Into the 80’s..Rockism

Between the mid 70’s and the mid 80’s I can’t remember having a proper haircut. Gentleman’s hairdressers had a tendency to think that anyone with long hair wanted to look like a footballer rather than a member of Hawkwind so I had avoided the barbers until my hair was at it’s longest ever by the end of 1978. Despite punk having hit in 1976 the tide was only slowly turning but by 1979 not only was I cutting my hair shorter but I was also trying to taper my flared jeans.

It was a slow process, every time I cut it, my hair was a bit shorter than before but it was about a year before the nation were fully acquainted with my ears again. As I was creating this transformation with only a pair of scissors and a couple of mirrors the results were inevitably patchy but at the best, I could get close to a Nick Cave, at the worst it was a Nick Lowe but the results had an inevitable tinge of the mullet about them.

My band Butisitart? was starting to fall apart, our singer Meloni has fallen in with a bunch of 17/18 year-old middle-class lads from the local college. I was nearly 23 and already out of touch. The new breed were also musicians but punk for them was a distant memory, they had severe haircuts and wore clothes that made them look like they were in Rommel’s Afrika Corps, one day I heard one of them had made a jibe at my ‘Rockist’ haircut.

Rockism had suddenly become a thing. It had started as a joke by Liverpudlian singer Pete Wylie who announced a Race against Rockism campaign. The music papers had become infiltrated by a new breed of journalist who were either interesting/challenging/pretentious depending on your own perspective. For a brief moment rock was under the intense scrutiny and it was found wanting.

Rockism was largely undefinable but I kind of got it. It largely had any legs at all because of writer Paul Morley who was still writing articles in the Guardian about it about it over 20 years later. Morley’s obviously a lot bigger than one idea and he alerted us to the possibility of a world where blues and rock and roll had not been the cornerstone of popular music. A world where Kraftwerk were as important as the Beatles and Wire were bigger than Yes.

Rockism was not just about what music a band played it was about what instruments they played, how they payed them and what they wore. Wearing jeans was rockist (guilty as charged), guitars, especially low-slung Gibson les Paul’s were rockist. Anything with a trace of the blues was rockist and entertaining a crowd with hoary rock clichés was as rockist as you could get, in fact learning to play an instrument at all was suspiciously rockist anyway.

Consequently when Meloni formed a band with her friends we were treated to a half hour of free form noise. Having shown no aptitude in playing an instrument up to now Meloni had taken up the violin. To be fair I always enjoy a bit of noise and they had nice trousers and it certainly wasn’t rockist.

Clearly it was rather silly but so was load of rock music. At this point rock was at its lowest ebb at least in England and the notion of entitlement and deference with the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd needed challenging. It was a temporary blip, the likes of Q magazine (RIP) embraced rockist values and by the 90’s the big bands were all back making money out of re-releasing their back catalogue on CD. And then Guns and Roses happened and took over the world for a couple of years and we knew that any war that might have existed had been well and truly lost

It made an impression on me though , I began to appreciate pop music more and began to realize a lot of rock gods were deeply flawed individuals rather than some sort of prophets, the secrets of relationships were to necessarily contained in the lyrics of a James Taylor song and a lot of the time most musicians don’t really have an awful lot to say, but that doesn’t stop them saying it.

Apart from my haircut, I almost doubted rockism had existed, things were moving so fast musically that it was there for a moment then it was gone. Even Simon Reynolds excellent book on the period ‘Rip it up and Start Again’ fails to mention it. However, online it appears rockism debate is back again and now there’s something called poptimism, how I wish I was young again and could give a shit.

By the way, Nick Lowe is rockist, Nick Cave isn’t, please doesn’t ask me to explain.

Posted in 80’s music, memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Into the 80’s Scritti Politti

No band transformed themselves for the 80’s like Scritti Politti.

Formed in Leeds and then relocated to Camden London, the band were the epitome of the proto crusty indie scene of the late 70’s. Naturally they lived in a squat where no doubt they smoked a lot of dope and spent hours discussing political theory’s which led to them taking their name for political theorist Antonio Gramsci. These things were important at the end of the 70’s, it wasn’t enough to play a couple of chords on the guitar anymore you had to have at least a basic knowledge of dialectical materialism.

Their big hit in the world of John Peel was Skank Bloc Bologna a squall of jangly guitar and reggae influenced bass and drums distinguished by the vocals of vocalist Green Gartside. They fitted perfectly alongside the likes of Prag Veg or the Desperate Bicycles, it sounded great at the time, 40 years later its very hard listening indeed. Interestingly when I listened to it again a couple of days ago I though it sounded a bit like Henry Cow. Apparently they were one of Gartside’s favourite bands but their drummer Chris Cutler sent his copy back saying they should leave music business to the professionals, not very comradely !

Matters reached a head in 1980 when Gartside apparently suffered a heart attack after a gig. In fact, it was probably a panic attack but it signalled the end of the depivations of living in a squat that had been a crucial part of the Scritti experience.

Gartside returned to the family home in South Wales for several months for some rest, decent food and musical reflection. Not unsurprisingly he decided he didn’t fancy a return to the indie ghetto and that the likes of funk and disco were cheerier, sexier and more profitable. As someone who had formed a branch of the Young Communist League at the tender age of 14 he tried to reconcile the fact that Marxism didn’t always have to equate with ‘challenging’ musical noise.

Unfortunately, the rest of the band still preferred a lifestyle that didn’t necessarily include an indoor toilet or hot water and declined to become too involved in Gartside’s new accessible material. The band’s first new release The Sweetest Girl therefore featured a drum machine and Robert Wyatt on keyboards. The song was featured on the C81 cassette issued by the New Musical Express and like half the people who had been in further education I had a copy (and possibly still do have somewhere).

That was just about the end of my interest in Scritti Politti. They were soon to sign with Virgin Records (they had previously been with indie darlings Rough Trade) and had a big-name producer Arif Mardin. The result was a very 80’s sound, Fairlight Synthesiser, gated snare etc. The songs may have been great, what I have heard sounds quite Prince like but he’s another person for whom the 80’s sound marred a brilliant talent. Its just me I don’t really like classic 80’s music that much.

Like us all that was just something Gartside had to live through, more recently he’s been involved in a tribute to Nick Drake and is apparently making more organic sounds without gated snare.

And he’s still one of the brainiest men in pop>

Posted in 80’s music, memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Into the 80’s… The Passions

The Passions had their roots in the London squat rock scene of the mid 70’s. Guitarist and soon to be lead singer Barbara Grogan and Drummer Richard Williams had been in the Derelicts, a band that probably played more benefits than paying gigs and the high spot of their career was appearing on the cover of International Times the underground paper for trendy Trotskyists.

The Passions started out in a similar vein formed around the two Derelicts, bassist Claire Bidwell, a guitarist who soon left and a singer Mitch Baker. Soon to join on guitar was ex 101ers guitarist Clive Timperley now looking more like a member of Kraftwerk than the moustachioed hippy of Joe Strummer’s band.

