Monday, June 21, 2010

She doesn't have anything you want to steal

Just a short post today to thank my friends Caroline and Lisa for taking me to the Psychedelic Furs concert last night. Both the Furs and the opening band She Wants Revenge were in fine form. Richard Butler has to have one of the most distinctive voices in all of rock, and he was a virtual perpetual motion machine during the show, jumping, pogo-ing, and gesturing wildly throughout the show.

Here is a video for the original version (imho much better) of Pretty In Pink. Caroline (my friend, not the subject of the song) is pretty sure the song is about a drag queen, and now that I have read the lyrics I must say I think she is spot on. Just like all of those great Lou Reed songs about transvestites, Pretty In Pink casts a shimmering soft light on its subject and treats her with great respect.

caroline laughs and it's raining all day
she loves to be one of the girls
she lives in the place in the side of our lives
where nothing is ever put straight

the one who insists he was first in the line
is the last to remember her name
he's walking around in this dress that she wore
she is gone but the joke's the same

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why there always has to be subterfusion

There is a quote attributed to John Lennon regarding an appearance by Sparks on British TV in 1974. "It's Hitler on the telly" was his supposed response the Ron Mael's toothbrush moustache. I remember watching the band on "In Concert" in that same year. My dad - a blue collar guy if there ever was one - walked into the living room and amazed my brother and me by watching all of their performance. He still mentions it occasionally.

I have no doubt that the Mael brothers were using every trick in the book to get noticed. After all this was their shot at the big time. They had two big hit singles in the UK earlier in the year and their offbeat stage personas had worked well amongst the oddities of UK pop music at that time. Glam glitter and gold lame were all the rage. Ron sat behind the electronic keyboard like Charlie Chaplin on tranquilizers while pouty-lipped brother Russell pranced around the stage with his poodle dog haircut bouncing in rhythm to the beat. Needless to say the effect did not translate to sales or radio play in the USA.

For me their first two Island albums are little treasures of pop depravity. The excellent lead guitarist and talented bassist from Kimono My House were jettisoned when their suggestions for a musical direction threatened the Mael's stranglehold on the band. Waiting in the wings was Trevor White, perhaps my favorite glam-era guitarists ever. His work throughout Propaganda is full of pyrotechnical somersaults, and the producer put that sound front-and-center in a way that was never allowed again on a Sparks recording.

Reinforcements consists of a verse melody that could have been composed by Kurt Weill and a rock chorus that is driven by an insistent guitar chord. The double entendre of the lyrics are a hoot, with comparisons of the sexual appetite of the singer's girlfriend Denise to the lexicon of armies going to war. At 2:04 the chorus repeats, each time building with more energy until the guitar nearly explodes, then at 2:36 the bottom drops out. What comes next is one of those unexpectedly divine moments that pop music can sometimes deliver. The verse harmony recurs, but instead of lyrics it is accompanied by a softly sung vocalise, a lovely guitar counterpoint, and a background chorus. Then on the second time through it is joined by the guitar and even more counter vocal lines. And then it repeats just enough times to linger in my head for hours afterwards. Imagine God Only Knows mutated into a twisted glam cacophony.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Shake it. Baby don't break it.

I am an unabashed a fan of the album Band On The Run. There - I said it. It feels good to let it out. Unlike many other 70's LPs that came into my collection back in the day (including several by Wings), this is a record that I still listen to, and always with a big smile on my face. In Geoff Emerick's must-read Here, There, and Everywhere not only does he cover his engineering days with The Beatles from Revolver through Abbey Road but he also includes a chapter on his experiences as producer for BOTR.

One of Paul's crazier ideas was to record his next record in a small EMI studio in a tropical land far away from the UK. Only after he had signed up as producer did Mr. Emerick learn that the studio was in fact in Lagos, Nigeria. Paul had recently ejected Wing's drummer and lead guitarist, leaving only the core of Paul and Linda, and the ever-faithful Denny Laine. Upon arrival in Lagos the hardy travellers were met with hostile locals, flooding monsoon rains, and a recording studio which was - shall we say - something less than modern.

In the process Paul pulled himself together to write what is likely his finest collected batch of post-Beatles songs. No worries about his departed band mates - Paul was more than up to the task of playing drums and guitar along with his vocals and always stellar bass work. And no solo McCartney or Wings record ever sounded as good as this album. Whatever was in the water in Lagos, Paul should go back for another drink.

The album closing track, Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five finds Mr. McCartney in a rockier groove with a super fine bass sound. Then there are the lovely vocal harmony sections that weld together all the pieces. When the final buildup occurs at about 3:45, the smile on my face gets so big that my moustache touches the bottom of my reading glasses. Brass, synthesizer, piano, bass, and a final explosion that leads back to a reprise of the Band On The Run chorus. Thank you Paul -- all memory of At The Speed of Sound has been erased.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Another lost classic

According to Wikipedia, The Pretty Things 1968 album "S.F. Sorrow was released in the same week as The Beatles White Album, The Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet, and The Kinks Village Green Preservation Society. The album was barely promoted by EMI." Produced by former Beatles former engineer Norman "Hurricane" Smith, it was a concept album sometimes referred to as the first rock opera. For me, its narrative of a man's descent into melancholy madness holds together better that Tommy.

Musically, Sorrow is a product of its time with psychedelic flourishes throughout. Mr. Smith's production adds odd instruments along with layered vocals. Pandora's box was opened with Sgt. Pepper the previous year and Sorrow takes advantage of the giant leap forward. Unlike the musical kaleidoscope, the story is quite grim. In fact it may well contain the most depressing story arc in the history of pop music. Before side one has ended, Sebastian F. Sorrow - the protagonist - as a young man has taken a job as a scab worker at a factory where his father had previously been employed. He goes off to war, witnesses atrocities, returns home only to witness his fiance's death in a Zeppelin disaster.

Later in the story Sorrow has been shown the dark side of life by the wicked Baron Saturday, and comes to the conclusion that the world is devoid of people of honor and trust. The song Trust finds him barely holding on to the last of his sanity. The loping melody, syncopated bass line and gorgeous vocal harmonies stab at a sharp angle with the hopelessness of the lyrics. This is truly one of the lost treasures of the sixties.

Excuse me please as I wipe a tear
Away from an eye that sees there's nothing left to trust
Finding that their minds are grey
And there's no sorrow in the world that's left to trust.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

I'm just the oily slick on the windup world of the nervous tick

Elvis Costello has mentioned that he has always wanted to write a song with only one chord. But given his gift with melody and harmony he has always failed miserably. Both Imperial Bedroom and Blood and Chocolate kick off with songs in this vein, and both of them have enough chord changes to destroy his intention. In the first instance, Beyond Belief contains perhaps his most perfect wordplay. I will spare you any awkward analysis and instead embarrass myself by mentioning that I spent an entire Saturday long ago learning all the words so that I could sing along. Thanks to the amazing production work of Geoff Emerick that entire LP remains near the top of my desert island disks list. It was a one-off experiment in fancy studio trickery, never to be repeated in the EC & the Attractions canon. Still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A little goth Saturday

As a card-carrying Carhartt Okie, the last trend my friends would identify me with is the goth scene. And I certainly never ran in those circles or wore the trademark all-black. But every once in a while in indulge myself with the music of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Over the course their first ten or so years they released a bevy of singles that still find their way to my turntable on a regular basis. Insistent, spooky, dark, cloaked in sometimes candy-coated coverings, their best work reminds me very little of the punk/new wave movement from which they sprang. That is one of the oft-forgotten joys of that 1976-1982 period when just about anything different was lumped under the heading of "punk".

Some day I must write about Peek-a-boo, a disturbing song with an art house video in which Siouxsee Sioux dons a killer Louise Brooks bob. But today I am listening to Spellbound, a single from 1981. From the point the percussion (courtesy of Budgie) and acoustic guitar make their entrance about 30 seconds in I am hooked. The fast guitar strumming with interesting chord changes is a hallmark of this song. Reminds me of The Who and Aztec Camera. Listen and enjoy.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Nice paying the price for being kept under

Upon the departure of original lead singer Alan Clarke in 1972, the Hollies continued on unabated with a Swedish replacement, Mikael Rickfors. Known for their phenomenal gifts with singles in the 60s, the loss of Graham Nash resulted in a somewhat less successful career although there are still a few excellent nuggets to be mined from their 1968-1972 output. But they were never really contenders when it came to 33 1/3rd. That is, not until 1973 and the advent of the first (and only US-released) Rikfor's led LP.

Romany is a little-heard jewel that contains some of their finest harmony work. Terry Sylvester turned out to be quite a talented replacement for Mr. Nash, and Rickfors added a soulful baritone lead that took them in an entirely different direction. Unfortunately, except for a few singles and a release-in-Germany-only LP, this lineup would never again issue vinyl.

There is so much to enjoy here. Judee Sill's odd vision of religious ecstasy Jesus Was a Crossmaker is given a beautiful power pop rendition with Terry Sylvester's lead vocal. Magic Woman Touch is the failed single that should have been a hit what with its lovely opening guitar work by the underrated Tony Hicks and a splendid lilting verse melody. Or Courage of Your Convictions - seen by some as an attempt to cash in on the sound of 1971's hit Long Cool Woman - but in my book this is a vastly superior rocker with more excellent chiming guitar work by Mr. Hicks. And the ballad Romany exhibits Mr. Rickfor's honeyed-voice in a way that no previous Hollies tune could have.

Perhaps the most surprising song here is Delaware Taggett and the Outlaw Boys. The Hollies imbue this tune with harmonies right out of Crosby Stills and Nash, and the tightness of the instrumental work indicates that they had finer chops that anyone had given them credit for up to this time.

Long time fans rejoiced the next year when Mr. Clarke returned to the fold but for me the promise of Romany was forever lost.