Sunday, 13 August 2017

Forty Years On... Meat Loaf - Bat Out Of Hell

There are certain events in history that imprint themselves into the psyche in such a way that, so they say, you can remember where you were when something happened, or you heard of its happening. The death of John Lennon, and of Diana, and 9/11 are such events for me - they will always be associated with certain places in my mind.

 And so is Meat Loaf's album, Bat Out Of Hell: not his debut - that came in 1971, but his major label debut. Forty years on (as the title says) I can still remember where I was when I first heard this record. It was in a small club in the centre of Harrogate, upstairs in a back street just near the bus station, that went by the name of 'PG's' (the club moved to another venue, nearer the Royal Hall, a short while later). PG's was a wonderful club, named after its mainstay, Paul Gerrett, the former keyboard player with local band 'Wally', and it catered for a wide range of rock styles in its live and recorded music. And it was here, as I have said, that I first encountered the delight that was Meat Loaf's 'Bat Out Of Hell.'

What can one say about this album? Firstly, the album cover is stunning and iconic: Richard Corben's biker emerging from the grave, the lush red of the sky, and the enormous bat standing atop the mausoleum, is rightly judged to be one of the best album covers of all time. The music is principally the work of Jim Steinman, acknowledged on the cover after some contentious wrangling with the label, and owes much to Todd Rundgren's production for finding the sound. In fact, the combination of Steinman's writing, Rundgren's production and Meat Loaf's vocals seem to have found the perfect fit here.

For a teenager in the 1970s, this album brought a wonderful amalgam of motorcycles, excitement and the fumblings of pubescent sexual encounters. The album begins with a road accident in which the unnamed 'hero' of the songs is dying, and the rest of the album sees him reliving some of the formative scenes of his young life. These are played out in a heat of heavy guitars and emotive string arrangements, both of which add depth to Meat Loaf's expressive vocals. This is a heady mix of good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll (Paradise by the Dashboard Light, and the last part of All Revved Up...), ballad (Heaven Can Wait, Two Out Of Three... and For Crying Out Loud), and even some very progressive elements in the title track.

After 40 years, and around 500 weeks on the UK charts, this album still has the power to thrill me: perhaps not in the same way it did to a bike-riding, rock-loving 16 year-old, excited by the new music that was around, but as one who looks back on those days with a certain nostalgia and an equally certain longing. I was wondering whether there has been an album in recent years that has had the same (lasting?) effect on me, and although there is so much good music around at the moment, I'm struggling to find one which has had a similar emotional reaction: perhaps it's my age...

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Forty Years On... Bob Marley & The Wailers - Exodus

There were a number of factors that attracted me to reggae back in the 1970s. I think, like punk, it was something different and to some extent anti-establishment, particularly with its connections with drug culture. Then there was John Peel, who played quite a bit of reggae - and sometimes some of the dub that was a little harder to grasp. At its more accessible end, this was fun music, too, which was another factor in its favour.

Marley, and his fellow band mates from The Wailers, had brought their version of Jamaican roots music to the UK earlier in the 1970s, and had had some critical success (if not commercial) with Catch a Fire and Burnin', getting a slot on The Old Grey Whistle Test - their first UK TV appearance. But it was Exodus which brought them the commercial success, and the album produced 5 singles which all made the Top 30 in the UK, between 1977 and 1980.

One thing is clear when listening to this album, and that it that it is a spiritual piece of work. Rooted in Marley's embracing of the Rastafarian faith, it draws on Old & New Testament images and ideas, linking them to the struggle of the Afro-Caribbean people. Songs such as 'Natural Mystic', 'Guiltiness', 'The Heathen' and 'Exodus' all blatantly fly the rasta flag - the album is subtitled (on the back cover at least) Movement of Jah People - but other songs too have a strong spiritual element too. As a Christian minister I find many resonances with Marley's lyrics and the Bible, particularly, but not exclusively, the Old Testament. This is an album that continues to thrill me, entertain me and challenge me. A true classic!