Their first single, sung by Barker is something of a classic in the genre that would soon be labelled ‘indie’. Unfortunately for the singer he broke his leg and took a bit of time out. The band decided they liked the sound of Grogan’s voice and Baker was history.

Their first album, Michael and Miranda was resident on my turntable for the first year of the new decade. Jangly guitars and ethereal vocals were a new sound but soon everyone from the Au Pairs to the Cocteau Twins were exploring similar noises. Lyrically there was some pretty hardcore feminism, paranoia and other negative mental health states, relationships and an accident with a pedal bike. At the time I thought it was great but now it seems the sound of the squat, some of it just seems dingy but that was my life at the time so perhaps its more about me than the band.

When the band emerged on vinyl again there had been several small but significant changes. Bidwell had left, she was a good player but also rooted in the lesbian/anarchist/lefty scene (she joined a more hardcore punk band). Her replacement was the more generic David Algar who could sing and play guitar a bit if needed. The band had also shifted from the Fiction record label to Polydor.

And Timperley had an Echoplex device. To be fair, it sounds like he was using it on the début album on occasions but this time he was turning it up to 11. Combined with a bit more effort in the production department the band now had a newish sound, they sounded like an 80’s band !

The apex of the new sound was their single ‘I’m in Love with a German Filmstar’ written about Rodent, a Clash and Sex Pistols Roadie who also acted in German Films. It’s the sort of mildly aspirational lyric that the 80’s loved, combined with shimmering guitarwork which will forever be getting the Passions into playlists with A Flock of Seagulls and Altered Images.

The latest LP Thirty Thousand Feet over China was a big shimmering chunk of vinyl which I bought out of respect for their debut. It’s not even as if the songs are that different, some had even been written by Bidwell before her departure, but the first record had a start black and white cover and the follow up was an impressionistic splash of colour, it seemed to reflect the change in the band over the space of one short year.

1981 was a busy one for the band as finding they had a hit on their hands, they had to capitalise on it as much as possible playing everywhere they could. One such place was Trent Polytechnic where I caught them playing angsty feminist songs to a gaggle of rugby players trying to form human pyramids in front of the stage. It was a bit of a sad spectacle, they didn’t want to be there, and the crowd only knew one song of theirs. They had entered into their ‘Tour Till We Crack’ phase which finished off Timperley who left as a result of ‘serious political differences’ .

He was replaced by Kevin Armstrong a seriously professional guitarist who would go on to play with Iggy Pop and Bowie among others. More significant was the recruitment of a keyboard player. To be a band with just guitars in the 80’s was, with a few significant exceptions, career suicide,the band were moving with the times, there was a final album, which I’ve never listened properly to but what I have heard sounds more conventional 80’s rock.

And that was it for the Passions, like the Only Ones they were known for one song which has risen to the point of being iconic although they had plenty of other songs equally good, I suspect ‘Filmstar’ made them as much money as all their other songs put together.

Amazingly that was the pretty much the end of their musical careers (apart from Armstrong). Timperley and Williams are now retired which is a sobering thought. The latter appeared on ‘Never mind the Buzzcocks’ a popular music/quiz format part of which is where an ex pop ‘star’ appears in an ID line-up. The panel failed to identify him, at the time he was apparently curating the bands material for another compilation which should be a good afternoons work. Barbara Grogan collaborated on an album with French experimentalist Hector Zazou nearly 15 years after the split, it’s a good use of her voice and you wonder why she hasn’t done more of this sort of thing.

Just a couple of bars of Timperley’s guitar intro and its 1981 all over again.

Posted in 80’s music, rock music | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

17: Keys to your Heart..the 101ers

I was going to write a more substantial piece about the 101ers but I found I had already done this a couple of years ago, that’s the great thing about a failing memory; life is full of surprises.

Here’s my original article.

By the time ‘Keys to Your Heart’ was released the 101ers were almost finished and frontman Joe Strummer’s career was just starting.

I love Joe Strummer, he was the punk John Lennon full of contradictions and flaws, but you felt his heart was in the right place. Strummer had been hugely influenced by seeing a Bruce Springsteen live show. If Springsteen had hailed from west London rather than New Jersey its not impossible to imagine him making a similar noise to Strummer in 1976.

Inspired by has relationship with Spanish girlfriend Paloma (later drummer Palmolive of the Slits) Strummer had started writing songs to flesh out the rock and roll covers that had been the staple of the 101ers. The band got to record some of them in the studio thanks to Ted Caroll who ran a Stiff type record label called Chiswick.

I only got to own a copy of this track by buying a whole compilation LP featuring the likes of The Count Bishops and the Hammersmith Gorillas. It’s the sound of 1976 in a pub in London.

Key’s to Your Heart was the best track the 101er’s ever recorded, it’s got a similar sound to Van Morrison’s Gloria which was a show stopper number the band covered. There’s a quiet bit where the tension builds and which burst into the chorus, it’s a pretty standard device but it always works for me.

Keys to Your Heart is less than a year away from White Riot but its music from a different era. At the time people (friends, journalists, and the band themselves) thought Strummer mad to be quitting a shit hot band for a bunch of people who could barely play their instruments but he jumped ship at just the right time in a years’ time the Clash would be hot and the 101ers would be not.

Posted in punk rock | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

8: Cortez the Killer…Neil Young

In the 70’s the USA was simultaneously familiar and alien. Our television relied heavily on imported series from the states especially comedy, Happy Days was insanely popular, but we would also get reruns or the Monkees on a spasmodic rota. Shows were well crafted and sometime very funny, but they were also saccharine. The USA still seemed to be the land of plenty, people seemed wealthy and happy and confident. The irony was that unless you lived near a tourist attraction you were unlikely to meet a genuine American person. I was slightly the exception to this as I had an aunt who had emigrated there and every decade she would return for a couple of weeks. I must admit though that on basis of that brief encounter I had no evidence to revise my opinion, my Aunt appeared happy and confident and very proud to be an American.

Perhaps because of this cultural disconnect I was slow on the uptake with American music. The like of Alice Cooper and Aerosmith seemed a bit over confident and crass to me, nobody like a show off. Even British bands who toured America a lot seem to return changed, tougher, slicker and less fun.

The early exception was the glut of singer songwriters who emerged in the early 70’s. They were producing music that was more introspective with maybe even a trace of uncertainty. Like all sensible teenagers though I needed more than an acoustic guitar, I would be into my 20’s before I was willing to sit down and really engage with the likes of Joni Mitchell.

The reason why Neil Young was different was that he had two sides, to this day I’ve never listened to Harvest, that sort of thing didn’t really interest me at the age of 16. Post HarvestYoung ‘headed for the ditch’ away from the middle of the road where he thought he had strayed to. The next few years produced some of my all-time favourite music in the form of some troubled downbeat albums. I first picked up on Young  when he was coming out of this time with his new record Zuma.

