Friday, 29 December 2017

Music of 2017 - Part 2

As I noted in the earlier instalment of my year-end review, 2017 has produced some excellent music, and much of a high quality, so whittling things down to a best 20 albums of the year has been a struggle. But, I've finally got there, so here's my Top 20 for 2017.

20. Disperse - Foreword. At times dark, energetic, atmospheric and melodic, this is not your run-of-the-mill progressive rock. Favourite track: Does It Mater How Far?

19. Tangerine Dream - Quantum Gate. Reminiscent of the band at their 1980s best. Favourite track: Genesis of Precious Thoughts.

18. Bjorn Riis - Forever Comes To An End. Thoughtful, guitar-driven prog, at times quite melancholy. Not as Gilmour-esque as his earlier releases. Favourite track: Getaway.

17. Deluge Grander - Oceanarium. Energetic, unusual, inventive instrumental prog. Favourite track: A Numbered Rat, a High Ledge, and a Maze of Horizons.

16. Motorpsycho - The Tower. A 'big' sound, with great textures, reminiscent of Black Sabbath & Pink Floyd at times, and a feel of the best 60s & 70s music. Favourite track: Ship of Fools.

15. Wobbler - From Silence to Somewhere. An album rooted in the past but up-to-date as well. All you want from a nostalgic Scandinavian prog album! Favourite track: From Silence to Somewhere.

14. Ulver - The Assassination of Julius Caesar. Melodic and atmospheric, this album wears its 1980s influences well. Favourite track: Rolling Stone.

13. Threshold - Legends of the Shires. One of the better Prog Metal bands around. Driving, powerful, yet melodic and interesting. Favourite track: The Man Who Saw Through Time.

12. Möbius Strip - Möbius Strip. Great, clean, melodic jazz from this Italian foursome's debut, with wonderful interplay between sax & keyboards. Favourite track: Déjà Vu.

 11. Kamasi Washington - Harmony of Difference. More an EP than an album (32 minutes), but some sublime, more experimental jazz, exploring philosophical ideas through counterpoint. A great follow-up to 'The Epic'. Favourite track: Truth.

10. Rikard Sjöblom's Gungfly - On Her Journey To The Sun. Following Beardfish's sad demise, frontman (and Big Big Train stalwart) Rikard gives us a magical album which draws on the beardfish legacy, but takes it to the next level. Some wonderful lyricism and melody. Favourite track: Old Demons Die Hard.

9. Lunatic Soul - Fractured. A moving, powerful and reflective work by Riverside frontman Mariusz Duda, tinged with melancholy following the death of Riverside's Piotr Grudziński. This fifth outing is to my mind their strongest album. Favourite track: Crumbling Teeth and the Owl Eyes.

8. Barock Project - Detachment. Complex yet melodic and accessible music, of the highest quality, and enhanced by the talents of Peter Jones of Tiger Moth Tales (but only on a couple of songs). Favourite track: Happy To See You.

7. I Am The Manic Whale - Gathering The Waters. Marvellous sophomore release from a band who continue to astound, amuse and amaze me. Great narrative songs on many strange topics, carrying on from where the first album left off. Favourite track: The Milgram Experiment.

6. Kaipa - Children of the Sounds. Kaipa's trademark sound has an uncanny ability to put a broad smile on my face. This is joyful music of the highest order, played with consummate skill, that never fails to lift my soul. Favourite track: Like a Serpentine.

5. Kaprekar's Constant - Fate Outsmarts Desire. An outstanding debut from a band who produce historic & narrative songs along the line trod so well over recent years by Big Big Train, tapping into historic sounds and song-forms and assisted by Prog legend David Jackson. Favourite track: Hallsands.

4. Big Big Train - The Second Brightest Star. A surprise release by the band at Summer Solstice, and one of four releases by them this year to accompany their live shows in London. Some great recordings to round off the 'Grimlore' sequence, which offers opportunities for the wider band to contribute to the songwriting. Favourite track: The Passing Widow.

3. The Tangent - The Slow Rust of Forgotten Machinery. The Tangent's 9th studio release, and their most overtly 'political' for a while. Having said that, this is a compelling collection of great, thought-provoking songs with some eye-opening twists and fantastic musicianship (as always!). Favourite track: Two Rope Swings.

2. Big Big Train - Grimspound. Carrying on from last year's 'Folklore', in a trilogy completed by 'The Second Brightest Star', Big Big Train continue to create some stunning modern prog, anchored in the past but with its own unique character. This is delightful, melodic, and firmly rooted in the English traditions of folk, rock and brass - and simply stunning. Favourite track: A Mead Hall In Winter.

1. Tiger Moth Tales - The Depths of Winter. I wrote about this album on its release: often it takes a few listens to be captivated by a record, but this had me hook, line and sinker by the second time through, and it has simply got better with each listen. Evocative, inventive, fantastic songwriting, singing and playing, and a worthy Album of the Year. Favourite track: The Tears of Frigga.

So that has been the musical year 2017. Let's see what 2018 can bring!

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Music of 2017 - Part 1

This year's been a strange one in many respects. I spent the early part of the year convalescing at home after having been run over by a van on a zebra crossing and sustaining a minor brain injury as a result, and to fill the time I had I tried reading and listening to music, but both of these activities proved troublesome. But I did manage some listening, and 2017 proved to be another excellent year for the music that interests me, which is mainly Jazz and Progressive Rock.

So, as is my wont at this time of year, I will try and review my year in music as best as I can recall it. Over the year I've managed to amass around 120 albums of various kinds, and trying to rank them has proved difficult - there's just so much good and interesting music out there at the moment! I've managed (just) to choose a Top 20 for the year, but before then my usual sub-categories and a mention of those 'bubbling under'.

Gigs of the Year
5. Danfest, my first visit and a great day with The Room, Tiger Moth Tales, Red Bazaar and Schnauser
4. Steve Hackett at Sheffield City Hall
3. Snarky Puppy in Manchester
2. Big Big Train at Cadogan Hall. I was at the Friday gig, which wasn't the best for sound, but was the usual awesome experience of sublime music and wonderful camaraderie.
1. Summer's End Festival in Chepstow. Quite simply a stunning line-up of acts throughout the weekend, but the highlight had to be 'Tangekanic' (The Tangent & Karmakanic), who were just awesome!

Live Albums of the Year
5. Yes - Topographic Drama
4. The Fierce and The Dead - Field Recordings
3. John McLaughlin & the 4th Dimension - Live @ Ronnie Scott's
2. David Gilmour - Live at Pompeii
1. Brand X - But Wait... There's More

Discoveries of the Year
This is bands that I've come across for the first time this year who have stood out for me. They're listed in no particular order other than alphabetical.
Kaprekar's Constant: some really interesting and innovative narrative prog in the classic mode
Once & Future Band: jazzy and interesting
Dean Watson: another jazz-influenced act, with some wonderful tunes on his latest album, 'Sum of Parts'
Weend'O: The surprise package of Summer's End this year
Yussef Kamaal: released last year, but discovered early this year; some fascinating contemporary jazz

Before I move on to my Top albums, a word about those that I've enjoyed almost as much, and I want to start by making particular reference to two labels which have both brought me (and others) some great music this year (as other years).
The first is Edition Records, which panders to my growing love of jazz in its many forms, and this year I have especially enjoyed these offerings (again alphabetically):
   Denys Baptiste - The Late Trane
   Nicolas Kummert - La Diversité
   Rob Luft - Riser
   Malija - Instinct
   Phronesis - The Behemoth
   Verneri Pohjola - Pekka
   Aki Rissanen - Amorandom
   Morten Schantz - Godspeed
   Alexi Tuomarila - Kingdom

The second is Bad Elephant Music, whose roster continues to grow in its breadth, diversity and interest, and whose releases never cease to entertain, educate and illuminate. This has been a quiet year for them, with only 16 releases (and one to come later this month):
   Big Hogg - Gargoyles
   The Bob Lazar Story - Baritonia
   Charlie Cawood - The Divine Abstract
   The Fierce & the Dead - Field Recordings
   Murder & Parliament - Murder & Parliament
   My Tricksy Spirit - My Tricksy Spirit
   Orange Clocks - Tope's Sphere Episode 2
   Rog Patterson - Flightless
   Robert Ramsay - Confound and Disturb
   Schnauser - Irritant
   Shineback - Minotaur
   Tom Slatter - Happy People
   Syncage - Unlike Here
   Trojan Horse - Fukushima Surfer Boys
   Valdez - This
   Whitewater - Universal Medium

So, apart from those already mentioned above, here's another 25 of this year's releases that I think deserve recognition, but haven't quite made my Top 20. These are listed, again, in alphabetical order.

Agusa - Agusa
Yazz Ahmed - La Saboteuse
Anubis - The Second Hand
Circu5 - Circu5
Comedy of Errors - House of the Mind
Cosmograf - The Hay Man Dreams
Damanek - On Track
The Dear Hunter - All Is As All Should Be
Encircled - The Monkey Jamboree
Nubya Garcia - Nubya's 5ive
Godsticks - Faced with Rage
John Hackett Band - We Are Not Alone
Steve Hackett - The Night Siren
Brett William Kull - Open Skies Exploding
Lifesigns - Cardington
Lonely Robot - The Big Dream
Machines Dream - Black Science
Magenta - We Are Legend
Magic Bus - Phillip The Egg
PFM - Emotional Tattoos
Public Service Broadcasting - Every Valley
Nad Sylvan - The Bride Said No
Weend'O - Time of Awakening
White Willow - Future Hopes
Steven Wilson - To The Bone

As you can see, the quality this year has been very high. The Top 20 will be outlined in Part 2 - coming soon...

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Tiger Moth Tales - The Depths of Winter

Peter Jones has been something of a phenomenon since he appeared on the Progressive music scene just about 3 years ago, with his debut album, Cocoon. This delightful, nostalgic collection of reflections on childhood was an unexpected delight, and has remained a favourite of mine ever since. Since then Peter's skills and charm and whimsy have been seen again in Story Tellers, in his many covers of Genesis songs for charity, and in his contributions to the work of Red Bazaar, Barock Project and Colin Tench. He has become much in demand as a singer and multi-instrumentalist.

There is a certain quirkiness to Peter's music that is endearing, and his sense of humour is bright and, for many, enlivens his broadcasting on Progzilla. But an ever increasing number of fans have been waiting in eager anticipation for some new material from Peter, and now, at last, the wait is over, with the release of The Depths of Winter. And with this album there's both a sense of continuity and one of change and progress.

There is a subtle difference to the music on this release. This is a more 'serious' album, in that the subject matter is less frivolous (so to speak), and there is a subtlety and maturity to the compositions that shows clear progression from the earlier albums. There is still the great narrative songs that have thrilled listeners in the past: The Ballad of Longshanks John and The Tears of Frigga; there are some subtle and stirring instrumental pieces: Winter is Coming, Sleigh Ride, and Winter's End; and there is inspiration from varied sources: Wilfred Owen's war poetry (Exposure), the loss of a loved one (Take the Memory), the Scandinavian concept of Hygge, and even the simple desire to survive the coming cold (Winter Maker). But there's perhaps hidden meaning in some of the songs: Migration is billed as a song about an animal separated from the group while on the move, but could quite easily, for me, be a song about those seeking refuge and asylum from more human circumstances.

Musically Peter continues to draw his inspiration from the formative years of Progressive Rock, and there are clear echoes of Genesis in some of the music, as well as hints of more contemporary influences, such as Big Big Train, and classical sources too. Peter is not afraid of challenging time signatures and a breadth of instrumentation, both played by himself and by others. But for a collection of songs that draw their influence from the cold of winter, this is warm album: it delights the heart and renews ones faith in humanity - it is almost the aural equivalent of flagon of mulled wine in front of a roaring fire!

If you are familiar with Peter's work, this album will, I hope, continue to delight and inspire you. If his work is new to you, listen and be prepared to be wowed and warmed.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Forty Years On... Neil Young - American Stars 'n Bars

My appreciation of Neil Young's music predates this album by a few years. Being an unrepentant hippie in my early teens, I'd immersed myself in the Woodstock ethos, and in the music from the film soundtrack, and through that had discovered Crosby, Stills & Nash and their occasional inclusion of a fourth member - Neil Young. This led me to 'After The Goldrush' and 'Harvest', albums which I still value to this day, and also to the compilation 'Decade', a triple album which sadly my pocket money just wouldn't stretch to.

But earlier that year (1977) came 'American Stars 'n Bars', which I could stretch to, on cassette. It's a strange album in some ways, but a good one nonetheless. The cover depicts Young lying, presumably drunk, on a bar-room floor near a spittoon and a lady of, shall we say, negotiable affection, with the night sky above him.

The music is an interesting mix of Young's different styles. 'The Old Country Waltz' fits into the 'Don't Let It Bring You Down' school of depressing maudlin songs, with fiddle and slide guitar to ramp up the feeling of woe in another 'my girl's left me' outpouring. 'Saddle Up The Palomino' is a little rockier, with a memorable electric riff to open with, but continues the country feel. 'Hey Babe' is jollier and more acoustic, but still with Young's distinctive nasal whine - not a criticism, just an observation! 'Hold Back The Tears' takes us back to 'O woe is me' territory, which his voice seems to suit, but this is a song with a hopeful edge - 'Just around the next corner may be waiting your true love' he sings. Side One ends with 'Bite The Bullet', a hard, simple rocker to lift the mood a little. For a Canadian he does the Southern rock thing quite well!

Side Two is a different kettle of fish altogether from Side One, with 2 longer songs bookended by two shorter ones. I must confess, too, that forty years on I still chuckle to myself at the opening line of 'Star of Bethlehem' and how my teenage mind reacted to 'Ain't it hard when you wake up in the morning...' (I'm a bad man...) The song itself is a simple acoustic song, with the bonus of an appearance by Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals. 'Will To Love' is the only song that features Young on his own, and is a dreamy, ethereal song with acoustic guitars and occasional piano that always gives me the impression of being recorded around a campfire somewhere in the middle of nowhere. This is, for me, serious chill-out music. 'Like a Hurricane' on the other hand is solid electric guitar-led rock that Neil Young does best, on a par with 'Southern Man' or 'Cortez The Killer'. This was the first song I'd heard from the album, probably on Alan Freeman's show one Saturday afternoon, and it sold me on the album. Simple, but powerful, as is the album closer, 'Homegrown', in a different way. And any drug references are purely coincidental...

It's albums like this one that continue to convince me that 1977 was a classic year for the kind of music that has accompanied my life for the ensuing forty years. There is a permanence, a longevity, a timelessness about this, and all the albums I've been revisiting over the last 6 months. 1977 was a key year for me personally, but also musically in forging tastes that have stayed with me, but have developed over those years.

I can't believe it's been 40 years, though!

Friday, 3 November 2017

Forty Years On... Yes - Going For The One

I think I was aware of Yes before this album was released, but I just didn't 'get' them. I have vivid memories of 'Relayer' being passed round in school with hushed tones, as we tried to work out what the cover was about, but never got to hear the music until much later. But 'Going For The One' was different, and drew the attention of this 16 year-old for a number of reasons.

One was the sleeve, which was produced not by Roger Dean, as much of the band's earlier work had been, but by Hipgnosis, which gave it a much more contemporary edge rather than the other-worldly, dreamy slant that Dean's artwork did, and still does.

The other was the fact that, unusually for the sort of albums I listened to, it had spawned a hit single: indeed, that very act was usually a sign that the band had 'sold out', 'gone commercial', and were therefore no longer worthy of my attention. But in this instance, maybe, I thought, the record buying public had finally seen the light!

What I loved, and still love, about this, the band's 8th studio album, is that it is an album of contrasts. The opening title track, 'Going For The One', is an out-and-out rocker with a strong beat throughout and some soaring steel guitar work from Steve Howe, but still with an interesting contrapuntal tussle between the drums and bass, and between the main and backing vocals. 'Turn of the Century', however, takes the mood into a much quieter frame, with no drums, and some quite sublime acoustic guitar. This song of love and loss is quite simply beautiful, in the best narrative tradition, and builds to a subtle crescendo after the instrumental section which is mind-blowing in its power and emotion. Side One closes with 'Parallels', with stirring organ chords and pulsating bass giving way (but not too much) to singing guitar. This is another upbeat song, and was for me my favourite on the album for a while, possibly simply for its life and joy, which are there in abundance - before the subtlety of other songs made an impact on me.

Side Two begins with the hit single - their first and highest in the UK, reaching number 7 - 'Wondrous Stories'. It was this song that had drawn me to the album, but how different it is to the rest of the collection! This is almost a folk song, with none of the strut and swagger of Going for the One or Parallels, and none of the subtle beauty of Turn of the Century. Yes, it was a good song, but not the strongest on the album, and perhaps a fitting single, proving that they had not sold out as I'd possibly feared. The album then concludes with 'Awaken', one of the most accomplished songs that the band had ever, and would ever, produce - they've certainly not surpassed it since, in my opinion. I said earlier that Parallels was my early pick on the album, mainly because I just didn't 'get' Awaken for a while. It is deep, complex, obtuse at times; Jon Anderson's mystical lyrics do take some time to coalesce (maybe not as long as those on Tales From Topographic Oceans) and that may be what took my time, but eventually... oh boy! A truly symphonic piece, with changes of tempo and texture, and all the band playing at their virtuosic best throughout.

This album has stood the test of time like few others. For me it still has the ability to entice and thrill and delight and bewilder as it did 40 years ago. I'm not sure whether Yes have produced such a complete album in the 40 years since this was released: this is certainly in my Top 3 of their albums, and probably my Top 5 of all time.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Forty Years On... Weather Report - Heavy Weather

At the start of this series I mentioned my discovery of the jazzier side of music through Phil Collins' involvement with Brand X, but 1977 also saw the arrival of a classic of the genre: Weather Report's seventh studio album, 'Heavy Weather'. The band had been through some line-up changes over the years, with the constant presence of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, but now they were graced by the genius that was Jaco Pastorius on bass, alongside Alex Acuña on drums and Manolo Badrena on percussion.

What drew me, and I have no doubt many others, to this album was the opening track and single, 'Birdland'. A wonderful, up-beat, joyful tune, penned by Zawinul to celebrate the NY club of the same name where he met so many jazz legends, with bass, saxophone & keys interplaying with each other throughout. A true classic! Next is 'A Remark You Made', a slower offering, but one with such depth and romance, and Pastorius's fretless bass really singing alongside Shorter's tenor sax, before ending with almost birdsong from the keys. Then comes Pastorius's composition, 'Teen Town', a short but lively tune, bass-heavy, but melodic, where Pastorius takes over the drum stool as well as the bass. Side One closes with Shorter's 'Harlequin', which is a wonderfully gentle ensemble piece with no-one dominating and each demonstrating their individual talents. There are points in this song that draw me to the Brand X sound quite a bit, despite the sax.

Side Two begins with a slightly different feel, with a percussion & vocal duet between Acuña & Badrena - 'Rumba Mama' - with a strong Latin rhythm to it, which was recorded live in Montreux in 1976: pleasant enough. Then 'Palladium', which almost explodes with its staccato opening, before settling down to a syncopated rhythm on bass under a more conventional sax tune, and the added treat of steel drums included near the end by Jaco. 'The Juggler' is a more ponderous tune, but not in a bad way, with the music building in layers throughout and having an engaging waltz time to it. The album ends with 'Havona', with skittering bass, staccato drums & keys and lilting saxophones - possibly the 'jazziest' tune on the album, and more reminders for me of Brand X.

Over the intervening years, since I first encountered this band and this album, my appreciation of the world of jazz and fusion music has grown, and listening again to it makes me appreciate even more the depth that this album has. It's been said many times, but this is a timeless classic, to my mind, and repays revisiting regularly!

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.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Forty Years On... Pink Floyd - Animals

Animals is one of those albums that can be easily missed, which is a great shame. Coming as it did in that time of great flux for the UK music scene, it is an interesting album. For many at the time, particularly in the pro-punk media, this was a perfect example of what they were fighting against: long, ponderous songs with seemingly endless guitar solos, lacking the immediacy and energy of the new bands. Coming as it did, though, at the start of 1977, it caught me on the cusp, and still was able to thrill this then young rocker with its complexity and dexterity.

The album sleeve, the work of Aubrey Powell and the team at Hipgnosis, has become iconic, with the inflatable pig tethered over what was then Battersea Power Station. It is hard not to see this landmark and not think of the album.

For the band this album is, it seems to me, a transitional one. It draws on many of the musical ideas in the 'big' albums, and there's a particular hark back for me to the title track of Wish You Were Here in the 'book-end' acoustic tracks, 'Pigs on the Wing 1 & 2', just perhaps a little simpler as a song. But between these short songs come the three epics, each in their way pointing to what the band would become over the next two to five years.

'Dogs' is for me the stand-out track, and the only one that Roger Waters lets anyone else have a part in writing. It seems to be a prophetic statement of how the UK would develop over the coming decade under the influence of Thatcherism and rampant capitalism, and its inevitable consequences. In 'Pigs' and to a certain degree in 'Sheep' too, Waters is starting to get his angry head on. Maybe not yet as outspoken as he would be in The Wall and to a greater degree in The Final Cut and his solo material that followed, but it is still there. His targets are greed, hypocrisy, censorship, and that fact that perhaps you can only keep people down for so long before they take back what is theirs.

This may well be seen as a coming of age album for the band, as they graduate from the spacey, psychedelic soundscapes of their early days, and the grand symphonic swathes of their pomp, to a more outspoken protest rock, almost. Perhaps it began to sow the seeds of the band's transition to stadium-filling mega stars and the inevitable self-destruction of the old order that accompanied it.

This is, for me, one of the band's best works: different from what preceded it and what followed, but transitional and perhaps seminal for the band's ultimate direction.

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.

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.

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
12. Pink Floyd - Animals
13. Queen - News Of The World
14. Rush - A Farewell To Kings
15. Sex Pistols - Never Mind the B*llocks
16. Steely Dan - Aja
17. Weather Report - Heavy Weather
18. Yes - Going For The One
19. Neil Young - American Stars 'n Bars