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Forty Years On... Jethro Tull - Songs From The Wood

As an aficionado of modern Progressive music as well as the 'classic' material, I'm no stranger to songs which draw on the rich folkloric history of England - Big Big Train have been mining that particular vein to wonderful effect for a number of years now. But they were not the first. When Ian Anderson made the move from London to the countryside in 1975 he was soon immersing himself in the characters and stories of country culture, and these tales would provide grist for the creative mill in the production of one of their outstanding albums, Songs From The Wood.

This was, in fact, my introduction proper to the band, and I was drawn to the album by the 'hit' from it - a Christmas hit, no less - 'Ring Out, Solstice Bells'. I think it was a combination of the quirky nature of the tune, and the obviously slightly manic demeanour of Anderson on Top of the Pops, that drew the then 16 year-old me to explore more of the band.

This is, on first impressions, quite a different record from what I was otherwise listening to: the arrogant noise of punk; the bluesy bombast of Zepp; and the psychedelic trippy-ness of the Woodstock generation. The opening title track starts with a capella harmonies before flute and acoustic guitars, piano, drums and bass, and electric guitars & keyboards all enter the fray, and soon it is transformed from folk to full-blown Prog. Not unduly heavy, there's such a lot going on here, and it quickly has you wanting more. 'Jack-In-The-Green' is a song written and performed solely by Anderson: according to the sleeve notes (to the 2003 remaster) he wrote it before lunch one Sunday, recorded it after lunch and mixed it that evening! But it doesn't have any sense of being a rushed song. There is a marvellous richness to it, despite its simplicity - essentially an acoustic guitar & flute song, with some bass and drums  added to give it a little depth, but a great song. 'Cup of Wonder' follows, with rich acoustic arpeggios to begin, echoed by Martin Barre's electric guitar. There's a strong driving beat to the song, with Anderson's vocals to the fore, though with a good break in the middle for Barre to do some intricate solo work, albeit briefly. 'Hunting Girl' has a long instrumental introduction with piano, flute & electric guitar vying for dominance before the guitar brings in the melody riff with distorted power. This is a song laced with not subtle innuendo about a chance meeting between a 'normal low-born so-and-so' and a 'high-born hunting girl', the former of whom seems to spurn the advances of the lady - to be greeted by an almost choral refrain at the end: divine intervention? Side One closes with the Christmas hit - or rather a pre-Christian seasonal song, 'Ring Out, Solstice Bells'. Again vocal harmonies are to the fore, as are bells, and although perhaps a little twee, it is a good end to the first side.

'Velvet Green' opens Side Two, and immediately there is the nostalgic air of harpsichord in the keyboards, transforming to flute as the pace picks up with some intricate drum patterns. An upbeat couple of verses then becomes a more ponderous tune, as tales of intimate dalliances in the Summer evening are related. An instrumental break gives the feel of a dance, with Anderson's flute skipping along merrily, before the night ends and we return to the opening verses to bring to song to an end. 'The Whistler' has a kind of ponderous opening, which carries on onto the verses, but the chorus is a joyful (and joy-full) romp with whistles a-plenty (naturally). Great fun, and probably the folkiest song on the album! 'Pibroch (Cap In Hand)', by contrast, is probably the rockiest, with a stirring electric guitar introduction becoming full band before the vocals slow things down a little. After a repeat of the guitar motif following the second verse, we are then treated to a kind of jig on mandolin & flute, then things slow down again for the final denouement. The album closer is 'Fire at Midnight', a fitting end for this fine collection of songs, a short, snappy song which celebrates the end of the day, and the end of the album.

Perhaps not work of the fine Progressive pedigree of albums like Thick as a Brick or Aqualung, this is one which I love to go back to. Like the album that followed it, Heavy Horses, this is a lot more accessible than some of the band's earlier work yet still retains a credibility which some of the other 'accessible' rock & prog albums seem to miss. 'Songs From The Wood' still has a prominent place in my musical education, and still ranks as one of my Top 20 albums of all time.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Forty Years On... Annie Haslam - Annie in Wonderland

Some music is better know than others; some music should be better know than others: this album should be firmly in the second category. Some music has a particular association in the mind (well, in my mind, at least) with certain people, occasions or places: this album is one such for me. In 1977, at the tender age of 16, one of the highlights of my week was the Tuesday night 'Rock Night' at Annabella's disco in Harrogate. There we got to bang heads to AC/DC and Quo, and freak out to Freebird and Stairway to Heaven, with no chance of any 'disco' music spoiling the evening. And there was booze (if you looked old enough), and girls (if you were lucky enough!). But every now and then, the DJ would throw a curve ball.

One night he decided to play the opening track from side 2 of a strange looking album called 'Annie in Wonderland' by Annie Haslam. This was not a name I was familiar with, at the time, but the track immediately hit home for me, as it was written, mostly played, and produced by a certain Roy Wood, and has that particular rocking, sax-heavy sound that he loves. I was hooked, not only by the music but by Annie's magnificent voice. I subsequently discovered that she was the singer with prog/ folk/ rock stalwarts Renaissance, which led me to explore their work a little, and having been hooked by 'Rockalise' I had to borrow the album for the DJ, who dutifully obliged. I soon found out what a strange, interesting and varied collection of songs it was!

Side 1 opens with 'Introlise', with Annie harmonizing with herself in an upbeat few bars, before a bass glissando leads into some powerful orchestral chords taking us to 'If I Were Made Of Music'. Here the clarity of Haslam's vocals comes to the fore, and there is a strong bass throughout the song - perhaps a reflection on it being written by the bassist, Jon Camp - with many musical metaphors utilised throughout, and not in too corny a way. We then move on to the Wood-penned 'I Never Believed In Love', a jolly song with 12-string introduction and Wood sharing vocal duties and offering a good sax solo mid-way, and from there, in a totally different direction, with a version of Rogers & Hammerstein's 1945 song from Carousel, 'If I Loved You', the first of three 'standards' on the album. It starts with what sounds like a harp and acoustic guitar intro, before introducing balalaika as the vocals come in, perhaps slightly slower than the song is usually sung, but I think this, combined with Haslam's voice, gives it more force as a song. A balalaika-led instrumental break gives it a European feel, which is very good. Side 1 then closes with the longest song on the album (7:34), another Wood song, 'Hunioco', a coming of age song set in a south sea tribal context - "the boy becomes a man" - which has what we would call these days a 'world music' feel to it, alongside a funk edge too.

Side 2, as I mentioned earlier, opens with 'Rockalise', perhaps the most 'Roy Wood' song on the album with his characteristic rocking saxophones, but it opens with orchestral and harp tones, with Annie's angelic tones to the fore. This tune really shows of her voice to perfection, to my mind, and as a rock track it is very classical! Until just under half way through, when the drums come in and the whole tenor of the song changes to a rocking monster! They reintroduce the 'Introlise' theme towards the end, and this is a song that simply gets you moving (and it takes a lot to do that for me!). Then, again as a contrast, comes the second of the 'standards': Eden Ahbez's 'Nature Boy', a song made famous by Nat King Cole. This was the first version of the song I recall hearing, and any others - even Cole's - I tend to judge against this one. It is a song that I love, and Haslam's rendition is very good, though Wood gives it a more upbeat feel than Cole's version, and there's some good scatting over what sounds like electric sitar near the end. The final original song, Jon Camp's 'Inside My Life' follows, which is a good acoustic guitar-led song, with Camp providing some inventive backing vocals and interesting syncopation in the vocal line. The album closer couldn't be more different again, with a setting of the Second Movement (Largo) of Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), with words by William Arms Fisher - 'Going Home'. This comes with orchestration and a backing choir, and although the words are a little twee and maudlin, and concerned with death, Haslam manages to instill them with great passion and pathos. My only gripe is that it does put a bit of a downer on the end of an excellent collection of songs.

It was a long time after borrowing this album that I finally got round to purchasing my own copy, but over the last few years it has been fantastic to revisit these songs and to enjoy again the magic that Annie Haslam brings to Roy Wood's music. This is a wonderful combination that, even after 40 years, needs to be more widely heard.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Forty Years On... Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel (Car)

My 'education' in music came at a key juncture in British popular music. The mid 1970s saw a seed change in a lot of rock music, with the advent of Punk calling an end to what were seen as the 'dinosaurs' of what we now call classic Progressive Rock (in those days it was just 'good music', or occasionally 'not disco'!) It was around 1976/77 that I discovered the music of Genesis, principally through 'Seconds Out', and this opened up a whole array of material from the early years of the band to me, and I acquainted myself with the band's history. That was when I discovered Peter Gabriel.

When I was at school, there were essentially two types of record for the aspiring music connoisseur: those which 'clicked' easily, and those which 'took a bit of getting into' (as the phrase went). My recollection of Peter Gabriel's debut solo album was that it was in that second category. Initially drawn in by the wonderful first single, 'Solsbury Hill', I then soon discovered the breadth and depth of Gabriel's songwriting.

The album opener 'Moribund the Burgermeister' has an immediate air of menace about it, both musically and vocally, and Larry Fast's particular keyboard style asserts itself from the off. Dance music this is not! 'Solsbury Hill' is very different, up-beat in tempo and quite a jolly tune. It still has some good 'prog' credentials, with some interesting syncopations in the melody, and the acoustic beginning slowly builds to a subtle electric crescendo by the end. A masterpiece! 'Modern Love' is a more straight-forward rocker, with Tony Levi & Robert Fripp providing a steady background to Peter's powerful vocals. This is Gabriel firmly back in 'Back in NYC' territory. And then, just in case we were getting a little too comfy, 'Excuse Me' comes along, essentially Barbershop and Vaudeville with Robert Fripp on banjo and Tony Levin on tuba! A little light relief as we approach the end of side one, which draws to a close with the hauntingly beautiful 'Humdrum', which cuts to a Bossa Nova before concluding in heavy chords and soulful singing, and some soothing classical guitar.

Flipping over to side two (as we did in those days!), we open with 'Slowburn' which is anything but slow to start off! Steve Hunter, who'd played the acoustic on 'Solsbury Hill' takes lead duties here in a song with great power and drive early on, and much emotion towards the end, before the song fades to staccato piano and twiddly synths. For a 'Prog' artist, this album has been strange in that none of the songs so far have been over 4½ minutes long - standard pop fare. If we've been 'Waiting for the Big One', here it comes now (clocking in at 7:15), but this is not Prog, but (for me, at least) seedy night-club blues, performed with style and grace by the band, with some great drum fills, driving piano, a wonderful guitar solo from Steve Hunter and a hint of Tom Waits about the song as a whole, for me. For the last couple of songs on the album, Gabriel enlists the help of the London Symphony Orchestra (!) to give some depth and difference to the music. 'Down The Dolce Vita' opens with a grand orchestral flourish, before rock band mode kicks in, but the orchestra return at intervals to enhance the sound, and very effectively too. The song ends with recorder (?) playing softly, which leads into the final song, 'Here Comes The Flood'. Here the orchestration is more muted, but still there, and Gabriel's voice is arguably at its best in terms of expression and variation: soulful, bluesy, powerful and tender, all in one great song!

Gabriel has, apparently, said that he thinks the album, and certainly 'Here Comes The Flood', are over-produced, and I have to say that when I heard the version of '...Flood' on 'Shaking the Tree' I found it a much more appealing version for me, with just him and a piano. But the album continues to entrance me, excite me and entertain me. It is such an eclectic mix of styles, with some exceptional musicianship and timeless songwriting: a delight for me to this day.