The most important thing, in all honesty, about the album was that my friend Phil had a copy, so I actually had a chance to listen to it. Records were relatively expensive, it would be a few years before I had enough money to actually buy anything I wanted and by then it was the 80’s so there wasn’t much I did want. If a friend lent you a record you listened to it, it was free music.

The other factor in Zuma’s favour was it was almost entirely electric with his band Crazy Horse. As a band Crazy Horse were simultaneously brilliant and incompetent. It’s a bit like the argument over whether Meg White is a good drummer, their playing was hard to defend on an analytical skill level but the end result surpassed all criticism. Even by the time of Zuma the band had become looser and sloppier than they had been on their debut record ‘Everybody Knows this is Nowhere’, 20 years later they would sound like they were on the verge of disintegrating with every verse they played, but they never did.

As an electric guitar player Young has the same qualities and most importantly he knows about sound, Young and Crazy Horse are a pretty visceral experience which is why as punk was raging, I was listening to Zuma.

The standout track is ‘Cortez the Killer’. Its long but not by the standards of his later work. It’s also lyrically intriguing, there’s not a whole load of songs about the Aztec empire. There’s an ambiguity about the words encompassing both awe and admiration of the Aztecs about to be subsumed by Cortez ‘what a killer’.

But there’s a strange magic in the music itself. I’ve played it in many settings, I jammed it only a couple of weeks ago. When I played in an acoustic duo we would jam the song for ever if an audience appeared disengaged or absent. There’s a dreamy quality to the music the chords can go around and round forever. And that’s the magic, its only three chords, three basic chords at that but chords that are altered a little with suspensions and augmentations. It sounds complicated but really its just adding or taking away a note, it’s not hard to play. What it does mean though is the song never really resolves or comes to an end, it finishes when the player(s) decide.

I’ve stuck with Young over the years, not everything of course, I’m not insane! The last record I bought by him was Psychedelic Pill which offered more of the sonic thuggery of Crazy Horse. Lets face it, I’m unlikely to feel the need to buy anything else from the Young catalogue in the future. 

Over 40 years later there’s still some magic left in Cortez though

Posted in rock music | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Rory Gallagher

Rory Gallagher was a constant throughout the 70’s. It was not that I would every get to see him, he was a little too big to play somewhere like Norwich. Occupying a place in the popularity ratings somewhere just above Budgie but below Status Quo, Rory was just there in the background all the time.

I cant remember his records being released with any great fanfare and it was debatable why anyone could make a strong case for preferring Deuce over Blueprint or making a pitch that Tattoo was a better record than Against the Grain. It sounds like damming with faint praise but the unassuming Gallagher was one of the greatest guitarists ever.


Firstly he was older than he seemed having been musically active since the early 60’s. For most of that decade he had been tucked away in Ireland and therefore invisible to the rest of the world. While in his teens he had been a mainstay of the Fontana showband  which he managed to mutate into the  Impact which in turn became more blues orientated and eventually became a trio which was to be Gallaghers’s preferred method of working.


By this point it was the late 60’s, he had barely turned 18. Already he was flying in the face of convention, the showbands were still pretty much the only outlet for music for most of Ireland and the blues may as well have been a Mongolian death chant for the level of popularity it could garner. It would take a pretty exceptional 16 year old to start to turn this around in conservative Ireland.

Gallagher was starting to play abroad which was the only way forward. Finding that a residency in Hamburg didn’t want to book his trio he sent them some publicity pictures with a friend behind the organ and then went anyway.

By the time he had formed Taste in 1966 he had pretty much arrived at the format for the rest of his life. Taste supported Cream at their farewell gig. I you want blues based power trios I would have picked them over Eric’s boys any day of the week.


As the 70’s dawned Gallagher’s solo career was underway, joining up with bass player Gerry McAvoy  who was to be with him for the next 20 years along with assorted drummers and an occasional keyboard player he toured and toured and toured. Gallagher was the antithesis to glam and prog and punk and whatever new fad came knocking. Almost always dressed in jeans and a check shirt and playing a severely distressed Stratocaster, allegedly the first in Ireland that he had bought in 1963,he was regarded as generally humble, decent and hardworking, not always qualities associated with rock gods. Significantly he continued to tour Ireland through what we quaintly called ‘the troubles’ (also known as a war) when most English rock bands simply would not have bothered.


If anyone wants a dose of the 70’s Gallagher experience I would direct them swiftly to Irish Tour 74 where Gallagher wows provincial audiences onstage before returning soaked in sweat to the rankest dressing rooms ever, night after night. It’s a real delight to see these purest of performances, Gallagher seems to get by on a guitar, an amp and a lead, there’s no pedal gazing and without any sonic trickery there’s some scarily accurate guitar playing, night after night.

Don’t take my word for it; here’s wings of Pegasus

And there was more, Gallagher could play slide and acoustic and mandolin and harmonica.With Taste he even switched over to saxophone, and pretty good it was to!

I liked and admired Gallagher, who couldn’t but he never really moved me. I had an early compilation LP which, naturally was a bargain buy, and I liked it enough, but post Beatles there probably wasn’t enough for me in the actual songs. In my formative musical years I grappled to understand what made his music. Most people said it was blues but it wasn’t the blues like BB King or Clapton.It was only decades later when I began to understand more about folk music that I noticed the uniquely Irish take. Listen carefully and there’s an element of the ‘diddly diddly’, reels and jigs that he must have heard growing up.

Gallaghers’s reputation has grown steadily over the years. There’s a surprising amount of footage available of him in his heyday which is a mystery and a delight. He had a sad end, having survived the 80’s which were the kiss of death for organic music, his liver began to fail. There were mentions of him being a heavy drinker, but if that was the case it never seemed to affect his career which is pretty weird when you consider the amount of out and out drunks who are still with us. I had lost track of him, he still made good records and seemed to have avoided any attempt to spruce him up for the MTV generation. It was a real shock to me to find him in the pages of the glossy new Q magazine clearly ill and bloated on steroids and it was only when we lost him that I realised I missed him. Soon the blues would be back, and the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn would be celebrating the same simple formula that Gallagher has started.


Gallagher worked hard, he didn’t seem to have any other interests, his brother was his manager but there were no other significant relationships. His musical achievements are magnified by the fact that he came from a country that would do little to promote his talent when he started out. And his legacy is his music, there are no bad or even poor performances by Gallagher, you could pick any at random and be impressed.


So here’s one of them.



Posted in irish rock, memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

This Is Pop

A quick perusal of this month’s Shindig magazine has convinced me that 1968 is back in fashion. It’s 50 years ago of course and so it is time to convince the ageing punters that still buy CD’s that now is the time to but another version of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake or The White Album or Electric Ladyland.

We all love nostalgia of course we do, I remember in 1976 that the New Musical Express was listing all the great albums that had been made in 1966. To be fair they had a point, it was a great year for music, but then 1966 seemed as far away as 1968 does to the present day.

