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.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Forty Years On... Fleetwood Mac - Rumours

Popular music has a broad canvas, and this is certainly true of 1977. Amid what some saw as the dying embers of Prog (how wrong that was!) and the anarchic energy of punk (flash in the pan?), there was room for the soft rock stylings of Fleetwood Mac. Beginning their musical journey some 9 years earlier, as, at times, a very good blues outfit, the band had changed course musically and by 1975's eponymous album had begun to carve out a niche for themselves in a softer, poppier rock music. Thought not a huge hit in the UK (it peaked at 23), this eponymous 'White' album was their first US number 1, and paved the way for the phenomenal global success that was shortly to come their way.

From a songwriting perspective, Rumours is essentially the work of Lindsey Buckingham & Stevie Nicks, who contribute 3 songs each, and Christine McVie, who has 4 songs (3 of which she takes solo lead vocal duties for), with the whole band being credited for writing 'The Chain'. This was an almost ubiquitous album during 1977, which spawned 4 hit singles, guaranteeing it constant air-play on radio and TV. It managed to hit the balance between pop and rock almost perfectly, being equally at home with Tony Blackburn and DLT as it was with Annie Nightingale and Alan Freeman.

The songs range in tempo throughout the album. 'Second Hand News' is a good, upbeat opener, whereas 'Dreams' the best-selling song from the collection, is more obviously ponderous (though not in a bad way). The next three tunes - 'Never Going Back Again', 'Don't Stop' and 'Go Your Own Way' - pick up the beat again, the latter really beginning to rock, before side one closes with the sublime 'Songbird', which starts as a solo piano song, with acoustic guitar gradually rising in the mix, all the time playing support to Christine McVie's voice.

Side two opens with 'The Chain', with its metronomic drum pattern which develops into some quite expressive and inventive percussion, and from John McVie perhaps one of the most recognised bass riffs in rock towards the end - the theme of Formula One. A couple more up-beat tunes follow: 'You Make Loving Fun' has an almost disco tempo to it, and 'I Don't Want To Know', a joyous little romp of a song, really! 'Oh Daddy' is another ballad from Christine McVie, with a kind of celtic feel to it in places, but it doesn't have the same depth to it as the earlier slow songs for me. 'Gold Dust Woman' closes the album, a steady soft rock song with acoustic slide guitar and more metronomic drums. Although the longest song on the album, at just under 5 minutes, it doesn't seem over-long compared to the other songs.

This is a timeless collection of great songs, that has stood the test of time and still features in the album charts as I write this, 40 years after its release! There is hardly a duff track on this album: maybe not all killers, but not far short, and all capable of resonating with today's music lovers in the same way it did on release.

1977 is still proving to be a great year for music! And there's more to come!

Monday, 29 May 2017

Forty Years On... Electric Light Orchestra - Out of the Blue

1977 was a transitional year for me. I sat my O-Levels in the summer, and moved into the sixth form in the autumn. Musically, as I have already hinted in this series, the established order was being challenged by a number of young 'upstarts', as punk and new wave music surged in popularity, but the old guard was not giving in without a fight.

I have a strong recollection of that autumn of 1977, and of a sense of eager anticipation for the new album from ELO among some of my friends. 1976's 'A New World Record' had begun to cement the band's reputation as a kind of progressive pop rock band with classical overtones, and had brought them some minor success both in the singles and album chart. But in the punk autumn, this was a double album - 70 minutes of music - and side 3 was a single piece, albeit divided into 4 songs (or movements?): the 'Concerto for a Rainy Day'. Were the dinosaurs dead, or was there still some fight left in them?

There are 17 songs on the album: apart from 'Believe Me Now' - a mere 1:21 - all of them between 3:26 and 5:10. So none of the epic posturing that had so enraged the new wave (not that ELO had indulged in that since 'Kuiama' on their 1973 sophomore release). Lynne managed to spawn 4 Top 20 hit singles from this collection, and, unlike the rage and anarchy at the heart of much of the contemporary punk material, this is on the whole a very up-beat collection, though with light and shade.

Jeff Lynne has, it's I think fair to say, always been greatly influenced by The Beatles in the music that he produces, and that influence (or certainly John Lennon's) is evident here, particularly on 'Starlight' and 'Stepping Out'. But there are echoes for me of Dylan in places in the vocals of 'Night in the City' (as well as The Who in the song too) and 'Sweet is the Night', and Bowie in places too. And was 'Jungle' an influence on Genesis for 'Congo'? There is also some interesting experimentation, particularly in the instrumental 'The Whale' on side 4.

There are strong, powerful string arrangements throughout this collection, along with good vocal harmonies and Richard Tandy's quirky use of the Vocoder in a number of places. Jeff Lynne's skill at penning catchy, memorable songs is evident, and these factors combine to secure, I believe, the longevity and timelessness of the album. My lasting impression is of something of its time, yet timeless too - a neat trick if you can pull it off! But it's a great album to come back to.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Forty Years On... Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties

Ian Dury was another artist who 'shirt-tailed' onto the burgeoning punk scene in 1977, although he had been around on the London pub rock circuit for at least three years prior to that, and had released a couple of singles in 1974 & '75 as Kilburn & the Highroads. It was probably his signing to Stiff Records in 1977 that drew him to my attention: that and his occasional use of profanity and innuendo, all very important to a 16 year-old!

The songs are (like Trevor) clever (or should that be 'clevor'?). Dury's use of language is intelligent and thoughtful and he draws his inspiration from normal life and from the slightly colourful working people one would find in the East End and Essex, where he grew up. As well as intelligent and thoughtful, Dury's language is, at times, colourful! In the opener, 'Wake up and make love with me' he leaves little to the imagination, until that is we reach the 'climax' when he reminds us that "what happens next is private, and it's also very rude!" Musically it is a diverse collection, and very well played, in contrast to much of the contemporary punk material. But this is not punk: it is rock 'n' roll, funk, disco, even music hall (and Prog?), and heavily rooted in East London. Even 'Blockheads', the nearest musically to punk, seems to be ridiculing the associated mindset.

So why does it appeal to a middle class Yorkshireman? I think it's the variety of the music, the wit of the lyrics, and the quality of the musicianship that have lasted the most, as I listened again. There's the pathos of 'My Old Man'; the playfulness of 'Billericay Dickie' & 'Clevor Trever', and the (im)pure profanity of 'Plaistow Patricia'. This is a collection which rewards coming back to after all these years.