Friday, 20 October 2017

Forty Years On... Steely Dan - Aja

There was always someone at school who had a more adventurous record collection than others. Back in the day, when vinyl was the only real medium for the serious music listener, albums would appear in school bags to be exchanged or to be played in the common room (which gives you an idea of the sort of school I attended), but would usually be the standard fare of Led Zeppelin, Status Quo, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Genesis or Yes, and that, for me, was a wonderful way to acquaint myself with something new - especially on a limited budget. But every now and then something different would appear: Gentle Giant, ELP and, on occasion, Steely Dan.

I'd heard some of their material before: Reelin' in the Years, Do It Again and Haitian Divorce had been played on the radio, (the latter being a minor hit in the UK) but in 1977 something a little more interesting, different, came along when someone produced their copy of Aja. The cover, in contrast to the colourful jumble of 'Can't Buy A Thrill', was stark and enigmatic. Almost completely black, save for a the red and white stripe of the edge of a kimono, part of a girl's face, and the album title in red and band name in white, it kind of drew you in, wanting to know what secret was hidden inside.

What was inside was something very different from what I was otherwise listening to (see other posts in this series). 'Black Cow', the opener, is a kind of minimalist slow funk, whereas the title track, 'Aja' has a Latin edge to it, but again quite slow and languid: more of an end-of-the-night song rather than heat-of-the-moment, and that Latin edge soon gives way to some great jazz in the form of Wayne Shorter on saxophone. 'Deacon Blues', possibly the first song I'd heard on the album, has a more New York vibe to it, a little more upbeat, and quite sunny - this song puts a smile on my face every time I hear it! Some might say definitely not the  'rock' I was used to, but great music nonetheless.

Side two opens with 'Peg', a dance tune (of the day), funky and rocky, with some great vocal harmonies and even a guitar solo. 'Home At Last' has almost a reggae feel alongside the jazzier elements, with some cool horns and passing classical reference lyrically to the Sirens, and a great little guitar solo from Becker. 'I Got The News' is a jumpy, stuttering little song, but none too shabby for that, again with a funky vibe. Michael MacDonald's backing vocals stand out, as do Becker's short guitar solos again. The album closes with 'Josie', which opens with some ominous guitar work, before the funk steps in again. This is a tune with class and style, drawing an album of similar quality to a close.

In the 40 years since this album's release I've become acquainted with the full range of Steely Dan's work, much of which is outstanding material. But this album is one I return to again and again for its sheer class, beauty and style. It can lift my heart on the darkest days, and had I known back in those halcyon days just how iconic an album it would be perhaps I would have paid it just a little more attention.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Forty Years On... The Sex Pistols - Never Mind The B*llocks

Into a world of stability, tradition and 'niceness' that was 1977 to a large extent - certainly within popular culture and the media - exploded the angry, annoying, petulant beast that was punk. As the nation of the UK were settling down to celebrate 25 years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, something was stirring in the underground music of the cities that sought to overturn what it saw as the boring establishment world around it. Punk set out to bring energy, excitement and brevity to the popular song again, and to do so with brash, in-your-face attitude, and the Sex Pistols, while not being the first to do so, were portrayed as being at the forefront of this onslaught.

To a hormonal teenager in 1977 there was something more than mildly attractive about this rebellious assault on the senses. The album sleeve, with its dayglo yellow and pink and ransom-note lettering was everything that a well-drawn Roger Dean sleeve was not. The old was being swept away and the new was here: rough, raw and raring to go!

Musically this is an assault on the senses: not as raw as I sometimes remember it, but blunt, basic and bristling with anger. Johnny Rotten's voice is like a snarling Bob Dylan, but with none of the poetry, and the rest of the band offer rhythm and noise to support the ire in the lyrics. The band also don't fight shy of using a vocabulary that would deny them airplay on most stations, or tackling subjects that many would consider taboo (such as abortion or the monarchy). But this was all part of the agenda to shock the establishment.

This is basic song-writing, but structured song-writing: there is a frame for Rotten's rants that makes musical sense, if not much aesthetic sense. This is rock and roll at its rawest, perhaps even regressive from the earliest days of the genre, but is was that primeval nature that perhaps gave it its attraction. Punk evolved very quickly from these early forms, and lasted a little longer as a result, evolving into the New Wave (already there in embryonic form); the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) among whose offspring are Iron Maiden; and, not too long after, the New Romantics, who took the fashion aspects of punk and cleaned them up a little, and attached them to a more danceable and keyboard-driven soundtrack. And maybe they led ultimately to the birth of Neo-Progressive music in the early 1980s - the dinosaur fighting back?

Hardly dinner party music, but perhaps an important statement of the times. And forty years on, it doesn't sound quite as bad as I thought...