And so, with my Futureispast head on I thought I would look at 1978 to see if it held the same sort of treasures as 1968. The latter, of course was when psychedelia and ‘progressive’ music was becoming heavy and ‘rock’ was being born. You can hear the Beatles doing it before your very ears on ‘Helter Skelter’ on the White Album.

So, onto 1978, a mixed bag as might be anticipated, the nearest to a classic might be Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town which has grown in stature over the years. A genuinely great British eccentric, namely Kate Bush was emerging and there was interesting stuff from the likes of Pere Ubu, Television and The Only Ones.

Inevitable there was going to be variety, these were interesting times, my overall memory of the end of the 70’s however was the emergence of post punk and the re-emergence of pop.

These days pop is hotbed of force-fed acts where the songwriter and producer are king (or queen). It is the sound of radio one and the X factor, I don’t like it, it’s too artificial. But then again, I am 60.

In the late 70’s however pop was a broader church, the weight of the Beatles still laid heavy on us all, they had been the ultimate pop band, they had spent years playing covers in clubs trying to entertain everyone with everything from showtunes to Elvis. There was a lack of snobbishness about the band but also a lack of desperation. The Beatles were happy to play pop.
After a couple of years of punk, we were beginning to consider there might be more to life than going to be insulted by a bunch of people who couldn’t play very well and risk being beaten up by whatever local subculture had turned up looking for a fight. However, Punk had opened some kind of door to other possibilities and one of these was the need for a bit higher energy playing.
All of a sudden, the time was right for a bunch of people who had been biding their time on the side-lines waiting, watching and making sure they could play their instruments. Notably  Glen Matlock’s Rich Kids were ahead of the pack. Since leaving the Sex Pistols Matlock was free to indulge in ‘wanky Beatle chords’ and this time we were willing to listen. In his new band he had recruited Midge Ure, a talented and opportunistic young Scottish Guy who would have been laughed offstage in 1976 but now was newly credible.
The Rich Kids were a very short-lived phenomena but others were in it for the long term (which in the 70’s was about 4 years)

Blondie had been lurking around as a kind of joke band since the mid 70’s. They had toured Britain with Television and during the attractive women shortage of 1977 Debbie Harry was everywhere. Blondie never got that good at playing live but Harry was a brilliantly charismatic front person. Their other strength was their songs were melodic and energetic. Likewise, Elvis Costello was transforming from county influenced  angry young man to angry young man with good pop songs. His Armed Forces was in the pipeline, chock full of tunes that had allegedly been deconstructed from Abba. Costello’s old producer Nick Lowe had released Jesus of Cool which mixed rock with pure pop. Spikey Swindon band XTC were on the verge of jettisoning their experimental keyboard player for Drums and Wires. Squeeze had suddenly revealed a real flair for melodic song writing as had Buzzcocks. The Police had now left their individual Jazz Rock and Prog Rock projects behind and after flirting with punk for a while had stumbled across a kind of pop reggae that would take over the world.
All of a sudden musicians seemed to be having a bit of a good time and getting paid for it. At the Polytechnic Disco we could dance to ‘Oliver’s Army’ ‘Heart of Glass’ ‘Can’t Stand Loosing You’ and ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ without any real self-consciousness. These were all proper bands with proper musicians who just happened to make great records. There was more to come, the Two Tone movement and then the advent of electo pop recognised the importance of tunes. We had a couple of years before it all started to get a bit silly or miserable.

But by then it was the 80’s

Posted in memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Michael Chapman

Following the passing of Charlie Watts another 80 year old man has left us.

Michael Chapman was hardly a household name. In the 70s I was aware of his existence, it’s possible that I might have heard him on the John Peel show but that was the limit of his impact on my consciousness it’s only been in the last four years thanks to the miracle of Spotify that I’ve been able to access his music.

Chapman was creating music not radically different to the more feted John Martyn. There were two crucial differences that held him back. Firstly he was based in Yorkshire (Hull in fact form much of the 70s), a million cultural miles from the capital. Secondly he was a craggy balding individual who looked more like he was about to fix the plumbing than entertain an audience.

In the longer term this worked to his advantage, he didn’t look a lot different at 70 than he did at 40. His geographical isolation meant his music avoided the worst excesses of the 60s and 70s, there was a grit in his music that has weathered the passing of time quite well.

There’s no golden age of Michael Chapman. In the 70s he was closest to a breakthrough to a point of collaborations with slightly more well know people including Mick Ronson (the Hull connection) but he was never close to being a star. His recent output is just as good as his 70s work. He was working up until lockdown, playing low key gigs and teaching guitar.

Here’s a clip of him performing ‘Trees’ with Nigel Pegrum and Rick Kemp (another Hull connection) from Steeleye Span.

Posted in folk rock, memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged | Leave a comment

Charlie Watts..end of an era

The death of an 80 year old man surrounded by his family doesn’t sound that a big a deal but the loss of Charlie Watts is on every bit as significant as the death of Louis Armstrong or Howling Wolf, he’s a link to a past that has now  gone forever.

Much is made of Watts as a thwarted Jazz drummer but in the early Stones he effortlessly made the transition from R&B to pop. He was good enough not to be replaced in the studio and flexible enough to cope with whatever the Brian Jones incarnation of the band were able to come up with.

The styling of the Watts sound really began around the time of Exile on Main Street when, along with Keith Richards he began to develop what we have come to think of as the Stones sound. 

By the 80’s his playing had become increasing stylised, he developed his habit of not playing the high hat when he hit the snare which looked ungainly but gave a certain loping quality to the beat. He also kept the habit of using the traditional grip where the left hand holds the stick in a different way. It’s good for Jazz but most rock players want more power and hold both sticks the same. It wasn’t a problem for Charlie though, his drums always cut through the mix. He tended to play behind the beat sometimes scarily so but that was the Stones sound and even their older pop songs began to sound like loose jams when the band played them live.

For the archetypical Charlie Watts experience  look no further than ‘Rough Justice’ recorded when he was a mere 65 years old

Watts pulls it all together with a drum fill that’s somehow incredibly enthusiastic for the owner of a buss pass. There’s the strange high hatless snare beat, the wash of cymbals in the chorus and plenty more similar fills. There’s something in his playing that suggests he’s having the best time of his life while still not breaking a sweat.

Its impossible to conceive of the likes of Charlie Watts being able to exist in the same way ever again, there are more technically skilled players aged three strutting their skills on You Tube. Professional Musicians today have to be skilled and flexible, they will only play like Watts if it’s a job in a Stones cover band and even then they wont come close. The concept of someone doing one thing really well is too limiting for modern music. Not only have we lost an absolutely uniqueplayer we are losing the link to the time when people got together to make music and basically do the best they can. When that happens, the music had to adapt to the players which is when you get the Stones or the Beatles or the Who or the Sex Pistols.

