Thursday, 26 March 2015

Bargain Bin Review #5: KISS - "Music From 'The Elder'"

KISS - Music From The Elder

Firstly a bit of disclosure. I didn't buy this in a bargain bin. I bought it second hand on vinyl. However, as the initial sales of this album were poor on first release, I imagine copies of this would have languished in bargain bins for a long time in the early 1980s.

At the end of the day, you either love or you hate Kiss. Even those who are in the former camp are divided over their 1981 concept album "Music From 'The Elder'". Paul Stanley himself even introduces a song on 1996's "MTV Unplugged" as "from an album that some people can't ever hear enough of and for some people, it's always too much". And in the context of the band's career trajectory, it really wouldn't matter when this album was released, the outcome would probably still have been the same.

In short, this was the wrong idea for the wrong band at the wrong time. The band were confused by their direction. Their record label thought they were a risk and the critics loved to sink the boot into them. The idea was to pull off a grand concept that would make the critics love them, sell loads of records for the company and and inflate KISS' collective egos even further by becoming "serious" musicians.

By 1981 the band's audience had changed from teenagers and young adults to kids and their parents, after the hit singles "I Was Made For Loving You" and "Shandii". They had sold their image by commercially branding every product that could be invented at that point (they still do, but it is now even more ridiculous). They had flooded the record buying market with product. They had released two albums a year between 1974 and 1977 inclusive and then in 1978 released 4 solo albums on the same day, 5 months after releasing a double LP best of album. Then, 7 months after the solo records comes "Dynasty". By the time of the softer sounding LP "Unmasked" in 1980, the pre-teens were well and truly lapping it up and the older fans were switching off, having grown up and moved on, having been over-saturated by the band's omnipresence, or just not wanting to attend gigs standing next to little kids and their parents.

"Unmasked" highlighted the problem. It was beloved by kids as young as 4 and it was bland and inoffensive enough to not outrage parents. The members of KISS may well have been aware of this trend and started to plot their next move. They were always slagged off by critics, but they were being written off as kiddies entertainers now. They needed to be serious artists once again.

They decided to enlist the services of Bob Ezrin once again, who had helmed production on one of the most successful records to date, "Destroyer". He was riding high with a massive selling concept record he'd produced for Pink Floyd called "The Wall". Gene Simmons had come up with this film script idea and Bob was keen to make an album of songs based around the central concept of the script.

It was supposed to be fantasy-styled good vs evil plot with Tolkien-esque overtones. The film had no chance of being made (despite a fair performance of their previous film "KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park") but a concept album seemed like a good idea at the time. And why not? Peers of their like Rush and Yes were turning out obscurely premised and yet successful albums, what was there to lose?

Well, everything, as it turns out. Lead guitarist Ace Frehley went missing for most of the sessions and ended up either leaving, or was fired depending on whose autobiography you believe. The record company pulled funding from the album, preventing it from becoming a double album, and the fans deserted them in droves when the album was released. Even Gene's hair disappeared, cutting most of it off for the ensuing tour (he looked more ridiculous in person than the action figurine bearing his likeness)

What we're left with is an album that is supposed to hang together around a concept, but tells no story and has no narrative. That's no big deal when you consider The Who's "Who's Next" album was supposed to be an album of songs from the abandoned "Lifehouse" project, but it doesn't depend on the listener having any context. "The Elder" is supposed to revolve around a story that no-one is ever told, either in the music or in the sleeve notes, and it leaves the listener with the impression that there supposed to be some other media element of object to accompany this for it to make sense, hence the "Music from..." in the title.

To make matters worse, the original release (excluding the altogether different Japanese release) has the songs sequenced in such a way that even if you wanted to piece together the rather weedy plot, you'd send yourself demented attempting it.

