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

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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

 

  https://youtu.be/f-tGEQYZRfg

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.

 

 

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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

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7:Meet me on the Corner…Lindisfarne

For most people their ultimate ‘tracks of my years’ songs are ones they heard somewhere between the ages of 13 and 20. Almost all musician can report a eureka moment when they heard the music which would change their lives. For the first wave of rock it was the likes of Elvis and Jerry Lee. For the next wave it was the Beatles and so on with diminishing returns. There are people in their 40’s who had this kind of experience with the Stone Roses or Oasis; I pity them.

There’s something really significant about a new sound imprinting itself on the brain. One of the first people to explore this concept was Konrad Lorenz who found baby geese would follow the first moving thing they saw after hatching, creating an instant bond no matter what that object was. Usually it was Lorenz himself and the goslings would follow him around thinking he was their parent.

I feel the same way about many of my 70’s songs, I can’t be rational about them, they were just there at the right time. 

When ‘Meet me on the Corner’ was a moderate hit I was probably 12 years old. I had taped a whole program of the chart show on a reel to reel tape recorder which my dad had passed onto me in the hope of avoiding any requests for money to buy records. It worked, I loved my first top twenty so much I never taped over it. By sheer coincidence Lindisfarne’s first hit single was one of those tracks.

Like a lot of records, I just loved the sound of it. The record’s producer was Bob Johnson, Dylan’s Nashville producer of the 60’s, there’s a touch of Nashville Skyline about the sound. Apparently, Johnson was drawn to the sound of Ray Jackson’s harmonica, so was I, I had never heard anything like it, the down-home sound of Lindisfarne was radical and new to my 12 year old years as Ornette Coleman or Stockhausen.  

Like most listeners, probably, I didn’t really analyse the lyrics. ‘Meet me on the Corner’ appears to be about scoring drugs, a kind of Geordie ‘Waiting for my Man’. Its possible that if the Daily Mail had rumbled this fact that there would have been a minor outrage but really at this point the media didn’t really recognise popular music as being of any relevance. Today, of course when it has far less cultural value they are all over it but if Lou Reed could get away with ‘giving head’ on ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ Lindisfarne could sneak a bit of dope dealing under the cultural radar.

Unusually the song wasn’t written by the band’s ‘new Dylan’ resident songwriter Alan Hull,it was the work of bass player /multi instrumentalist  Rod Clements and sung by harmonica/mandolin player Ray Jackson. It created a strange schism which was later to happen to XTC with ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ where the big hit was not written by the person who effectively fronted the band and wrote 90% of the material. For a lot of us ‘Jacka’ with his impressive moustache and mandolin was the face of Lindisfarne.

Still this was early days and everyone in the band was happy. Lindisfarne were a fantastic good time combo, so good in fact that it came to overshadow their creative side. They created a real impression on me of the power of a bunch of people having a great time onstage. Their harmonies were rough but rather like with the Band you had the impression that everyone was singing along because they were having a great time together, they were good musicians but not so good they had to prove it and the song writing was just lyrically challenging enough. Lindisfarne were a flawed band, they couldn’t really make an impression beyond their first three records. They split and reformed and after that their 80’s records sounded like they were recorded in the 80’s and their 90’s records sounded like they were recorded in the 90’s, they had lost their way.

Inevitably they are now a legacy band. The only original member is Clements who took over from Jacka and inheritedhis mandolin. I broke the rule of a lifetime and went to see them a couple of years back (well it was at a festival I didn’t go specifically). One of the things about the legacy culture is there’s often a pool of musician to choose from as a fair few have passed through the band over 50 years and many of the current musicians have been in post for decades. It can take it’s toll, guitarist Colin Gibson was actually attached to an oxygen cylinder. Roxy Music’s Paul Thompson is now the drummer and the late Allan Hull has his son in law standing in for him. It’s a strange regrouping but it worked.