Posted in memories of 70s | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Hilton Valentine

About a month ago YouTube decided I really needed to see more videos about the Animals. Fair enough, I always like the band just like I enjoyed most of the 60’s groups.Eric Burdon has always been the main focal point of course but there was also Alan Price on keyboards, bassist Chas Chandler who had another career as manger of Hendrix and Slade as well as John Steel the unremembered but hugely talented drummer. As usual though it wasn’t the main men who intrigued me, I was most curious about the enigmatic guitarist Hilton Valentine who died last week at the age of 77.

In the 60’s Newcastle was a million miles from London which is why the band were so unique, despite having the same musical heritage as most English bands of the time. At least their isolation gave them the chance to hit London fully formed. From the start they were a tight hard hitting band, better than the early Stones (although a lot of bands were).Where they were to miss out on the transition to harder rock is their focus on ensemble playing. Alan Price was a talented player and made no secret of the fact that he could play soul music and songs from the shows and clearly felt his talent was wasted with endless Johnny Lee Hooker numbers.He was the nearest they had to a virtuoso, the other members were ensemble players

What really made the band different from the other blues bands was the fact that they lacked a guitar hero. Valentine was recruited to the band because he was a genuine rocker. He dressed the part and onstage he her was a discernible presence visually.The truth is that technically he probably wasn’t even the best guitarist in the Animals, Valentine played rock solid rhythm simple riffs and the odd chuck berry derived solo. His economy was his strength, its not easy to keep things simple and powerful just ask Johnny Ramone, you cant he’s dead but you get the picture.

Valentine’s musical legacy is the intro of ‘House of the Rising Sun’, like everything else he played its something that can be copied by any competent amateur player but until Valentine created it there was nothing to copy.

For four years he was a star by virtue of his band, America in particular loved the Animals, a lot of YouTube footage is from American TV shows with the band trying to fit into the format of family entertainment. After Price had left to be replaced by Dave Rowberry the band slowly mutated into an early version of the Doors but Valentine’s role never really changed.He remained an enigmatic figure, he seemed to be a bit a of a loose cannon verbally, never really able to deal with the mundane interviews that are a professional pop stars daily job.

By 1967 the band were no more. According to Burdon Valentine had taken on the west coast peace and love vibe and was spending most of his time tripping in a room full of stuffed animals (I think we are talking cuddly toys rather than taxidermy but its still weird). He even made a solo album with a folky/pop/psychedelic vibe. This pointed to a new direction but then the guitarist disappeared from view.

That’s another interesting thing about Valentine, He’s spent 4 years as a pop star followed by over 50 years of not being a pop star. There was a brief reunion producing one of the most perfunctory LPs ever ‘Before we were so rudely Interrupted’ in the 70’s. There’s a clip of the band getting back together, they clearly haven’t been practicing and had borrowed instruments for the appearance. It’s impossible to hear Valentine as he’s been give an acoustic guitar but as usual he seems happy to tag along. There was a further 80”s reconciliation where they were clearly searching for a new direction which involved recruiting keyboards and a second guitar to play the widdly bits Valentine wasn’t interested in. He spent around 20 years cultivating different variations of the mullet haircut further cementing the impression that this was a man who didn’t give a fuck musically or otherwise.

More recently he’s been involved in a skiffle project which brought his mini career full circle, he was able to return to basic simple music and hopefully make a small amount of money in the process.But most of the time he’s lived a life pretty similar to all elderly men who like to play guitar occasionally, whole decades are missing from the Hilton Valentine biography but, should anyone wish to make the film I would rather watch it than ‘Rocket Man’.

Here’s an electrifying performance from the band where energy more than compensates for dodgy sound and demonstrates how Valentine was a definite asset in the excitement department

The 70’s saw a brief reunion, clearly there’s still a bit of tension in the band and with punk on the way and the concept of ‘legacy bands’ yet to be invented no one was that interested. Valentine maintains a discreet silence throughout.

Allegedly Alan Price was really disinterested in recording the bands biggest hit and had to be cajoled into participating with an awesome organ solo.Valentine contributes the iconic intro but apparently when the record was released it was credited as Trad arranged Price. Whatever the reasons for this Price apparently pocketed the royalties and left the band. My lawyers have advised me to use the word allegedly again but if it is true Valentine missed a big payday but he became a Buddhist so what does he care.

Here it is again

Posted in rock music | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

24: Whatever gets you Thru the Night..John Lennon

Lennon’s time in New York City wasn’t hugely significant from a musical point of view. Prone to inertia and laziness he relied rather on the muse coming knocking. A lot of the time he lacked others to spark him into some real creativity and tended to fall back on the music of his youth.

Probably the period of most creativity was the time he spent away from the person he considered to be his creative muse, namely Yoko Ono. During his ‘lost weekend’ Lennon reconnected with people who had become his friends and his peers and became to be more inspired with making music again even finding time to Jam with Paul McCartney and write with David Bowie.

On Whatever Gets You Thru the Night Elton John was in the studio to add keyboards and vocals. Its not an exceptional song but it’s a great performance and it’s likely that having someone in the studio who (at the time) was more famous than Lennon created those sparks. Lyrically he took the inspiration from a TV evangelist musically it was the 70’s soul of George McCrea who was in the charts with ‘Rock Your Baby’. 

It was, at least a step forward from Lennon’s 50’s infatuations. Also on board for the session was his old mate from HamburgKlaus Voorman who plays some great bass, but the star of the show is Bobby Keys who plays saxophone. It’s not quite a ‘Baker Street’ transformation’ but Key’s contributions here transform a good track into a great one. Like a lot of really creative people Lennon had trouble evaluating his own work. ‘Whatever Gets you Thru the Night’ wasn’t his first choice for a single. Elton John had no such limitations, he bet Lennon that this was a hit single and he was right of course, it was Lennon’s only No1 US single while he was alive. Elton John secured Lennon’s agreement to appear at one of his gigs. It was a typically lazy bit of jamming on Lennon’s part when it did happen but it was notable for him choosing to cover McCartney’s’ I saw her Standing There’ and for it being his last ever live appearance.

Lennon was back with Ono again and he wanted to devote some time to raising his son Sean. The likes of John and Bowie found their calls were not being returned. Lennon was going to stay at home for a while.

This single only got to No36 in the UK charts, were we mad? It does just demonstrate that the record buyers had largely lost interest by that time, the Beatles effect was wearing thin, even Ringo was more popular in the singles charts.

But its now a song for our times, its been a tough year…Whatever gets you through the night.

‘Don’t need a gun to blow your mind’

Posted in rock music | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Paul McCartney saves Christmas

You are 78 years old. Your mother dies when you were 14. Your closest male friend is gunned down and your wife and ‘baby brother ‘ bandmate are taken by cancer. And that’s all before you reach the age of 60.

Like anyone who has lived a life Paul McCartney has baggage. And like everyone else he’s been locked down for the last nine months. He’s been making music for over 50 years, not just recycling his past, the McCartney back catalogue is a living breathing thing

The fact is that McCartney just can’t stop playing music and having been locked down for most of this year its inevitable that he’s been recording. The featured track (do singles even exist?) found its way onto my YouTube feed and it’s a beautiful glimmer of optimism for these dark days.

You never used to be

Afraid of days like these

But now you’re overwhelmed 

By your anxieties

Let me help you out

Let me be your guide

I can help you reach

The love you feel inside

The Album’s on Spotify, these are corporate times but to hell with negativity just enjoy an old man delighting in creating melodies out of thin air

Merry Christmas

Posted in rock music | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Lonesome Death of John Lennon

I try not to engage with the news to much, its pretty much a constant babble and I assume that anything of real importance will get though to me somehow. I had assumed that the 40thanniversary of John Lennon’s death would somehow be a big deal. There was a certain symmetry to that tragic event, he has now been dead almost as long as he was alive and the anniversary of his last birthday certainly did creep into my consciousness. Although I didn’t seek it out there was nothing on the Wednesday when he died or the following day when we all got to hear the news. Admittedly I don’t remember any commemoration of the 40th anniversary commemoration of Glen Miller’s demise in the 70’s but this was John Lennon for Rod’s sake!

I remember the fateful day as well as I can remember most things. The weather was traditionally awful, dank and drizzly. I was still at Polytechnic but not particularly gainfully employed. For a brief period co incidentally my old school friends Phil and Dunk we also living in Nottingham, Phil was working as a lab technician and Dunk had just started a Christmas job as a sales assistant in a, now defunct, department store as well as having a room in my sharedhouse. We had agreed to meet at lunch for a drink, the fact that two of us were going back to work was no barrier. In my early days of employment, I could drink more in a lunchtime than I might consume in a whole week now. Pubs were rammed between 12 and 2pm.

I arrived in town a bit early. In the 70’s and 80’s Nottingham was dominated by the Evening Post Sellers who arrived around 11am and stayed until rush hour selling the local rag.It was only after wandering around a bit, I realised that the headline on their stalls was about Lennon’s death. I bought the paper and adjourned to a pub to read it I then went to another pub to share the news with Phil and Dunk. It was shocking but I couldn’t remember being that shocked. We had a couple more pints then they went back to work and I went to spend my afternoon sitting as close to the gas fire as I could manage without combusting.

As a house we sat around to watch the news, it must have been a big event because it disrupted the evening schedules for a couple of hours. Inevitably anyone who had ever known Lennon was trotted out for  a quick tribute, broadcasters had to do their work in those days there was no reading out tweets. At one point someone posed the question that no one wanted to think about ‘I suppose there’s no chance of the Beatles reforming now?’

Lennon had told us the dream was over a decade earlier, but we chose not to believe him. In retrospect the 70’s was a grim time to be a Beatle, not only were there endless law suits but any interview was bound to touch on the possibility of the Beatles getting back together again. Even mainstream newspapers would report the fact that Paul had been on the phone to John in the hope of rekindling the dream.

Among rock critics it was very much the opinion that John was the real deal. McCartney was Mr Showbiz, happy to dash off an insipid ditty then appear on a chat show being Mr Macca thumbs aloft and generally being bland and positive and cheerful. Most ironic was the charge that he preferred to be in a band with his talentless wife rather that his old mates from Liverpool (who were pretty much sick of being in  bandwith him). One of the great strengths of the Beatles has been their positivism but in the 70’s we wanted our rock stars to be a bit more edgy. Lennon was honest and direct, he said what he thought, he was an artist, McCartney was a hack.

All bollocks of course. With the benefit of hindsight we can appreciate McCartney’s work ethic, his ability to constantly push himself and experiment, his almost effortless gift for melody and the fact that Linda was quite a nice person. 

The fact remains though that for the 70’s Lennon didn’t achieve a great deal musically. He did what he did best on the first Plastic Ono Band album which is the only Lennon album I’ve felt the need to own. Imagine was not bad at all kind of on a par with George Harrison’s early solo stuff but as soon as he was resident in the USA Lennon appeared to be struggling to come up with anything musically that didn’t rely heavily on 50’s rock and roll (quite literally on his ‘Rock and Roll album).

One of Yoko Ono’s impressions on Lennon was to get him to consider himself as an ‘Artist’. One thing we know about artists the world over is love of talking about themselves and their experience of the world. Another trait is often an inability to distinguish between what they produce that is genius and what is self indulgent which certainly accounts for his very first recordings and the amount of Yoko screaming on others.

It was quite a wise decision to withdraw from public life for a number of reasons not least was the fact that he avoided punk and a lot a new wave which might have shown up how regressive his own recording might have been. Despite this I was really shocked when ‘Just Like Starting Over’ was released. I wasn’t expecting a lot, but I had hoped for something better that another 50’s parody telling the world how much he loved Ono. Years have mellowed me but I’m still disappointed.  

In retrospect Lennon and McCartney needed each other so much. Lennon was lazy and often unfocussed but given a little direction from the right person (not you Yoko!) his imagination was unfettered. McCartney could churn out songs with relatively little effort, but he too needed someone to focus him and sometimes tell him his songs might be a bit crap. Given time they would have worked together again, its also pretty likely the Beatles would have had some sort of reformation. We ought to be very grateful we were spared that, it wouldn’t have been as good as we would have hoped we are very luck to have all our Beatles in one place and time.

Lennon was 60% the Beatles who in turn were 50% the 60’s which were 50% fantasy anyway. The idea that the Beatles would reform and everything would be great again was childish and a false hope. Lennon told us that in 1970 but would we listen?

And that’s the great thing about Lennon, he was intelligent in a way we aren’t allowed to be anymore, he was a musician, a writer, a poet and actor, a comedian an activist, and because he was untutored, he could get over concepts directly. The song Imagine is pretty trite but also brilliant, its just about imagining, just like war is over if you want it. Admittedly he moved from one idea to another but at least he had ideas, few people are so bold these days. Had he lived it’s pretty likely he’d have made some terrible records, name anyone from the 60’s who hasn’t. He’d have said plenty of stupid things and made plenty of mistakes because he was that sort of person.

Now social media exists we just are not tolerant of anyone who makes any sort of error. There’s plenty on YouTube about what a terrible husband and father Lennon was, how he mocked the disabled and was just nasty to lots of people. It’s all true of course but there’s also a lot of clips of performances and interviews where he just lights up the room time and time again.

And that’s why I still miss John Lennon

Posted in memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

23: Oliver’s Army…Elvis Costello

Watching an episode of ‘The Crown’ recently I was reminded of the Falklands war. At the time I was unemployed and living in a house which had heating one room only. Having survived a cold damp winter and facing an uncertain future I considered the possibility of the war escalating and national conscription happening. I don’t know what would have happened if that has transpired but my thoughts at the time were certainly ambivalent. I didn’t really want to join the army but at least if I did something would be happening in my worthless life.

And this was the conundrum Elvis Costello was addressing in my last polytechnic disco song.