Narrative of concept aside for a moment, there is some surprisingly strong music here. Opening the original vinyl LP "The Oath" possesses some of the heaviest riffs on a KISS album to date, as does the album closer "I". The former sounds like a lyric that has some bearing to the plot, while the latter could be woven into the story but mostly spends its lyrics having a go at Ace and his drink'n'drugs lifestyle. Elsewhere on the album there are some widescreen cinematic excursions in the form of "The Odyssey", "Just A Boy" and "Under The Rose". Some melodramatic introspection in "A World Without Heroes", good old Ace Frehley rock in the form of "Dark Light" and the surging instrumental "Escape From The Island", and their strangely-odd and yet oddly compelling Lou Reed co-write "Mr Blackwell", who appears to be the villain of this misguided saga.

Maligned by critics and fans alike, it was the poorest selling record in the KISS catalog for many years and a hard album to find. It was also one of the last to be reissued in the 1997 reissue program and now the standard release follows the original mix issued in Japan, resequenced in the original order as the band and Bob Ezrin intended it to be. At the end of the day it still doesn't make any bloody sense as a narrative, but musically there is a lot of great music here to make it work listening to. For those who don't like KISS, at least there is something to be gained from the one KISS album that doesn't sound all that much like KISS.

Take a listen to the album below and see for yourself. Enjoy.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Underrated Live Albums #4: Redgum - "Caught In The Act"

Where the hell are Redgum these days when we need them?

In an age where politicians in this country are either embarrassing, uninspiring or just batshit-boring, we need Redgum more than ever. We need a band not afraid to poke fun at the party political, satirise the policies and lampoon the people who stride the corridors of power and who are supposed to lead the nation through its struggles.

Some would argue that we can take our pollies to task quite nicely on our own, thanks to the Twittersphere (ever seen the #auspol thread lately?). But when Redgum started out there were very few Australian acts who dared to be so outspoken on sensitive issues, call the government out in direct terms and to write songs that sing of the plight of the downtrodden and the forgotten.

Redgum's one and only live album was released in 1983, recorded in front of a rambunctious crowd at the Rose, Shamrock and Thistle Hotel in Rozelle in Sydney. The band are alive, playing their hearts out and give the crowd everything they have. Their songs are pointed and forthright, the monologues are at turns sardonic and funny, and the live recording is superbly recorded.

The problem however, is that after many years after its release, it can be a little bit difficult to work out what they are talking about. You see, Redgum's problem was that not only did they sing about topics that are still a problem today, they spoke about issues affecting the people of the time. This instantly dates the album and it makes it somewhat harder to relate to years down the track. In fact, the first statement on the record ties it inextricably to 1983 before a note of music has even been played. John Schumann starts out by greeting the crowd and says

Ladies and Gentleman, we haven't seen you since the March the 5th result...

Now, when I purchased my own second hand vinyl copy of this album in 2005, I hadn't heard the record since the mid-1980s. I couldn't remember what the hell happened on March the 5th that year, let alone what was the major news story of the day. Upon further reflection, the "March the 5th result" was when the then current federal Liberal government led by Malcolm Fraser lost the election by a landslide to the Labor party, led by Mr Charisma himself, Bob Hawke. Mr Hawke himself would come in for his own piece of satire a few years after this one, so really the Liberal party are mostly the targets of the barbs on this one.

Two of the songs on this album stretch out over 9 minutes and are padded out with some humourous and amusing shaggy dog stories. Each song here is preceded with a short explanatory note from the band for listeners to get an idea what the song is about, as all good folk groups do. Topics include the horrors of war ("I Was Only 19"), the selling out of our country's natural resources out from underneath us ("Lear Jets Over Kulgera", "Nuclear Cop"), the upper class "born to rule" mentality certain sectors of the community have ("Beaumont Rag), apathy ("It Doesn't Matter To Me"), corporate greed ("Caught In The Act"), rampant consumerism ("Fabulon"), poverty ("Brown Rice and Kerosene", "Where Ya Gonna Run To") and even some optimism for a brighter future ("The Long Run").

There is plenty of great music here and plenty of topical songs that are still relevant to the political debate today, especially a song like "Nuclear Cop" or "It Doesn't Matter To Me". It is a lot of fun for a topical album. There's plenty of laughs and plenty of tears along the way too. If nothing else, the gentle listener will get a better understanding of Australian geography and it would be wise to keep a detailed map handy to work out where places like Beaumont, Nareen, Kingoonya, Puckapunyal, Cairns, Canungra, Kulgera, Pine Gap, Hawker, Pimba, Wyalla, The Diamantina River and many others.

It is also worth noting that the version of "I Was Only 19 (A Walk In The Light Green)" is NOT the #1 hit single studio version, but rather a live version from the same concert. The single version is available on a number of compilation albums, the best of which is "The Essential Redgum".

The CD version of the album contains all 15 tracks but the original vinyl version which is still common and fairly cheap, but it had a strange format. Using the CD track list as a reference point, the original LP had tracks 1-5 on side one, track 6 as the A-side of a "bonus" 7-inch single, tracks 7-8 on the b-side of the single and tracks 9-15 on the second side of the LP. For the sake of continuity, that is the sequence that the album should be played in. However, on the second-hand market, the LP is easy to come by but it is usually without the bonus single. The orphaned "Caught In The Act" single with "Stewie" and "Lear Jets Over Kulgera" on the b-side is also fairly common if your LP doesn't have a copy, but any and all prospective buyers should be aware that you really need to have both.

Or, you could just listen to it here on Spotify below. Enjoy!

Pharrell and Thicke Vs Marvin Gaye

By now you've probably heard the news about Robin Thicke's huge 2013 single "Blurred Lines" being the subject of a copyright lawsuit.

Thicke and his co-writer Pharrell Williams have lost the court case and are now required to hand US$7.3 Million to the family-run estate of Marvin Gaye, for ripping off Marvin's 70s hit "Got to Give It Up".

This case, in my view establishes a dangerous precedent. This wasn't a clean-cut case of outright stealing, as in, say the George Harrison "My Sweet Lord" case. This one was decided by a grand jury from the sheet music to one of the songs and a recording of the other. Without the aid of a blind listening test of the two recordings, that would have made things difficult. From that aspect alone, the jury's decision was a curious one.

I've taken a listen to both songs back to back. In my view, "Blurred Lines" is awfully derivative of the Marvin Gaye track, but while it cops the feel and part of the percussion style, it hardly steels any of the major aspects of the original. Besides, if you could copyright a rhythm and successfully defend it in a court of law, Bo Diddley would be a billionaire.

My question is, how can a piece that was clearly inspired by the original be pinged for plagiarism? This means that pretty soon Prince and/or Cameo should be suing Mark Ronson for "Uptown Funk".

According to this piece in the LA Weekly, the jury probably took a dislike to Robin Thicke which, in their estimation, is not a difficult thing to do. His defense seems to be that "although I received a writing credit, I didn't actually contribute to the writing of the song." Well, Mr Thicke, your name is on the official ASCAP document stating you as the writer, therefore you probably received royalties therefore you are also implicated in this. Suck it up, pal.

I always thought "Blurred Lines" was a horrible song anyway. However, all that aside, this could set up a precedent for a whole host of frivolous and ambiguous copyright lawsuits, based purely on one song bearing a passing similarity to another. Maybe Nirvana will actually get sued for borrowing the rhythm guitar pattern (not the chord sequence) from "More Than A Feeling" by Boston in their song "Smells Like Teen Spirit"...

If nothing else, this particular verdict will probably be appealed for years to come, so I doubt this is the end of it.

Take a listen to this mashup of the Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke tunes here:

Robin Thicke feat Marvin Gaye - Got to give up the blurred lines # DJJW from DJJW on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Finland's Punk Entry into Eurovision 2015

Putting aside the ridiculous admission of an Australian entry into Eurovision 2015 for just a moment, Finland have just chosen the act to represent them in multi-national song contest in 2015.

Now, normally this wouldn't get so much of an airing, except for the fact that the band is quite exceptional. They are the first punk rock band to represent anything at Eurovision in its entire 60 year year history for a start. But the real talking point is that the band is made up of middle aged men who have Down's Syndrome and/or Autism.

Singer Kari Aalto told a Finnish broadcaster : “Every person with a disability ought to be braver. He or she should themselves say what they want and do not want.”

And I couldn't agree more.

Far from being a gimmick, here is a band that are doing things their own way and are making a good fist of it. They're not letting anything in their way. This is a bold move on the part of the band. They ain't ABBA, but I hope they go a long way.

Of course, Finnish fans are divided, with many commenters on the Eurovision blog Wiwibloggs have written them off as a gimmick. Indeed, the initial review of the band's track by the Wiwibloggs site was "This is not music. This is noise with an interesting back story".

Now come on Wiwibloggs. Really? Since when has Eurovision been about music? If anything, in recent years Eurovision has been more about the dresses of the female singers and the schlock and awe of some of the entrants, especially some of the more sexually ambiguous ones - Romania, I'm looking at you.

Seriously though, this should be a feel-good story for all of us. PKN are choosing to ignore the obstacles and doing things their way. I wish them every success in Vienna in May.

Check out the song that PKN are performing in the contest below, entitled "Aina Mun Pitää”

The last time Finland won the contest was the only time they ever won the contest, and that was in 2006, with a performance by horror-metal band Lordi. Lordi were a band who make Kiss look like a church choir. Their performance of their winning song "Hard Rock Hallelujah" is a sight to behold and it shook up the contest in a big way. Take a look below:

Until next time. Cheers.

Bootsy's Rubber Band: "Psychoticbumpschool"

Further to the recent P-Funk post, I thought I'd post a video of one of the many classic tracks that are associated with the massive conglomerate that was the George Clinton empire, otherwise known as the "Parliafunkamadelicment Thang".

The reason I call P-Funk an "empire" or, more specifically, a "conglomerate", is because the actual structure of the band became very convoluted due to a number of legal problems and contractual issues that plagued the band. For example, in the 1960s, the band that George Clinton started as the Parliaments, became just Parliament by 1969. They made one flop album called "Osmium" for the Invictus label, before George wanted to leave and join another label. Invictus prohibited them doing so, so they changed the name of the band to Funkadelic and started making records for Westbound.

The legal wrangling ended in 1974 and George reclaimed the name, so he started making records with the same Funkadelic personnel, under the name of Parliament for Casablanca records, with a softer, more radio friendly sound than the harder-rocking psychedelic sound of Funkadelic. The same band recorded under both names with rotating memberships and with a different sound on both albums. As a touring entity, the band were billed as Parliament-Funkadelic and colloquially known as P-Funk.

By the mid 1970s, the band's membership swelled to as many was 20 players, with some members (including guitar whiz Eddie Hazel and even George himself) so deep into drug addiction that a rotating cast of members was needed in order to have a functioning performing unit. By now, many of the members of the band were renegades of the band of the great funk master himself, James Brown.

Amongst all the madness, George bankrolled a number of solo albums for various members of the band and released on Warner Brothers. Eddie Hazel released "Games, Dames and Other Thangs" in 1977, Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns made "A Blow for Me, A Toot for You" in 1977, keyboardist Bernie Worrell made solo records in the late 1970s and bassist Bootsy Collins made a start in 1976, and probably had the most successful solo career out of all the P-Funk offshoots.

The track supplied below is a killer live version of a track that was rather tame in its studio incarnation. "Psychoticbumpschool" featured on the first Bootsy's Rubber band LP "Stretchin' Out In A Rubber Band" from 1976. This live version was recorded in Houston, Texas in 1976 and sees the band stretching out the jam to a full 10 minutes of booty-shaking fun. This has the classic P-Funk groove but it is revved up and driven to the point of maximum intensity.

For the train-spotters, this is the same recording that features as the final track on "Back In The Day: The Best of Bootsy Collins" but the album version is edited down to only 6 minutes.