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.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Forty Years on... Elvis Costello - My Aim is True

I have a vague recollection - one which, even with the wonders of the internet, I have sadly failed to verify - that in the summer of 1977 one of the weekly music papers (there were 4 in those days: NME, Melody Maker, Record Mirror and my preferred choice, Sounds) had a headline 'Elvis is a Stiff!' This was not a crass and heartless (or perhaps tragically mis-timed) reference to the demise of the King of Rock 'n' Roll, but to Elvis Costello being signed to Stiff Records - "If it ain't Stiff, it ain't worth a f***!"

That label was to my mind at the time associated with punk: they had had the honour (?) of releasing the first ever punk album, The Damned's 'Damned, Damned, Damned' ("recorded to be played loud at low volume", as I recall the sleeve declared), so I was interested in their output as something new and exciting. But Costello's material was different.

My first conscious taste of Costello was in fact his second single, 'Alison', which I remember John Peel playing on occasion, though it may not have been anything more than the thought of taking off someone's party dress that initially attracted me (!) - after all I was a sexually frustrated teenager! But I really liked the song, and it has stayed with me (in a purer form, of course!) ever since.

The album is, like much of its time, a collection of short, punchy songs, but this is an intelligent collection of well-written tunes. In my introductory post I mentioned pub-rock and new wave music latching onto punk's coat-tails, and Costello was one of those fellow travellers. There is a strong pub-rock feel to many of these songs, perhaps down to the influence of Brinsley Schwarz member and album producer Nick Lowe. There are echoes and hints for me of Little Feat and early Dire Straits, as well as some straight down-the-line rock 'n' roll here, which seems only right for a man who has taken the name of The King and the look of Buddy Holly.

Although this album struggled to make an impact at the time, reaching #14 in the UK charts, it has enjoyed a certain longevity which befits its quality. It was recognised by Rolling Stone as one of the albums of the year in 1977, and in 2003 was listed at 168 in the top 500 albums of all time. Others see it as one of the most impressive debut albums of all time, and listening again I can see why. Energetic when it needs to be, yet always thoughtful and well-written, both lyrically and musically, this album somewhat flies in the face of the anarchic archetype of new popular music of the time. Here is songwriting of a very high quality. And 'Alison' still has the ability to give me goose-bumps, but now for all the right reasons!

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Forty Years on: The Clash - The Clash

1977 is remembered by me for a number of things, culturally, musically and personally. I grew up in reasonable comfort, the son of a postman and a school cleaner, with two younger brothers, in lower middle class suburbia. I was fortunate enough to have a room to myself, and, through the Direct Grant system in the early 1970s, I had a place at a minor (all male) private school as a day boy. Possibly because of my humble yet aspirational upbringing and my somewhat privileged education, coupled with the hormonal problems of adolescence, I found that I developed a tendency to be somewhat of a rebel. I didn't quite fit in to the world of my school contemporaries, and felt an increasing need to kick against 'the man'. The advent of punk was an excellent vehicle for that - it was a soundtrack to rebellion in the year of Jubilee (and our school's centenary).

In Harrogate there was a small independent record shop, The Sound Of Music, which increasingly took up a lot of my time (and what little money I had) and gave me opportunities to explore the exciting new sounds that were appearing - as did John Peel's late night radio show. It was there that I sampled a plethora of punk, among which was the self-titled debut from The Clash. Here was immediacy, energy, anger, politics, anti-establishment angst, and lots of noise! This was new, this was raw, this was pumped up, and this was ours! It was a good time to be alive!

That's kind of how it felt then, but how does it look and sound now? Well, as punk albums go this one does have a certain substance to it that some of the others lacked, though there is a lack of subtlety about the songs that, at the time, was endearing but now seems a little repetitive. The songs are, bar 'Police & Thieves', short - between 3:12 and 1:34 - and simple in structure and rhythm. The vocals are suited to the subject matter of the songs: direct, abrupt and earthy, and the musicianship is similarly to the point - nothing unnecessary, just raw (that word again) power. But that was punk, and these guys did it very well. Lyrically there is perhaps a little more depth than others were managing at the time, and there is certainly more about political frustrations here than there is about love. I was thinking that in terms of song length this is very much like an early Beatles album, but certainly not in terms of subject matter.

As a commentary on its time and the social milieu of late '70s Britain this is a valuable and relevant piece of work, and can be appreciated as such. But subtle it is not!

Friday, 12 May 2017

Forty Years on... Brand X - Moroccan Roll

Some music is almost timeless, and I was slightly taken aback when this album came up as 40 years old this year! In 1977 I was just 'getting into' Genesis, and I bought this album purely and simply because Phil Collins played drums on it. I knew nothing of 'jazz fusion', or even of jazz in its purer forms. This was to be an awakening for me.

This is Brand X's second album, following on from their 1976 debut, 'Unorthodox Behaviour', recorded and mixed between December 1976 and February 1977, around the time that Phil Collins was working on 'Wind & Wuthering' with Genesis. It reached number 37 in the UK album charts, the band's highest chart position.