It seems incredible now but by 1979 Costello was set to rule the world. After the glossy power pop misogyny, he had changed direction for the third time in 3 LPs for his most commercially successful album Armed Forces and was now high in the charts with Oliver’s Army. A mediation on the recruiting of working class lads from ‘the Mersey, the Thames and the Tyne’ to give their lives in pointless wars, the song was apparently inspired by Costello considering the situation in Northern Ireland. Other people had tried, Paul McCartney had released ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ which was trite and jolly, Lennon later retaliated with his own song which was so awful I can’t even face checking the title of it. U2 would have a bash at it a couple of years later with ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. There was basically a war in northern Ireland which didn’t really impact on us on the mainland but for Costello and the ex Beatles Liverpool as near as you could get to ‘the troubles’ without getting your feet wet.

Costello’s so artful with his wordplay I hadn’t really picked up on this at the time. I thought his reference to the ‘Murder Mile’ referred to a street where I lived with my family in the mid 60’s but equally applies to Belfast or any road which is quite long with a significant death rate. It didn’t stop me form thinking I had a special bond with Costello at the time.

Today I can’t ignore his use of the ‘n word’. I would never believe Costello is racist its use relates to the casual attitude towards soldier’s death. It also links the term used by the English towards the Irish with the song title which refers to Oliver Cromwell (just in case you thought it was about TV chef Jamie) There was no twitter storm, it got played on radio all the time, we didn’t feel the need to picket the polytechnic disco but those were different times, he probably wouldn’t try that lyrical device today.

What does amaze me is how a song of this depth so effortlessly get into the charts and the radio and the disco. It’s immediate strength of course is the music. From the first bars as keyboard player Steve Naive channels Rachmaninoff via Abba its peerless pop.

And you can dance to it

See also

Posted in memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

22:Cool for Cats…Squeeze

The polytechnic disco was a refreshingly genre free environment. There were 420 people on campus and most of us didn’t have that much in common. Dance music didn’t exist, disco did of course but the rugby club wasn’t going to be entertained by three hours of that. My memories of song selection beyond my selected tracks here are hazy. I asked my mate Al, he could remember ‘Ring my Bell’ by Anita ward which kind of makes sense. His other memory was ‘Into the Valley’ by the Skids which doesn’t but this was the music we attempted to dance to.

The fact remains that dance music doesn’t have to be actual dance music, at least it didn’t in 1978 because dance music hadn’t been invented which spared us the hassle of having to take ecstasy to enjoy it.

So, my second memory from the polytechnic disco is a great dance record or most of it is. ‘Cool for Cat’s’ just explodes from bar one thanks to its rhythm track featuring bass player Harry Kakoulli who had ironically just been sacked. Although their career was greatly enabled by punk the band were really good musicians who had been around for the previous 4 years. Drummer Gilson Lavis had been a professional musician for the decade, it’s a common misconception that dance music had to somehow be created and refined in the studio but people who know how to play together from Motown’s Funk Brothers to Muscles Sholes Swampers to Fela Kuti’smusicians have been able to create compulsive dance music simply by playing together well.

Squeeze had that ability, soon they would be tagged the new Lennon and McCartney but a this point they were very much a band, bass player sackings notwithstanding. Chris Diffordwas more of a songwriter than a guitarist, but fellow songwriter Glen Tilbrook is a fantastic player who usually doesn’t need to prove it. Also jostling for the front position was Jools Holland whose media career sometimes obscures the fact that he’s a fantastic piano player although fairly average at everything else musical.

So, what most of ‘Cool for Cats’ has is a fantastic groove. It derails slightly in the middle when it gets a bit experimental. That’s the trouble with band democracies, the Jazz bit has the hands of Holland and Lavis all over it. To be fair it creates a bit of tension but it losses the beat which leaves the dancer with the option of perhaps just giving up which is not aim of any good dance track obviously. Anyway with a cymbal crash and a sense of relief is back to the song and everything’s ok again. It’s quite a slight song that needs the piano outro to nudge it over the 3 min mark.

Squeeze were learning fast and refining the formula. Chris Difford got to ‘sing’ this time, but it would be the only time we got to hear him on a hit single. The more tuneful and melodic Tilbrook effectively became the face of Squeeze gradually eclipsing the other members by virtue of the fact that he wrote the music, sang the songs and played all the guitar solos. They were unlikely to record anything as quirky as ‘Cool for Cats’ again as the band refined its perfect pop tunes.

Difford is rightly revered for his song lyrics although he takes too many liberties with his rhyming (ie lines like ‘nappies smelly’ in up the junction) for me to get totally onboard with this. ‘Cool for Cats ‘ is a weird one though. Even at the time there was a bit of criticism the for ‘give a dog a bone’ but it’s hardly gangster rap. The band rather vaguely said the song was about their lives at the time but what the hell is the first verse about?

Clearly none of this really bothered me as I made my way to the disco floor.

Squeeze are still something of a going concern in the way that heritage bands are. They weren’t the new Beatles, but they gave the Kinks a run for their money. Its only Difford and Tilbrook left with Holland and Lavis forming a breakaway partnership and a whole load of sacked bass players littering their past.

According to Holland’s autobiography the official video is filmed at Tittenhurst Park one time residence of John Lennon, there’s a similar light to the ‘Imagine’ video so its probably true although why they needed such a location for a video which could have been filmed in a cardboard box is a mystery. It features new bass player John Bentley as well as two singers who I assume became the ‘Fabulously Wealthy Tarts’* which helped out with Holland’s solo career and went on to be featured with Paul Young who was huge in the early 80’s.Anyway,they clearly think it’s a great track to dance to as well.

They all seem to be having a great time, a period in time when the band was just starting out.

As was I, I suppose

* there’s lots of theories as to who they were so I’m probably wrong

Posted in memories of 70s, punk rock, rock music | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

21: Heart of Glass.. Blondie

Weekends at Trent Polytechnic were a mixed affair. It depended who was around. Some Fridays it seemed everyone disappeared leaving me rattling round my accommodation block. It always amazed me how many students had decided to leave home and then wanted to return almost immediately, it was even rumored that someone had kept their Saturday job and would return to this every weekend.

Stuck, as I was, on the very outskirts of Nottingham the campus offered a bare minimum of entertainment opportunities and, after an initial flurry of activity when term started that boiled down to just one thing; the Poly Disco.

So, for three weeks only here are three 70’s tracks indelibly imprinted on my brain from the ‘Poly Disco’.

As a keen student of the New York scene I had had my eyes on Blondie from the moment that the first started to appear in the music papers. This was partly for obvious reasons as Debbie Harry seemed to be one of the most beautiful women who ever walked the planet but also their early repertoire tied into the slightly cheesy sixties punk rock that I had been listening to on the ‘Nuggets’ compilation LP. I bought the first record and quite liked it. Harry seemed to be a really distinctive singer, I loved her voice and Clem Burke’s drumming and the 60’s organ sound, the first LP was good but not great. There was so much going on musically that I missed the detail of their career after that but the subsequent singles sounded pretty good.

And then, all of a sudden there was Heart of Glass.

I think this was a bigger thing in the States but there was a casual hatred of disco amongst rock fans. Although you were never going to find me down studio 54 I didn’t really share this. This was partly though lack of choice, there were so little opportunities to hear music that having a blanket hatred of disco meant that radio would never be an option and radio was pretty much all there was in the 70’s. As a consequence I listened to a lot of that genre and enjoyed a lot of it.

For a band that was loosely considered punk however, recording a disco influenced track was a big step and a big risk.

The band had been playing around with a version of what they called the ‘disco song’ for a while. White rock bands trying disco always tended to sound a bit lumpy, I suspect this was the case until top pop producer Mike Chapman got his hands on it and utilised the latest technology in the form of a drum machine and synthesizers to create the irresistible groove.

By doing this he was in effect making the band a bit redundant but Chapman always prioritized a great sound over a great band. In truth Blondie weren’t that great a live band, live they could sound tinny and bombastic at the same time but by having the twin bases of vocals and drums covered they managed to get by.

Although theres apparently not a sequencer involved Chapman got the sequencer effect with the synthesizers which in tandem with the drum machine pushes the song forward. Nigel Harrison does that octave bass thing that rock players had been experimenting with since the Stones recorded ‘Miss You’ and Clem Burke (reluctantly) beefed of the rhythm with some actual drums (you can almost hear their relief in the fade out where they can cut loose and relax a bit)

Like a lot of great records its the sound that captivates, theres a glamour but its the style of the glitter ball and the Mecca ballroom rather than the catwalk. Like a lot of their earlier records theres fun mixed in with the style, just right for a crowd of gauche polytechnic students on a Friday night.

Interestingly this was a blip rather than a change in direction, the next track by the band was a return to guitar jangling with Sunday Girl, there were to be no attempts a cashing in on some sort of punk disco craze which leaves Heart of Glass in it’s own little oasis of pop perfection.

Posted in disco, punk rock, rock music | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

You Can’t do that in the Studio Anymore

In the 70’s recording studios were magical places. There was the holy grail of Abbey Rd but also lesser legends such as Rockfield where you could stay an immerse yourself in a 24 hour recording experience. At the bottom end of the scale there were cellars with egg boxes stuck to the wall. The things they all had in common was they involved a band getting together in a special place for a fixed period of time. Any studio was relatively expensive and were charging by the hour or day. For this reason most recordings were a compromise and a race against time. For anyone at the top of their game and the backing of a big label things were a bit easier and sessions tended to expand to fit the time with extended partying and ‘hanging out’. Never underestimate the appeal of squeezing onto a tatty settee with a bunch of like minded people listening the guitarist laying down his solo for the 99thtime.

Times have changed, most of the studios have now closed and keen musicians have their own  studios at home in the spare room. You can even have a studio on your phone. We have gained and we have lost but here are some of the things that no one will be doing in the studio anymore.

Singing out of Tune

Lets face it, singing is pretty hard and the singer has the very worst time of, too many late nights, long haul flights, hangovers, air too hot, air too, dry air too smoky, all these things can take their toll on the delicate vocal chords. On top of that is the fact we are not all born equal, Lou Reed has a voice so does Tom Jones, they are not the same. Ray Davis has a vocal wobble, Bob Dylan has a croak and there’s no words to describe Johnathan Richman’s vocal sounds !

But you’re not likely to hear any of that on a modern pop record, the vocal noises there bear as much resemblance to the human voice as cheesy string does to cheese, they are an artificial creation. There’s a good chance however that any recording would be subject to a bit of tweaking. There’s a YouTube clip where someone autotunes Robert Plant’s voice- it turns out that when rock god started screaming, he wasn’t in tune all the time. The auto tuned results are fine but its not quite Robert.

To be fair singers are much better today, most of the youth don’t want to hear some indie shambles so more people are singing pop which is a lot more demanding, singers today are a lot more skilled than just being the people who wrote the songs or just couldn’t play an instrument. In fact, the general quality of musicianship is so much better today which is unsurprising given the learning resources available.

But when all else fails there’s always autotune.

Hanging out in the studio

In the 70’s studios could mix business with pleasure, certainly if you were in a band who could afford the rates you might invite some friends down. Perhaps, as in Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland sessions those friends might join in the playing, maybe they’d just bring some drugs over. There’s a couple of reasons why studios don’t have hoards of hanger-on’s on board. Firstly most of them are glorified bedrooms, the days of bars and canteens attached to a cavernous studio complexare long gone. The sadder reason is that now music is totally monetised there’s always the risk that some no talent sycophant is going to claim a writing credit in retrospect. The courts are full of such claims that invariably go nowhere but saps the time and energy from everyone apart from the lawyers. A locked door keeps these claims to a bare minimum.

Changing Time Signatures.  

Modern recording practices dictate that an unwavering beat is set to a click track. It’s always 4 beats in a bar. The way modern recording happens means any deviation is pretty perverse. Recording invariably happens from the bottom up, that’s always been the case but the rhythm track is disproportionately significant today. It wasn’t unusual for earlier songwriters to switch beats about just because it fitted the words to the song so there might be a bar or 2/4 or 3/4 placed to accommodate that. The Beatles could accommodate different time signatures in a song not because the wanted show how clever they were but that’s just how music sounded to them. No one is going to think like that anymore, we’ve had too many decades of 4/4.

Sloppy Playing,

In Louie Louie by the Kingsmen, theres a moment where the singer comes in too early, the drummer covers it up with a drum roll and the band carry on. That’s the finished article no one bothered to re record it and when bands cover it now they often include the mistake. In modern recording studios not only can you hear the mistake you can also see and exclude it with a couple of clicks of the mouse. Bear in mind for most of the 60’s there were no tuners in studios, they didn’t reallybecome current currency until the 80s. It not surprising therefore that a whole lot of music was recorded which was a bit out of tune. At the time it didn’t bother anyone, we still admire and love those old records for no one worried the bass was half a semitone flat. Almost every record is recorded to a click track, if the drummer’s a bit sloppy it can be tidied up easily.

Sonically things are hugely superior today especially with electronic music that works so well to the new technology. Just about all modern recordings are brighter and clearer but are they lacking in feel or interest? Isn’t it quite good to hear a guitar a bit out of tune or someone fluffing their vocal? You can find that on most Beatles records and apparently they are still pretty popular, not only with the old folks. Tapestry,orRumours or Led Zeppelin IV or a whole load of other 70s albums still stand up because they sound like they were created by living breathing people getting together to play music.

Are their any great rock records created this century, I’m sure there are, I rather liker Mastodon’s  ‘Crack the Sky’ for example but sonically its just to bright and lively, after a couple of tracks I feel quite exhausted.

Has anyone got any recommendations for anything modern that actually sounds good?

Posted in rock music | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments