, 15 September 2014

On U2 and Apple, Part 2

So, is everybody enjoying their new free U2 album?

We know that plenty of people are well and truly NOT enjoying it. But, more to the point, why is this happening?

I have many questions to ask about the entire thing. Does the CEO of Apple still think U2 are still relevant and popular? If so, I think there needs to be questions asked as to whether he really has the finger on the pulse of popular culture. Aside from that, the $100 million marketing campaign can only be beneficial for both U2 and the new Apple iPhone 6, as well as re-drawing attention to the fact that iTunes actually sells music, and not just apps.

What are U2 getting out of this? They still get paid. The band and their record label would get paid accordingly. And I decry people who claim this is selling out. Who, honestly, would knock back the chance at that kind of money, even if you were rich? What is certain is that while the public, at this stage, don't have to pay money for the album currently, the band were compensated for their work.

On the other side of the coin, their last album, 2009's "No Line on the Horizon", was considered something of a flop, having sold less than 400,000 copies in the UK. This would at least ensure that the record gets put into the hands of music fans everywhere, and setting up the album for big sales when it is released for sale in October.

The Guardian published a debate on the subject with one writer claiming that this stunt devalues, in the mind of some punters, the album as a product that needs to be purchased, and not downloaded illegally via a torrent site. This attitude, to me, is disingenuous, as a lot of people do actually download it to "try before they buy". Streaming services like Spotify can perform a similar function, and thus the copyright owner gets more sales. Either way, artists need to be compensated for their efforts so that they can pay their rent. This stunt is just another way to ensure that U2 get there rent money (as if they need it these days) and the punter gets something for free

However, the outrage from this is very real and it begs the question as to who whether the marketeers really understand their target market. U2 have reportedly sold 150 million records worldwide. With 13 studio albums and a couple of hits compilations, on average that is around 10 million per LP. All the hardcore fans would own each and every one. Factor in the people who don't own the entire back catalog, but own maybe a few albums here and there, you're looking at, conservatively, 30 million people the world over, who would love the idea of a free U2 album. That means that there is a good chance you could pick up a few new fans in the other 470 million, but there would also be a whole heap of people who are going to be royally ticked off by this stunt, or at the very least indifferent to it.

The other side of the coin is that this is a free gift. As the saying goes "never look a gift horse in the mouth". Accept it graciously, and if you don't like it, delete it.

I certainly would, if I owned an iPhone...

Sunday, 14 September 2014

U2 have hacked my iPhone

U2 have pulled off one mean little publicity stunt this week by releasing their new album to every iTunes user on the planet: all 500 million of them.

And not everybody is happy about it:

The idea was that this was supposed to be a free gift to every iTunes user, to co-incide with the release of the iPhone 6. It was a cross-marketing exercise of epic proportions. U2 stand to receive heaps of free publicity for this, Apple have lost (at the time of writing) $100 million on this venture.

And despite selling over 150 million records worldwide, Twitter was ablaze of people who had still never heard of the band:

Of course, this sort of thing has got people very worried for their online privacy:

And to be fair, who could blame them? Because despite the fact that cloud storage is a reality for many smart phone users, they still don't know how it works or what the safety implications of it are. For example, all your storage is kept in the trust of a third party who you have no direct contact with. You don't know if they're trustworthy or not. You don't know exactly who could be looking at your data that is stored remotely somewhere else in the world.

Also, many people don't know how to configure their phone correctly. Most of the complaints are because they have automatic downloads enabled, and so if the user was oblivious to the news of a free album, they would have had a nice (or nasty, depending on your taste) little surprise in your iTunes folder.

Personally, I don't own an iPhone, so I won't be getting the free record. I generally think that the last decent record U2 released was in 1988 ("Rattle and Hum") so I don't have much of a desire to listen to this new one. I could be proven wrong of course, and this album could be the best thing they have ever done.

Time will tell...

Sunday Sessions: Sugar

It's been a while since we've had a Sunday Session! But this one is truly a cracker.

Sugar were a sadly short-lived 90s indie band fronted by ex-Husker Du frontman Bob Mould. Musically,the band had leanings towards grunge but were far more melodic than any most of the bands tagged with the term.

The band only lasted two albums but such was the calibre of their output that everything Bob Mould released during his subsequent solo career has been compared (often unfavourably) to his work in Sugar.

This track, "Your Favourite Thing" was a single from the band's second album "File Under Easy Listening", from 1994. If you like what you hear here, seek out the album and their unimpeachable first record "Copper Blue".

So, enjoy Sugar!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

I used to love that band...

In conversation with a colleague of mine recently, he told me that when he mentioned the name of a favourite band of his to a few people, they each responded "I used to be so into that band".

"Used to be into them?" he replied? "So what's changed?"

Does music change in the minds of people over time? Have people become mere consumers of music now, engaging with a band for a while and then discarding them and moving on? If so, what hope is there for the future of current bands?

Have generations Y and Z done away with nostalgia? It could also be that they are still too young for that sort of thing. But there doesn't seem to be a tendency to "look back" and reconnect with art and music history. 

This doesn't bode well for the current crop of artists. Where boomers and Gen X-ers seem happy to shell out for deluxe reissues of albums they already own in the their original configurations, will subsequent generations be inclined to do so? 

Personally I don't understand how, if you were into a band once before, how come you are not now? 

Some bands and artists lose their street cred. For example, once Milli Vanilli were outed as frauds, everybody dropped them like a hot potato. Look at Rolf Harris after his paedophilia conviction. His popularity stocks have plummeted. But those are rare examples. 

Have you ever moved on from a band? Who were they and why?


Monday, 8 September 2014

100 LPs Shortlist #41: Fela Kuti: "Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa '70 Live with Ginger Baker"

Lists (and their subsequent books) like "1001 Albums you Must Hear Before You Die" are pointless, contentious and needlessly divisive by their very nature. What they leave out is almost as infuriating as what has been kept in.

And yet, lists like this amuse the hell out of me. Not least because they try their hardest to convince me that records I can't stand are worth listening to, but also because they illuminate things to me that I hadn't noticed before.

Based on an entry in the aforementioned book, I went and discovered the mighty Fela Kuti and this live album. Nowhere in the pages of this book was there a caveat emptor for listeners to be wary: One jolt of the surging power of this record and there's no going back. Lives will be changed. Attitudes will be re-shaped. Non-dancers will dance as though no one is watching, and no one will care because anyone within the same building will probably be doing likewise.

Oppressive, militaristic third-world governments fear the contents within the sleeve of this record, and the effects they have on the people listening to it. Tables and horizontal surfaces the world over dread this album, for fear that any human listening will drum so hard on them that they will be reduced to woodchip and hardware.

Fela Kuti knew that music can not only move the hips and the feet, but also touch the heart and soul of a person. If you can do that, you can also impact the mind. The Nigerian government of the time liked to control its people by fear and threats of death by machine gun. Fela Kuti, through music, was opening the eyes of the people. The government saw him as an insurgent as a result, and he paid the price dearly. He was arrested over 100 times in his lifetime, jailed on trumped up charges, bashed and beaten regularly, his home and master tapes destroyed by fire - all punishments maliciously handed out by a government threatened by his message.

This is why the music he created was so insistent - he needed to make a strong message felt as powerfully and as deeply as he could.

This album was recorded live in Abbey Road Studios in London late in 1970 with Cream drummer Ginger Baker guesting on drums. With Fela's percussion troupe and Baker all playing away like a fury, the polyrhythm count is huge. The urge to bang on a desk with your fingers in time to these tunes is irresistable.

You just don't listen to this album. Your life will be transformed by it. You have been warned.

NOTE: The version of the album below is the new remaster and for some reason it is in mono, with part of the band, which in stereo would have been panned to the right speaker (or left, I'm not sure), is now buried deep in the mix. Sadly, all reissues on CD, digital and vinyl all carry this erroneous mix, and the original stereo mix on the 1971 vinyl issue is seemingly nowhere to be found.

Having said that, the music is so powerful that such quibbles are rendered inconsequential.


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Hoax is Over...

In 1967, Billy Thorpe had an epiphany. He'd worked out his audience was starting to change. No longer were teenage girls screaming themselves hoarse at his gigs. A new breed of music fan was starting to appear at his inner-Sydney residencies. A tougher, hard-drinking, self-medicating type of bloke, brutalized by experiences in an (ultimately) unwinable war in Asia. These guys didn't want to hear Thorpie chirp his way through "Over The Rainbow". These guys were fans of a new, harder sort of music, by performers with strange names like Jimi Hendrix and Cream, with loud guitars, even louder clothes, and wild haircuts.

After declaring bankruptcy in 1968, he decided to try and start again in England, thanks to a lifeline from ex-pat Aussie and former Epstein-protege Robert Stigwood, who was managing Cream and The Bee Gees at the time. He had six weeks of shows booked in Melbourne to complete before he left, but ended up staying for 6 years.

Forming a new band of Aztecs with Paul Wheeler, Warren Morgan, and Lobby Loyde, the band became an extremely loud jamming blues band. He grew his hair long, wore dirty jeans and T-shirts and turned up the amps to deafening levels. Initially, audiences and promoters alike reacted violently, but soon after, the cult of the "Sharpie" was born and the band were embraced by them.

After an initial single issued by Festival in 1969, the band reconvened in September 1970 to cut an album. Rumour has it that the band got completely out of their collective gourds on psychedelics and told the engineer just to keep tapes rolling until they were done. "The Hoax is Over" is the result.

Issued late in 1970, the album sold respectably but didn't set the charts alight.

The original album had four songs over a running time of just over 51 minutes. 3 originals, one cover. The opening track is a cover of the Johnny "Guitar" Watson track "Gangster of Love". In its original form, its duration was around 2 minutes 45 seconds (2:45). When Steve Miller covered it on his LP "Sailor", 1 minute 23. In the hands of the Aztecs on acid, it rolls on for an epic 24 minutes and 30 seconds. Drum solos and manic Lobby Loyde soloing are part and parcel of this, and they completely go to town on this. It's all kinds of awesome. The two short tracks are "Goodbye Baby" and "Truth", clocking out at just over 4 minutes each and break up the tedium. Especially after "Born In Mississippi", a slow blues jam which drags on for a lethargic 19+ minutes.

The album has been out of print since the 1970s and vinyl copies these days are rarer than rocking horse do-do. Most copies that still exist are thrashed to the point of unplayable. If they are in good nick, they sell for well over $100. There was talk of a reissue by Aztec Music but nothing has eventuated as of yet. Here's hoping...

For the time being, take a listen to the album below via YouTube. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Leave the night light on...

How many hit records can you name whose lyrics are all about a night light?

I can name one: "Birdhouse in your Soul" by They Might Be Giants.

They Might Be Giants are a duo of New Yorkers John Linnell and John Flansburgh who got their start in music with an ingenious idea: record a song every day, record it to an answering machine, attach said answering machine to a local New York state phone number and charge people to call it and hear the song.

The Dial-a-Song idea influenced their songwriting. It meant the songs had to be short, as catchy as possible and and as clearly articulated as possible so as to be properly heard down a phone line. Catchy, in so much as they warrant repeated listens and you don't get tired of them. The songs are clever enough that detail keeps unraveling in every listen.

"Birdhouse..." is classic TMBG: If you have a musicological bent, there is heaps to learn and appreciate, and yet it is charming enough to be appealing to children. It's genius.

And yes this is a song about a night light. One with a blue canary on it.

"Blue canary.in the outlet by the light switch
Who watches over you..."

The cleverness of the lyrics is offset by the bouncy music driven by their ever faithful drum machine. Lay upon layer of keyboards and a sneaky accordion snuck in there as well.

Written from the point of view of the night light itself, it makes an astonishing assessment of its abilities in the second verse:

"There's a picture opposite me
Of my primitive ancestry
Which stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck free
Though I respect that a lot
I'd be fired if that were my job
After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts..."

Comparing a nightlight to a lighthouse and to the various functions they perform, where one keeps ships safe from real dangers and the other keeps a little person safe from (in some cases) imagined dangers is surreal. At the same time it's a viewpoint that has completely escaped me previously.

It's very clever stuff. Despite only being three minutes long, there's so much going on that you more than get your money's worth.

This is regarded as one of They Might Be Giants' finest songs, along side a rich catalog of many, many more great songs. If you've never heard them before, start with this one and then dig deeper into their works.

August 2014 Mixtape

We've hit Spring on the east coast! But it's still bloody cold and wet. Time to heat things up with another great mix tape.

200+ songs including great tunes from:

  • Bellowhead
  • Richard Clapton
  • Gaslight Anthem
  • Weird Al Yankovic
  • Free
  • Sensitive New Age Cowpersons
  • The Hummingbirds
  • Phil Ochs
  • The Sundays

and heaps heaps more.

Set it to shuffle, crank it up and ENJOY!!!