The Indian influences in 'Sun in the Night' worked well for me then. I was a bit of a hippy (probably still am, though without the hair and the green paisley kaftan!), and any eastern references were lapped up, and the combination of electric sitar and lyrics in Sanskrit fitted my world-view perfectly - good grooving music! 'Why should I lend you mine...' is a chilling tune, and Percy Jones's bass licks early on still send shivers at times. It was music like this that began to show me just what standard rock instruments were capable of in ways I was not previously aware of. '...Maybe I'll lend you mine after all' is led by a simple motif on the piano, by Phil Collins, and is a gentle, dreamy, simple tune: almost an afterthought. 'Hate Zone' has a funky edge to it, and is almost a battle for supremacy between bass, guitars and keyboards, with the drums keeping it all together. Side one (in vinyl terms) ends with 'Collapsar', a short, keyboard-only piece by Robin Lumley, which is OK, but doesn't seem to go anywhere in particular.

'Disco Suicide' is more standard jazz fusion stuff, with some interesting off-beat ideas musically, changes of tempo and the introduction of latin rhythms. It has echoes for me of the work of Weather Report, that I was to discover later, and the vocalised section towards the end brings a nice lyrical quality to the tune after some of the 'chaos' of earlier. 'Orbits' sees Percy Jones playing around with his fretless bass, and an autoharp, through effects pedals to produce a short, space-y soundscape. 'Malaga Virgen' is perhaps 'more rock and roll' (Moroccan Roll) than anything else on the album, but in saying that it loses none of its jazzier, more experimental edge: while Goodsall is laying down some heavy guitar sounds, the bass is much higher in the mix and dominates, but there is scope for much toe-tapping and even head-banging in places. But the tempos continue to change, and soon there's pensive bass, thoughtful piano and quiet acoustic guitar, before the pace increases again. It is easy to see how this quickly became a live favourite. Album ender 'Macrocosm' starts off as a deceptive 7/8 song which drifts off on occasions into strange rhythmic hinterlands before morphing into a more rocky piece in 4/4, but never settling in one signature for long.

The musicianship throughout this album is exemplary: all five of the musicians exhibit an excellence and dexterity that one has come to expect from this genre, but perhaps here the ground-rules were being laid down (along with Weather Report and others).

This is, as I mentioned above, a timeless piece of work, and forty years on this remains one of the best examples of jazz fusion produced. It, along with its predecessor and the albums which followed, gave this (then) young rocker a taste of what might be possible with music, and that love has grown over the years, leading to a fuller appreciation of Weather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and many others. I was fortunate to see Brand X live in 1980, co-headlining with Bruford, and I am delighted that the band are currently touring in the US, playing music from this and other classic albums.

I'm not sure the 16 year-old me knew what to make of this complex music, but its influence had a lasting impression, and the 56 year-old still finds it energising, exciting and stimulating, and would commend the band's whole catalogue to anyone who is not aware of it.

Forty Years On... a look back at the music of my youth

Being 16 is always an interesting time (so I'm told - I've only done it once, to my recollection). It is a time when exams that will shape the future course of ones life are sat; a time when hormones tend to dominate thinking, dreaming and leisure activities (!); and a time when alcohol and other nefarious intoxicants vie for control of ones mind - but I consider myself fortunate to have turned 16 in 1977, which was the year of the royal Silver Jubilee, but also a year which saw some seismic shifts in the music scene in the UK. It was the year that punk hit the mainstream, snarling from the underground with all its energy, anger, immediacy and gobbing, and declaring that the 'dinosaurs' of progressive rock were now extinct. On punk's coat-tails, albeit shredded and studded, came a raft of pub-rock and proto new wave acts, along with a resurgence of reggae, to broaden the musical palette. And, of course, the dinosaurs refused to lie down and die quietly: in my collection there are new albums from ELO, ELP, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Queen, Rush, Supertramp, Van der Graaf & Yes, and a debut from England among others.

What I thought I'd do (and thanks to Gordon Midgley for the idea) is look back at the music I was listening to in 1977, what I thought of it then (as much as I can remember) and what I make of it now, as a much older, though probably not wiser, man. There are 50 albums & EPs in my collection from 1977, but only 22 of which I was aware of at the time, and 3 of those (by Genesis) I've looked at already. So I'm going to focus on those 19 albums first, and then may come back to pick up the ones I missed out on as a teenager later.

Hope you enjoy!

1. Brand X - Moroccan Roll
2. The Clash - The Clash
3. Elvis Costello - My Aim is True
4. Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties!!
5. ELO - Out of the Blue
6. Fleetwood Mac - Rumours
7. Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel (Car)
8. Annie Haslam - Annie In Wonderland
9. Jethro Tull - Songs From The Wood
10. Bob Marley & The Wailers - Exodus
11. Meat Loaf - Bat Out Of Hell