Lindisfarne were the first band I wrote about here

https://thefutureispast.co.uk/2018/05/13/lindisfarne-the-folk-rock-oasis/?preview=true&preview_id=1745&preview_nonce=4ba3c163ad

Apart from their live album, at the time considered pretty crap but now a rather charming ‘warts n all’ document, I never owned a record by them beyond a CD of greatest hits. So, via the wonder of Spotify, I’ve just listened to ‘Nicely Out of Tune’ their debut LP. It sounds great but the track that sound best are the ones I’ve heard before. Am I like Lorenz’s goslings just latching onto an early experience or are they a great band?

Posted in folk music, folk rock, memories of 70s, rock music | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

6: All the Young Dudes.. Mott the Hoople

Early Mott the Hoople had their fans, Mick Jones later of the Clash and Kris Needs later editor of Zigzag magazine to name just two. The band inspired the devotion that only comes from giging and hard work. Early producer Guy Stevens was willing to give them a listen after seeing Ian Hunter wrestle a Hammond Organ up several flights of stairs after a shift at the factory.

The bands attitude didn’t really disguise the fact that early Mott weren’t really that good, fairly run of the mill rock that didn’t really distinguish them from Blossom Toes or Blodwyn Pig or countless other bands beginning with B.

And so the band ran out of steam and split up.

Luckily another fan was David Bowie, when Mott bassist Overend Watts phoned him up to see if he was thinking of sacking Trevor Bolder from the Spiders of Mars, Bowie was so upset that he said he would write the band a song if they could only reform.

Bowie offered the band ‘Suffragette’ city which rather cheekily, the band turned down. Bowie apparently then sat down and wrote a song literally in front of Ian Hunter.

And so, ‘All the Young Dudes’ was born. Certainly one of Bowie’s greatest songs and instead of keeping it for himself he gave it away.

Along with the song came a whole new package from Bowie’s management company, in the 70’s that made a whole heap of difference, Mott the Hoople were to become a major proposition.

The lyrics are,of course exceptional, you can speak them like poetry, you can rap them or’ like Hunter you can sing them pretending to be Bob Dylan circa 1966. Bowie intended the song to be part of his (always fashionable) ‘the world’s about to end’ theme others prefer to see it a some sort of ‘coming out’ song. I just loved the fact that it mentioned ‘Marks and Sparks’ (retail chain Marks and Spencers).

All the Young Dude’s for me is possibly the best ever glam rock song. Lets not forget Glam was Glam Rock not glam pop, early proponents, Bowie, Slade, even T Rex were bands capable of packing a real punch live. Quite how Rock became Glam is still a mystery, it must be more than Overend Watt’s thigh boots. For me, there was a certain crunchy guitar sound that was synonymous with Glam, Bolan had it, the Sweet had it, Slade had it. The best bit of the song for me is the guitar intro, its got such a Mick Ronson feel to it I wonder what his involvement was, if any. Two notes from Mick Ralphs and it 1972 again.

There’s another, less noticeable musical element to the song that anchors it perfectly in time and place. The Hammond Organ was, in man ways the sound of the early 70’s. Tony’s Kaye in Yes, Hugh Banton in Van Der Graff Generator, Vincent Crane in Atomic Rooster,Ian Maclagan in the Faces and many many more. The Hammond was a mainstay of seriously heavy bands despite being physically unsuited for life on the road. It was heavy and huge and invariably needed an equally huge cabinet to make it heard. Clearly as soon as more portable keyboards were developed from the mid 70’s the Hammond was history. It’s a huge shame, there’s nothing like a genuine Hammond organ but no one is going to carry one of them up a few flights of stairs again. Which meant no one was going to get a change to impress Guy Stevens with their commitment.

Ever since JS Bach wrote ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ we’ve been a sucker for the descending bass line. Here it’s played by Mott Organist Verden Allen and with that under Ralphs guitar its 70’s heaven all the way.

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5. Can’t Get Enough..Bad Company

‘Well I take whatever I want

And baby I want you,

After the chaotic dissolution of Free, vocalist Paul Rogers formed a band Peace and landed a support slot on a Mott the Hoople tour. Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs has been writing a whole load of songs that no longer had a place in the Mott portfolio as the band were becoming increasingly synonymous with glam rock. When Ralphs and Rogers stated hanging out it was only a matter of time before Ralphs started demoing his songs.

On hearing the above line Rogers was blown away, it was 1974 after all there was no sexist cliche too risible. And so the seeds of Bad Company were sown.

Soon Simon Kirke also traumatized by his time in Free was recruited on drums and eventually Boz Burrell, ex of King Crimson, was the bass player. Burrrell felt the same about prog rock as Ralphs felt about glam, this was going to be a back to basics band. To misquote Alan Partridge on the Beatles and Wings, Bad Company was the band Free could have been. This time there would be no drug problems, a new manager was found in the form of Led Zep’s Peter Grant and a home on Zeps record label Swansong was inevitable.

Bad Company would have a long life span, I covered it here a few years ago.

https://thefutureispast.co.uk/2016/03/27/bad-company/

In all honesty all you need to know about their music is on their first, or, at a push,their second LP. That was when Ralphs had a stockpile of songs, after that it was the law of diminishing returns.

But really all you need is their first and greatest single ‘Can’t get Enough’.

The song means a lot to me, I never owned a copy but it was on the radio a lot. I was learning to play the drums and whenever the song appeared on Radio 1 (which was about every two hours) I would join in to the delight of my family and neighbors. This did me a huge favour. Bad Company had their roots in the 60’s when drummers would be expected to swing a bit, shuffles and 6/8 time were meat and potatoes for the jobbing percussionist. ‘Can’t get Enough’ sounds like a rock song but it swings in a subtle way. When I sat in with my jam band to play this recently it took me a while to find the groove, we’ve lost that way of playing today.

Usually these days my role is as bass player and again Boz Burrell’s bass line is a triumph of subtle invention. It shifts constantly building verse by verse without ever deviating from the chord sequence, unless you listen carefully you’d miss it but it makes the song a whole lot better.

‘Can’t Get Enough’ is superficially a simple song, its just a few chords, most bar bands could play it (and do) but they could never play it as well as Bad Company and no one could sing as well as Paul Rogers. I don’t have guilty pleasures, its hard to justify this song to a younger generation, especially the lyrics, but I cant feel guilty this song brings me so much pleasure which I’m sure is about more than just remembering what it was like to be 15 again

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3 Still Life.. Van Der Graff Generator

New music is just music you haven’t heard before. By 1979, my life was full of new music, despite rock (and roll) being just over 20 years old there was plenty I hadn’t heard yet and every week there was a whole load of new stuff that was absolutely great.

That was the year of power pop, Blondie, Buzzcocks, The Undertones,The Police, even Elvis Costello was pop that year, Two Tone was about to explode it was a busy busy time for anyone who had even a passing interest in popular music. I was living in a block with 10 boy/men at Trent Polytechnic, out of that number a couple had virtually no interest in music at all but the rest of us, including the ones who would go on to become accountants and quantity surveyors had some record collection. At the extreme end was myself and my best Poly friend Al. Al by virtue of some semblance of a Protestant work ethic had acquired more records than me. He had initially specialized in the interesting end of prog including a number of releases on the fledgling Virgin record label, his head had been turned a little by punk and new wave but his favorite band was about to become a special band to me as well thanks to Al’s generosity in sharing his collection.

Van Der Graff Generator (or VDGG as us ‘heads’ would call them) had been around since the late 60’s and by the time I was listening they were no more. The band had 3 seventies phases. The first one saw them at their hippiest, there were acoustic guitars and pianos to soften some of the brain splitting riffs. The band hit some sort of meltdown, today they would just take a break but in the 70’s no one expected a band to last much more than 5 years so they split up. After a bit of solo careering main man Peter Hammill regrouped the band. Having jettisoned their bass player a couple of LP’s ago the core of the band was organ, drums and saxophones, not even close to the expected rock line up. Hammill now decided to play the electric guitar but manage to avoid ever sounding like Eric Clapton or indeed like anyone else.

The first VDGG I ever listen to was World Record, widely considered not to be their best but its got some pretty crunchy tunes on side one and even when the band relaxed into a bit of a jam, which appeared slightly necessary to fill side two, they were the antithesis for the Allman Brothers, veering toward scratchy texture rather than grandstanding. Keyboard player Hugh Banton was an organist pure and simple, no fancy synth twiddling for Hugh although he allegedly used the Mellotron occasionally. With the energy he saved from synth fiddling he covered the bass parts as well, usually on the bass pedals of his organ. Guy Evans was a versatile and powerful drummer, like just about everyone from the 60’s he could play jazz. The main reason he’s not regarded as one of the all time greats is because he was the drummer for VDGG.

I’ve covered the great David Jackson elsewhere, he was the soul of the band’s weirdness, could sound like a marching band or a bunch of crows in a church tower. He could play lots of saxophones and flutes, sometimes at the same time.

https://thefutureispast.co.uk/2019/06/23/sax-in-the-70s/

However the reason for the inclusion of ‘Still Life’ is down to Hamill’s lyric over everything else. I’ve never been a lyric’s person, there’s a whole load of songs where I have no idea what they are about, in fact I’m prone to mishearing lyrics and I’ve been happy to live with that for decades. I like the sound of music (literally, not the film), I like the odd lyrical phrase but it really irks me when people talk of rock lyrics as being poetry. Simon Armitage has the same view and he’s a proper poet so I’m right here- no arguing!

Still life is off the Mk2 bands second LP called Still Life. The first record Godbluff escaped my attention in 1979 but to be fair I did have an entire back catalogue to listen too, but Still Life is very much more of the same, side two features an epic which allows them to do a bit of prog noodling and goes on a bit but side one is the band at their very best. La Rossa is about requited love/lust which made an impact on me as a 19 year old listening in my polytechnic cell. Pilgrims is about pilgrims, or something, as I’ve explained I’m not great with lyrics it does feature a great Evan’s drum fill which is something I do understand.

Sandwiched between the two is still life a meditation on what it might be like if we were to live forever, all the elements of the band are present musically, Hammill has a lovely voice if he wants but you’re never far from from some tonsil shredding, possibly the main thing that put the casual listener off, but again that could be the weird saxophone or the tricky time signatures or the gothic organ or the fact that tracks last at least five minutes.

Anyway, it’s not bloody poetry but it is bloody amazing lyrically.

Citadel reverberates to a thousand voices, now dumb:
What have we become? What have we chosen to be?
Now, all history is reduced to the syllables of our name –
Nothing can ever be the same now the Immortals are here.
At the time, it seemed a reasonable course
To harness all the force of life without the threat of death,
But soon we found
That boredom and inertia are not negative,
But all the law we know
And dead are Will and words like survival.Arrival at immunity from all age, all fear and all end…
Why do I pretend? Our essence is distilled
And all familiar taste is now drained
And though purity is maintained it leaves us sterile,
Living through the millions of years,
A laugh as close as any tear…
Living, if you claim that all that entails is
Breathing, eating, defecating, screwing, drinking,
Spewing, sleeping, sinking ever down and down
And ultimately passing away time
Which no longer has any meaning.Take away the threat of death
And all you’re left with is a round of make-believe;
Marshal every sullen breath
And though you’re ultimately bored by endless ecstasy
That’s still the ring by which you hope to be engaged
To marry the girl who will give you forever –
That’s crazy, and plainly
It simply is not enough.What is the dullest and bluntest of pains,
Such that my eyes never close without feeling it there?
What abject despair demands an end to all things of infinity?
If we have gained, how do we now meet the cost?
What have we bargained, and what have we lost?
What have we relinquished, never even knowing it was there?What chance now of holding fast the line,
Defying death and time
When everything we had is gone?
Everything we laboured for and favoured more
Than earthly things reveals the hollow ring
Of false hope and of false deliverance.But now the nuptial bed is made,
The dowry has been paid;
The toothless, haggard features of Eternity
Now welcome me between the sheets
To couple with her withered body – my wife.Hers forever,
Hers forever,
Hers forever
In still life.

Whenever I think I might not want to die someday all I have to do is revisit still life and realize the alternative is far far worse.

Hugh Banton left the band after a couple of years , rather unsurprisingly he became a church organist and built church organs (that guy sure loved his organs). It’s Banton who provides the core backing throughout Still Life, creating the church vibe at the beginning and morphing into the 60’s prog as the song progresses

Mark 3 VDGG brought in a violinist to replace Jackson and re-introducing ex bass player Nic Potter. They were pretty good but very different as as punk had happened were doomed to failure after one LP. After decades apart they reformed and are still a going concern, although Jackson bailed out after a couple of years. Three old men who are free to play pretty much as they please, Hamill has had a heart attack they all know that every gig or recording could well be their last.

