I am serving on a Jury for a Coroner’s Court this past week and the next, and my head is filled with all sorts of details relating to matters that don’t sit quite so comfortably with ‘1970s’, ‘music’, ‘But First, A Drink’ or many of the recurring themes out-and-sidelined to the right of this Blog. Death — in unfortunate and slightly unlikely circumstances — is my professional concern over this fortnight and I’m finding the whole experience oddly uplifting, intellectually stimulating and certainly much more fun than anything else I have experienced lately, and more so than I ever anticipated. One day, when I am permitted, I shall write as faithful an account as I may on this.
In other news, much as I’d like to divert and distract with a fervent missive on how much I am incidentally enjoying the work of Peter Hammill and the mighty Van der Graaf Generator every spare moment I get to don headphones, it’s clearly not sufficiently uppermost in my mind to assemble into words just now. Furthermore, there’s precious little time to sit and type, so I am cutting corners and serving up an instant, boil-in-the-bag banquet of reheated leftovers — or in other words, another collection of CD and book reviews I have undertaken over the last ten years. These are, except where stated, for amazon.co.uk. I have left them pretty much as they appear online, so forgive my youthful way with grammar and punctuation from time to time.
Firstly, three reviews of two books.
Syd Barrett: Crazy Diamond
As good as it’s going to get
There are to date, to my mind, two biographies on Syd available (not counting “Random Precision” or the first few chapters of any Floyd bios). Info on him is always second-hand as the man himself remains elusive, and probably always will. This book uses the limited resources available well, collating every known anecdote on Barrett (yes, the Mandrax/face incident, the green fridge, the alleged howling in cellars) — apocryphal or otherwise — and as such is the last word on him. Neither glamorising, nor entirely wagging a finger at Barrett’s acid-fried antics, and clearly besotted with Our Hero’s Good Stuff (his music, his charm and his subversive sense of humour) the authors have delivered a worthy book on Syd. The best there is.
Martin Newell: This Little Ziggy
The greatest rock’n’roll star you never knew
Martin Newell’s biography covers his childhood through to his early adulthood via passionately written and frequently hilarious tales of discovering the joys — and pitfalls — of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Like a pop version of Zelig, Newell has been, if not actually present, then at least in the audience at the birth of some of the major developments in popular Brit culture. And his enthusiasm for it now as much as then shows, with witty and consistently readable anecdotes thrown away at the drop of his Victorian top hat. Aficionados of his poetry and his music in bands such as The Cleaners From Venus and his own solo work will recognise their hero as he brings an adroit style to stories of drug abuse and violence, without ever glorifying or glamorising, yet always being entertaining and capable of deep feeling. It all makes for a highly personal account of what it was like to grow up in the sixties and early seventies. This Little Ziggy has a tang of authenticity and honesty that makes it an essential read for any student of pop music in the last 40 years. Hopefully, it will bring his music into focus at the same time. And, sir, when’s the next volume coming out?
Martin Newell: This Little Ziggy (Streets Online review)
Martin Newell, the resident poet for the UK daily newspaper The Independent had led a colourful life in his pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The first part of his autobiography covers his childhood through to his split with prog rock band at the onset of punk in the late seventies. In between, the book fairly burns along, Newell taking us from his Singapore childhood, via formative adolescent experiences in Swinging London to… well, only the foothills of Rock Celebrity admittedly, but Newell peppers his story with manic, passionate tales along the way. By turns acidic, slapstick, painful, frank and often — very often — funny, This Little Ziggy offers an authentic glimpse into what it must have been to grow up in the late 60s/early 70s. Newell’s story presents him if not actually on stage at the best gig in town, then at least in the audience chucking his plastic beer glass.
Next, the CD reviews. You’ll notice there’s a Newellian thread running through these reviews. Hm, that would date them to around 2001/2002, when I had recently met Mr Martin Newell. Splendid fellow. I’ll write about him some day. In the meantime, you should check out his website and blog as he writes about himself rather wonderfully already.
Jangly, spangly sparks of good, smart criminally unsung pop
Martin Newell of the Cleaners From Venus has filtered all the great pop music of the last 35 years into his music and this album, a 20-track retrospective, is testimony to his innate sense of what makes a good, classic tune. While the 80s went crazy on a morass of synthesisers and mindless dance remixes, Newell’s slightly dated but finely honed songwriting and incisive lyrics ploughed a steady, consistent furrow. Songs like “Julie Profumo” and “Illya Kuryakin” distil everything that was great about the 60s into three minutes like no one this side of the 70s ever could. Elsewhere, such as on “Blue Swan”, Newell displays a nice, sly way with chord changes and lyrical jokes. The Cleaners basically connect on many levels, whether you’re a muso who appreciates the songwriting process or just a casual listener after a damn fine ditty. If you like solid, decent, vibrant, intelligent and unjustifiably overlooked pop music, chance your arm on this — more hooks than a fisherman’s bait box and no maggots!
Martin Newell: The Greatest Living Englishman
Elegantly ramshackle, thoroughly likeable
Martin Newell is often mentioned in the same breath as other classic, English pop writers: Syd Barrett, Ray Davies, Lennon & McCartney, Robyn Hitchcock, Andy Partridge etc. So he should. The title track alone is a pop masterpiece, and the whole album is crammed with lots of wee biddies to keep you occupied without ever swamping the overall sound or the simple smarts of the songwriting.
Philip Pickett: The Bones Of All Men
Competent crossover curio
So many so-called “folk rock” crossover albums end up merely being folk tunes transposed bodily from acoustic to electric instruments (an ok idea, but unimaginative) or are simply folk tunes with a dreary four-to-the-floor backbeat behind them (shoot the drummer!).
This is neither. This is great: the classical background and virtuosity of Mr & Mrs Pickett, with the eminent Mr Thompson’s vintage folk-rock pedigree, backed by the considerable rhythm section of three of the finest musicians ever to be in Fairport Convention. Slick without being saccharine, the combination of folk-rock and medieval sensibilities combine to create something that is not too far removed from either, which presumably proves Messrs Pickett and Thompson’s point, one form leavening the other. Track two in particular stands out as a fine example of belligerent, biting and smart medieval pop/rock. The title alone sums it up: here on this disc can be found the same motherlode that makes some people appreciate classical and others rock. Just enjoy it all.
ELP: Black Moon
Not as loony, but still loony enough!
When this album came out back in ‘92 I was disappointed by how far removed from the classic early 70s ELP sound it had gone. Likeable, but…safe, more AOR-based. Then they released In The Hot Seat two years later, which made this album, seem like crazy, off-the-wall jazz-metal-folk-trip-hop fusion by comparison. Nearly ten years on, Black Moon has aged very well indeed. In fact, compared to the albums released around the same time by their prog rock 1970s peers (i.e. Yes’s Union, Genesis’s We Can’t Dance) this album is truer to the original ‘classic’ endearingly nutty ELP that you either love or enjoy hating than the anodyne, MOR AOR pap their contemporaries were producing. This was a surprisingly valid and vibrant album from three guys written off post-punk as ‘dinosaurs’ and it still is today. Crowd pleasing stadium stompers like Black Moon nestle in among grooves like Paper Blood and widdly prog keyboard workouts like Changing States and it all still manages to hang together. Producer Mark Mancina’s Burning Bridges is ten times better than any of the outside contributors’ nonsense recorded for In The Hot Seat and Greg Lake provides another decent addition to his ballad songbook. Enjoy this album, but if you haven’t yet, check out the earlier, better known ones first.
Andrew WK: Party Hard
YAYER!! The Thrashening!
Andrew WK’s “Party Hard” RULES. It does not SERVE in the slightest, with huge Riffage and Berserker-metal thrashing madness. We’ve been waiting ten years for rock to receive another wake-up call since Kurt Cobain gave us “…Teen Spirit”. Here it is, laying the smackdown on y’all. I… LIKE IT!!!
Sparks: Mael Intuition
An explosion in a bubble-glam firework factory!
Covering the first three albums Sparks recorded for Island (i.e. the ones that broke them in this country, between ‘74-76), the brothers Mael (you know, the curly haired one and the stiff one behind the keyboard with THAT moustache) never let up for one second on any of the tracks featured here to bring you hard-hitting, quirky shards of catchy, brilliant, witty, eccentric pop music. When people tell you pop ain’t as good as it used to be, they’re referring to stuff like this. Be warned: if you buy this, you’ll just end up buying the albums the tracks were lifted from anyway. Beautiful, grotesque, funny and scary all at the same time!
Bedazzled (1967): OST
This has been a long time coming. For years Dudley Moore’s score to the original 1967 film Bedazzled has been only available second-hand, or on import vinyl. No longer — finally, we can all appreciate Moore’s beautifully jazzy, swinging sixties soundtrack accompaniment to the nigh-on perfect film he co-wrote with Peter Cook. For those who need to know, oh yes, you do get both musical numbers from the film, Moore’s Tom Jones-ish “Love Me” and Cook’s freak-out “Bedazzled”, demonstrating Moore’s understanding of the fickle pop market at the time (then?). For those unfamiliar with the film — if you like contemporary 60s lite sounds, you’ll find this a gem. The only problem I have with it: where’s that spooky piano piece that accompanies Pete and Dud’s trip to heaven? And does this mean the film will be coming out soon on video/DVD?
XTC: A Coat Of Many Cupboards
OK, I’m a fan, and you’d be hard pushed to find someone with only a casual interest in XTC having this package on their shelves at home. But I’ll do my best to tell you why it’s good.
Like the Beatles Anthologies before it, this extensive look over the last 25 years of Swindon’s finest illustrates, broadly, the two same ideas:
a) Their live gigs (or at least recordings thereof) only really cover their early years, but mostly seemed to deliver, the band not being afraid to cut loose from the structures of the songs as presented on album. And good thing that proves to be often, too, providing good, assured renderings of great tunes for the uninitiated, and different twists to old faves for the fans.
b) The finished, official, album or single version of tunes seen here on this set as a demo track or alternative studio idea, are always the best versions. The demos presented here are often very different, no less competent and always curious… but you’ll also hear in them why they settled on the version you hear on Drums & Wires, Black Sea, etc. Compare Andy Partridge’s searching first ever demo of Senses Working Overtime to the finished article to be shown how his sound pop nous can craft mighty oaks out of sickly acorns, without ever over egging the, er… oak pudding (sorry).
The other thing that comes across loud and clear from just a glance through the entertainingly written booklet that comes with the set is that XTC’s songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding care, really care about their stuff as they contribute affectionate, witty and frequently self-deprecating opinions on their own, and each other’s tunes. Barry Andrews’s words on his own tunes, heard here for the first time, add a touch of perfectionism to the whole, elegant package.
Like I said, I can’t see too many non-fans owning it, but on so many levels it’s essential: as a document of XTC, as a muso collection of insights into the studio process and song evolution (but never letting that get entirely in the way of a belting good ditty) and as a simple object of desire, with great pictures and classy layout.
Back in ‘79, when I was eight, Making Plans For Nigel used to scare me. Now, I haven’t the faintest clue why. This is what box sets should be all about.
The Cleaners From Venus: Golden Cleaners (Jarmusic Site Review)
OK, you’re reading this on the website, so you must be interested already…but are you already a Newell/Cleaners fan, or just curious? If you’re in the first category, then you’ve probably got this album already. Great isn’t it? Lovely. Anyway, I’d love to chat, but I’ve got the unconverted to preach to first.
So, the rest of you: maybe you’ve happened across Martin Newell as resident poet for UK daily newspaper The Independent, or have read his rather splendid autobiography This Little Ziggy. Or heard his name mentioned in the more melodic end of the music press in the same breath as Syd Barrett, Ray Davies and Andy Partridge. Maybe, like me, you first heard of him by reading Giles Smith’s Lost In Music and were intrigued by Smith’s accounts of his Dickensian-clad, song-writing, home-brewing anarchist bandmate within. Or maybe – just maybe – you’ve stumbled on this page by chance (oh, you lucky people).
Want to know more? This CD is definitely the place to start. The tracks on this album date from the mid/late 1980s, a time when synth-driven music ruled, the beat was king and guitar-based bands with decent tunes were in shorter supply than ever before but make no mistake — this is timeless, brilliant, seemingly effortless pop music. Martin Newell knew (and still knows ) what he liked from a good tune (particularly ones from the late 60s) and managed the happy knack of being able to extract the essence of those bits, put them through his patented Newell filter and come up with songs that were wholly, totally original and yet familiar and instantly memorable. But his classic pop arrangements (drum machines notwithstanding) are only half the story. They’re hooked up to incisive, humorous and frequently lyrical, er, lyrics evoking times passed, the changing of seasons (and people too with the seasons) and personal experience. And they match the music bar for bar. You can practically hear the graft that went into the songs; it’s what makes them sound so simple.
All the classic, representative Cleaners tracks are present and correct here: Julie Profumo, which manages to motor along, be jangly and yet brooding; Living With Victoria Grey, its dated anti-Thatcher sentiments failing to hide a beautiful, uplifting melody; the autumnal Girl On A Swing; the sly chord changes of Blue Swan; the bleak-but-brisk skiffle of Johnny The Moondog Is Dead and perhaps the two best-known tracks, Illya Kuryakin Looked At Me, an all-time great song of the Sixties seen through wide, excited eyes and the laid-back, affectionate shuffle of Clara Bow. Honourable mention goes out to Radio Seven, which leaves you wanting more as its ascending chord changes and piano fade out in a slightly sinister manner reminiscent of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, and Song For Syd Barrett: ‘It was a dreamy English day/ it was pouring down with rain’ Great line!
The only potential downside to owning this disc is that it’ll become redundant when you realise that you’ll want everything else the Cleaners ever did; track for track, it’s pretty damn consistent as compilations go. My advice: buy this, see if you like it and then when you do (you will!), get everything else and pass Golden Cleaners on to a friend. They’ll thank you for it.
Skyclad: Live At The Dynamo
Good, but approach with caution...,
This is a compilation of live tracks culled from two concerts Skyclad performed in 1992 and 1995. If you own Another Fine Mess, you already have the bulk of these tracks. If you own Tracks From The Wilderness you own the remainder.
Therefore, if you have both of those albums, you don't need this one.
In fact, you're better off buying Tracks... and Another Fine Mess separately, since you get all the tracks on Live At The Dynamo, plus a clutch of other goodies unavailable elsewhere. If you're into Skyclad, you'll have these already from long ago.
That said... if you own no Skyclad and want to check out how they sounded live, this album is a concise record of those glory years in the 90s, when Walkyier stamped his authority over the band and the music was truly evocative of a mystical, lost pagan time, while still being able to riff like crazy. And tunes! Hummable, melodic lines — think 'heavy Levellers' crossed with classic Maiden and you're some of the way there.
Skyclad truly were the best at what they did back then. Nowadays, they're more of a noisy folk band — good in its place, but unremarkable in a sea of similar-sounding bands. Listen to this album and remember how every tune was top notch, how Walkyier could work a crowd and just how they rocked your pagan soul!
Men Without Hats: No Hats Beyond This Point
Sideways step from the Folk Of The 80s Into The 21st Century
It's been over twenty years since Men Without Hats had their biggest hit in The Safety Dance, but while the rest of the band's subsequent output was unfairly overlooked by the record buying public (at least in Europe; I can't speak for the USA), the Hats continued to release a steady stream of quality electronic pop throughout the 1980s, most of it to be found on the albums Rhythm Of Youth in 1983, 1984's Folk Of The 80s part III and the mighty Pop Goes The World in 1987. But by 1989 and The Adventures Of Women And Men Without Hate In The 21st Century, the invention was wearing thin for the band, in particular their resorting to a lacklustre cover version of Abba's SOS (nice sentiment, good choice of cover, but adding in execution no insight to the original tune) and transparent retreads of old materials and textures. A final album, Sideways, released in 1991, demonstrated a brave attempt to step away from the synth sound to a more lo-fi, proto-grunge pop sound, but with little success. It seemed Men Without Hats were a band incapable of outlasting the decade that had made them. But now, they have released a new album. And I'm pleased to say it's good.
The cover of the album takes the familiar crossed through round "No Hats" logo and reframes it as a square. You can take this idea as a maxim for the whole album: it's what you expect from a MWH, but also retooled somewhat. So you get some nice period analogue-sounding synth textures in Dancing In The Moonlight, but used in a sparser, spacious sound picture that suggests that the MHW boys didn't spend the 1990s with their ears shut to techno dance music and the quirkier kind of pop music typified (to my ears) by bands such as Moloko and Erasure. Elsewhere, MWH demonstrate that their knack for finding glorious chord progressions, uplifting melodies and wonderful synth noises is intact, especially on Christina's World (which could almost have been lifted from Pop Goes The World). And of course over all this, you have Ivan's vocals: in his commanding delivery, almost arrogant, wry and cynical tones you hear one of the more interesting and engaging voices in pop.
Overall, MWH have delivered a nice, shiny, fresh-sounding package of crisp tunes, with a light dusting of Eighties fingerprints over it. No bad thing!
Thank you for your patience and persistence. I will return in full effect, as I never used to say in the Eighties, later this month.
Currently listening to:
pH7 (Peter Hammill, 1979)
A Black Box (Peter Hammill, 1980)
And Close As This (Peter Hammill, 1986)
The Rising Of The Lights (William D Drake, 2011)
Nothing I can talk about openly!
Red Dwarf I-V (BBC 1987-1992)