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Forty Years On... Rush - A Farewell To Kings

As a teenager, my introduction to Rush came, I think, through 2112, with its side-long sci-fi epic, and collection of shorter songs. This was my introduction to Geddy Lee's trademark vocals - a kind of harsher Jon Anderson; Neil Peart's enigmatic lyrics; and Alex Lifeson's sweeping guitars.

A Farewell To Kings, its successor, came out in September 1977, just as I was embarking on my A-Level studies, and it seemed to me to be a 'grown-up' album, alongside the cheeky, rude, laddish punk of The Sex Pistols and their ilk. I suppose I was still trying to find where my musical tastes lay: was it (as John Miles emoted) 'music of the future' or 'music of the past' that was to guide my burgeoning adulthood? I think, in the end, it was a bit of both - though as I get older, the more I delve back.

A Farewell To Kings still has that mix of long- and short-form songs that Rush had developed over the last couple of releases, but here a little more integrated, rather than short songs on one side and long on the other. It opens with the title track, which itself opens with acoustic guitar and keyboards, before the crash of cymbals and the full electric band enter. There appear to be a number of distinct themes present, but it is a good rocker with some interesting changes in tempo and signature, and it ends with a nod to a later track (and surprise hit single!). Xanadu starts ponderously with interesting percussion and guitar, building over the drone of keyboards, before the 7/8 guitar riff comes in. (As a 16 year-old I learnt to play this riff, along with others in this song!) I have to say that this is still one of my favourite Rush songs, for its mix of styles, its complexity and its sheer fun, rather than its talk of immortality or its allusions to Coleridge. It's just a great song, and still has the excitement I loved as a young lad! Side One ends with the hit single from the album, Closer To The Heart, which reached the dizzy heights of number 36 on the UK charts! It was quite an achievement in those days for music such as this to potentially be on Top of the Pops, so I and may of my friends rejoiced at its success, even though, on reflection, it's not that great a song - good, but not great.

Side Two opens with the other single from the album, but one which didn't trouble the charts - Cinderella Man. This is an odd song, as it combines a harder edge with acoustic passages, and a more conventional song structure but some experimental guitar work in the instrumental section. Maybe it was a bit too much for the British record-buying public at the time. Madrigal, the shortest song on the album, may have been a better bet as a single. It is a simple ballad, and quite beautiful in its overall feel, if a little twee. Not a dance-floor song, but maybe one for a slow dance at the end of the evening. The album ends with Cygnus X-1 - or at least part one of it - the beginning of a sci-fi epic about a spacecraft flying into a black hole and the consequences thereof. There are some interesting musical themes to accompany the fantastic journey, and the lyric sheet contains the enigmatic 'to be continued' which heightened my and some of my classmates' anticipation for the next album, 'Hemispheres', which brought the tale to its philosophical climax!

Returning to this album after a while I come to it with mixed feelings. This was the band's first album to chart in the UK, and produced their first hit single, so in that sense it was an important release for them. Some tracks, like Xanadu and, to a slightly lesser degree, Madrigal, still stand out; Cinderella Man never really did it for me, to be honest, and the rest is definitely take it or leave it. but this is only one in a long line of material from the band, and while most of their 80s output sounds very same-y to me, there are still some great songs in their repertoire, and maybe it's not quite time to say farewell to A Farewell To Kings, just yet.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Train now arriving...

Two years ago I was privileged to attend the first two nights of Big Big Train's live shows at King's Place, London, and a delight they were, as anyone can witness by watching their Blu-ray release of the shows, Stone & Steel. So when they announced last year that they were planning some more shows in the capital, in a larger venue, I snapped up tickets as soon as possible for the opening night (well, actually my son snapped up the tickets, as I was in the US when they went on sale!).

Since the announcement of the concerts the band have not been idle, releasing 'Folklore', 'Grimspound' and (much to the delight of their growing band of supporters - the 'Passengers') the surprise Summer Solstice-released album 'The Second Brightest Star', and the epic conglomeration of 'London Song'. This gave them much new material to bring to the live arena, as well as their extensive back catalogue.

I wrote my reflections on the 2015 concerts at the time, and one thing that struck me about that occasion, as well as this year's events, is that these were so much more than just a series of concerts by a rock band. These were a gathering of family, from the four corners of the world, united by a common love of each other and of exceptional music, played with skill and passion.

My son and I travelled from the Midlands to London by train on the morning of Friday 29th September, and made our way, via Marylebone Road, Baker Street, Oxford Street and Hyde Park, to Kensington, where we met with around 50 other Passengers for curry. The camaraderie was amazing, as old friends were reacquainted, virtual friends became real, and new relationships were sparked. From there, suitably replete, we then proceeded to overwhelm The Antelope, a hostelry local to the gig venue, before leaving for Cadogan Hall and the principal reason for our gathering. Merch was purchased from the ever-obliging Nellie Pitts and her Merch Desk crew, and then we took our seats, ready for the show.

The anticipation was tangible as the lights faded, and Rachel Hall took the stage alone to begin the overture to the opening number, 'Folklore', being gradually joined by the brass section and the other members of the band: Andy, Danny, Nick, Rikard, Dave, Greg and finally David. The set continued with mostly material from the recent albums, but with the delightful inclusion of a track from 2009's 'The Underfall Yard', 'Last Train'. Accompanying the songs were images on the screen behind the band which enhanced the total experience wonderfully. The first half set was: Folklore, Brave Captain, Last Train, London Plane, Meadowlands & A Mead Hall in Winter.

Sadly, for those of us at the Friday concert, there were a number of issues with the sound, particularly for those of us in the gallery, which did mar the experience a little, but these were addressed during the break, and things were better in the second half. The interval was further enlivened by the sighting of none other than Tony Banks in the gallery!

The second half drew more on the band's older material as well as the newer stuff, with four songs that had been played at King's Place making the set list again. The full second half set was: Experimental Gentlemen, Swan Hunter, Judas Unrepentant, Transit of Venus..., East Coast Racer, Telling the Bees and Victorian Brickwork, with an encore of a drum solo from Nick d'Virgilio later enhanced by the brass section, and a final show-stopping rendition of Wassail. A truly moving, ecstatic experience for all who were there, I think.

For many the night was not over, as the band then mingled with Passengers to chat, sign programmes, and pose for selfies. Sadly I had to leave to catch the Last Train (!) home. For many, too, the weekend was not over, and reports of the two further concerts, on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, testify to the sound issues having been resolved and to the band relaxing into their task a little more, to astounding effect. I'm only sorry that I wasn't able to be there for the further shows, but a DVD/ Blu-ray is, I believe, on the cards, for which I rejoice!

The members of this band have managed to create not just heart-wrenching, soul-stirring and joy-bringing music of the highest quality, in both the studio and live settings, but also, around that music, a global community of like-minded people that I have rarely seen anywhere else. It was a pleasure to meet up with some of them last Friday in person, and to continue that relationship virtually. This is music, and community, that needs to travel the world: here's hoping that it will continue to do so!

(There are no photos, as we were requested not to take them)

Friday, 15 September 2017

Forty Years On... Queen - News Of The World

Hitting the 'big time' as they did with the phenomenal success of Bohemian Rhapsody in Christmas 1975, it was about that time that I became acquainted with the music of Queen in a proper way. I'd been aware of stuff like Killer Queen previously, but never really explored the band further until then. A Night at the Opera was an eye-opener for me, and demonstrated the breadth of the band's song-writing talent, from neo-operatic to almost vaudeville. A Day at the Races followed the following year, but that left me a little cold, as it seemed to me to be almost a repeat of 'Night...'.

As we moved into the autumn of 1977, a new Queen album was mooted. Would it be more of the same or not? Perhaps as a taster for what was to come (isn't that what singles were?) the band released the opening two tracks as a double-A side single, which gave a big hint of what we were to expect.

'News of the World' appeared on 28 October. There were intimations of what had gone before - this was definitely Queen - but new directions were evident too. It would be fair to say that the opening two songs: 'We Will Rock You' and 'We Are The Champions' have gone on to become anthemic, and at the time they were different and exciting - though '...Champions'  is perhaps more 'Bo Rhap'-ish with its operatic trills in the 'on and on and on' sections. 'Sheer Heart Attack' was, I thought at the time, a rebuttal to the raw energy and simplicity of punk (though it had been around in some form since the band made the album of the same name in 1974). All the band were involved in song-writing here: May produces some wonderful quirky blues with 'Sleeping on the Sidewalk', and something approaching the prog of 'The Prophet's Song' with 'It's Late'; and John Deacon again showed himself to be a fine exponent with 'Spread Your Wings' - on a par with his 'You're My Best Friend' from 'Night...' (maybe 'Who Needs You' is more akin to 'You and I' on 'Day...'). Taylor's 'Fight From The Inside' and Mercury's 'Get Down Make Love' also show a new direction in the band's music which proved to be innovative, if a little confusing to a pubescent rock fan: was this rock or not?

To my mind this was the band's last really good album, ending a sequence that began with maybe their debut and definitely their sophomoric offering: I never really 'got' their material from 'Jazz' onwards. But this is a fitting end (for me) to an excellent run at the start of what was to become a glittering career.