But hopefully they know the alternative is far worse…

Posted in memories of 70s, prog rock, rock music | Tagged , , , , , ,

The Doctors of Madness

Many years ago while working in Leicester I came across a story in the local paper, the Leicester Mercury, about Leicester bands who had not quite made it. Leicester is not exactly a rock and roll city but it’s made its mark on the rock music map of Great Britain. In the 60’s there was Family, in the 70’s it spawned Showaddywaddy, in the 90’s, almost inevitably given the city’s Asian population, there was Cornershop and most recently the city witnessed the formation of Kasabian.

And let’s not forget Englebert Humperdinck of course.

Anyway, there were the also rans who were the subject of this article, bands who had a recording contract but never ‘made it’. One thing that struck me was that the bands never attributed their relative failures on their inability to write decent songs or put on an acceptable live show. Each and every band attributed their demise to external factors, bad recording choices, always by the record company, changes of personnel at the company or generally the record company making bad decisions or sometimes just ceasing to exist. In fact the only thing that was not entirely the record company’s fault was when musical tastes changed and the band were left behind (and often it was the company’s failure that the band were unable to pursue a new direction)

Bloody record companies!

Today anybody with a laptop can put out their music, record companies are becoming redundant at a grass roots level but in the 70’s the only way that 99.9% of bands could make a record was with the cooperation with their paymasters.

One of the many notable failures of the decade were the Doctors of Madness. I caught the band in 75 or 76. My confusion in relation to the date is caused not only by the age process but also due to the fact that I was coming down with the flu and was hallucinating mildly during their performance.

The heart of the band was a lanky singer/guitarist with blue hair which in itself was outrageous at the time. Kid Strange was also, according to my unreliable memory, wearing thigh length boots and had a guitar made out of the letters KID. The bass player Stoner was wearing some pretty unpleasant Frankenstein make up and the drummer Peter Di Lemer was frighteningly blond and looked like Jet Harris from the Shadows. The aural excitement was curtesy of a crop haired individual dressed in grey. Urban Blitz was a classically trained (aren’t they all?) violinist and occasional guitar player. His role model appeared to be John Cale form the Velvet Underground, Cale played viola however, the violin was an even more abrasive instrument in this setting.

In theory there was a lot to like, their open number ‘Waiting’ smacked us about the ears in a painful but good way and the band looked as impressive as any support band can do occupying a six foot strip of stage in front to the headliner’s drum kit.
These days the band are sometimes heralded as precursors to punk but that’s being wise after the event. Kid Strange was actually very influenced by singer/songwriter Roy Harper. Like Harper he had developed a stark and uncompromising approach, being influenced by the Beat writers and particularly Edgar Burroughs. Strange was intelligent and self-confident there seemed little doubt that he felt he was entitled to become a seriously influential figure.

Willing to back his self-belief was record company Polydor, and with The Doctors of Madness signed up their lives would now be dedicated to the inevitable album/tour cycle.

Unfortunately the nation failed to be stirred by the Doctors of madness at all. They toured with Be Bop Deluxe (when I saw them) and the Heavy Metal Kids, ironically other bands that never really achieved their potential. Initially the band was probably just too caustic for the glam rock crowd. Pauline Murray of Penetration, stranded in an ex mining town in County Durham observed that although she would happily travel many miles to see the group they were a ‘real record company type band’ where the Sex Pistols, who she caught a little later were in a different league. The Pistols were later to support the Doctors of Madness were able to blow them off stage not because they were more musically gifted but because they were just totally different, the Pistols were not ‘record company’.

I bought the band’s first record ‘Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms’, second hand of course, and it was obvious that Kid Strange was prone to slightly overwrought song writing, a bit like Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel, when The Doctors of Madness were good they were very good but it was easy to slip into histrionic singer songwriter mode which both Kid Strange and Steve Harley were prone to.

Urban Blitz was to quit which seemed to me to be a blow to the band but Kid Strange was undeterred. The fact was that the band were transitioning, becoming The Doctors and dropping the violin which was now out of step with the time. No doubt the record company thought this was a good idea, Punk was starting to sell and it might be possible that The Doctors could fool enough people into thinking they were a proper punk band without the screeching .

Except, of course that the band, now with three albums under their belt, were still playing the same venues to audiences that might now be tempted to see the Stranglers or Souxsie and the Banshees instead.

In a last gasp the band recruited Dave Vanian , at a loose end after the demise of The Dammed, as co vocalist (although good friends with Kid Strange, the latter recounts in his biography Vanian ‘couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket’). This seemed to last a matter of minutes and the band were no more.

If the band had existed just a couple of years earlier it likely we would have had a more lasting impression of them but instead, like everyone else they were overtaken by punk and punk filtered out memories of everything that had existed before. The Doctors of madness would have seemed better on the same bill as Hawkwind rather than The Sex Pistols, punk seemed to diminish and flatten their impact, it wouldn’t be long before blue hair became the norm although the violin was never fully rehabilitated.

Kid Strange realised that a full band was no longer necessary to ply his trade. With a drum machine and with plenty of effects and a cheap synthesiser he became Richard Strange, edging into a career that included acting, curating, writing and socialising. As we all know it’s impossible to leave the past behind for long so he’s also toured in Japan with a couple of session musicians pretending to be The Doctors of Madness but that was best forgotten, these days he’s as likely to be a guest on radio 4 talking about his latest multimedia project as strapping on a guitar.

Polydor had signed the Jam who looked like a far more exciting proposition, at least financially, and the Doctors where consigned to bargain bins across the land.

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Andy Gill

The death of Andy Gill, Gang of Four Guitarist in many ways seems more tragic than the Amy’s, Janis’s and Jimi’s. Gill was only 63, it’s tempting to think that if you’ve made it that far you should be entitled to another 20 years, at least that’s the lie I’ve been telling myself. Apparently, its pneumonia that’s taken him, the ‘old man’s friend’ took someone who appeared as vital as he had appeared in 1978 when the Gang of Four emerged with their first single ‘Damaged Goods’.

 

I heard the record via John Peel of course, it took my breath away, it still does, not only because of Gill’s guitar but also the bass and drums and the way the whole approached being a musical three piece. They changed the idea that all the instruments have to play at the same time and it   gets a bit thin when there’s a guitar solo, instead at any point all or just one of the instruments could be playing. It sounds simple but it was a whole new approach which was influence by Dub Reggae.

Gills had a 40-year career but to be honest I don’t care much about his production work or the Gang of Four reformations or even their second album Solid Gold. For me their debut long player Entertainment was all I needed I even resent the additional tracks on the CD reissue for sullying the purity of the original.

Entertainment changed the way I thought about music and it rocked so much harder than the faux rock of the likes of the Foo Fighters or the Stereophonics. And ‘Damaged Good’s ‘ still feels Like  punch to the stomach.

https://youtu.be/fRjsBh_R3TQ

 

I wrote more about the Gang of Four last year… here it is again

   

One of the consequences of the digital age is that we don’t really have to listen to music we don’t want to anymore. When I was young I listened to the 6 LP’s my parents owned and whatever was played on the radio stations they tuned in to. As I got older I started buying my own LP’s but I was still reliant on the radio, in this case Radio 1 and as I might listen for hours and not hear very much I actually liked  I started to find pleasure in unlikely areas, I was forced to adapt.

The last time I had to listen to modern pop music was when my kids travelled in the car with me and wanted their updated version of Radio 1 on. Again I began to adapt, I wasn’t wild about the music but I did appreciate the odd banging tune and as Radio 1 seemed to have a playlist of about 6 records for months on end I at least became familiar with what was happening in the world of modern music.

These days I am less adaptable, my only exposure to modern music is when Radio 2 plays something contemporary. I don’t usually like it, there’s a modern voice sound which I don’t like at all and it’s horribly produced. Modern pop seems to resemble music in the same way as cheesy string resembles a mature cheddar, it’s kind of similar in theory but very different in practice.

The worst thing for me though are the lyrics, it seems that the only topic on the table is relationships. When Ed Sheeran began a very successful musical career with ‘The A Team’, I actually stopped and listened , although it’s a kind of modern day ‘Streets of London ‘the impact for me was far greater, here was someone singing about something other than their own feelings.it was very unusual.

It wasn’t always like that, sure the whole experience of being human is going to rely heavily on our relationships with  people we fancy quite a bit but there are other things going on in the world to sing about.

Punk was pretty low on the whole relationship experience unless it was our relationships with people we hated. Post punk no one was going to talk about love, PIL even had a song titled ‘This is not a Love Song’ although clearly it would have been for more radical if they had created something that was a love song.

Politics were on the agenda, not necessarily traditional politics but personal politics, anti racism and anti sexism were high on the list although ageism was still allowed in. The phrase political correctness hadn’t been invented but this was its birth.

The Gang of Four had their origins at Leeds University. People were now safe to be students again, for a couple of years they were hated by the punk cognoscente for their supposedly cushy lifestyle but now things were getting more intelligent. Naming themselves after a group of Chinese Communists Gang Of Four had already nailed their colours to the mast hinting they were intellectual and subversive.

I had a somewhat troubled relationship with the band. They produced some of the best music I have ever heard.GuitaristAndy Gill took the Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson guitar sound and mixed in punk, funk dub and noise. As a musical three piece the band did all they could to make guitar bass and drums interesting. In effect this meant each instrument had an equal role and, influenced by dub, instruments would drop out at various points to create simple textures.

The down side was that Jon King was a fairly rubbish vocalist and the lyrics (keenly avoiding the L word) could sound a bit like a sociology essay. It might be a bit po faced as could most post punk but I have to admit the lyrics have stayed with me to this day. The phrase ‘see the happy pair smiling close like they’re monkeys’ from Essence has led to a lifelong aversion to having my picture taken (and certainly never smiling).

 

Inevitably the band would tackle the thorny subject of why bands are expected to write songs about relationships in one of their greatest hits ‘Anthrax’. Involving lots of guitar noise and two intersecting vocal lines Anthrax sets it clear

 

Woke up this morning desperation a.m.

What I’ve been saying won’t say them again

My head’s not empty, it’s full with my brain

The thoughts I’m thinking

Like piss down a drain

And I feel like a beetle on its back

And there’s no way for me to get up

Love’ll get you like a case of anthrax

And that’s something I don’t want to catch

Ought to control what I do to my mind

Nothing in there but sunshades for the blind

Only yesterday I said to myself

The things I’m doing are not good

For my health

 

“Love crops up quite a lot as something to sing about,

cos most groups make most of their songs about falling in love

or how happy they are to be in love,

you occasionally wonder why these groups do sing about it all the time –

it’s because these groups think there’s something very special about it

either that or else it’s because everybody else sings about it and always has,

you know to burst into song you have to be inspired

and nothing inspires quite like love.

These groups and singers think that they appeal to everyone

by singing about love because apparently everyone has or can love

or so they would have you believe anyway

but these groups seem to go along with what, the belief

that love is deep in everyone’s personality.

I don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love,

we just don’t think that what goes on between two people

should be shrouded with mystery.”

Love’ll get you like a case of anthrax

And that’s something I don’t want to catch

Love’ll get you like a case of anthrax

And that’s something I don’t want to catch

 

Why isn’t anyone writing songs like this anymore? This isn’t my Desert Island Disc (I’d rather have something by Joni Mitchell about relationships) but is it impossible to find songs that are looking external rather than internal experiences?

Its not just pop, its Americana, Rock, Singer Songwriter, it’s not as if there aren’t things to get angry about anymore but perhaps we’d rather listen to people telling us about themselves.

On the other hand perhaps its just the case now that music is so integrated into our entertainment pleasure that its completely devoid from documenting radical experiences or thoughts perhaps its joined the ranks of synchronised swimming, tap dancing, or knitting as something we do to unwind.

 

There’s a Spotify Playlist for every occasion.

 

Here’s the Gang of Four

https://youtu.be/aj-h3zmGVO4

Posted in memories of 70s, post punk, punk rock, rock music | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment