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.

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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>

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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.

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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.

https://thefutureispast.co.uk/2016/08/14/101ers/

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.

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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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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

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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.

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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?

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20 Whatevershebringswesing..Kevin Ayers

For a couple of years the second hand record shop in Norwich was pretty much the centre on my retail experience, I wish I could remember the name of the shop, its worth a blue plaque.

My record buying had settled into a pattern that I’ve maintained pretty consistently ever since where I’d found a point in a venn diagram which intersected desirability, availability and affordability. By and large it worked well, it meant I would commit to records I quite liked the look of but were relatively cheap and were for sale at the aforementioned second hand record shop.

The nature of the second record market meant that most of the albums for sale were 5-10 years old. No problem there, it was the golden age of the LP and I was able to pick up gems by the Grateful Dead or Hendrix for a couple of quid.

And so, I came by a copy of Whatevershebringswesing by Kevin Ayers. I wasn’t hugely in the market for a Kevin Ayres LP but I was curious and the price was right. The LP contains what what probably Ayer’s greatest hit,’Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes’ which sounded like Lou Reed might have done had he hailed from Canterbury. It wasn’t a track that was hugely appreciated by the general public. Ayers had been the Bass player in Soft Machine, he wasn’t exactly high profile. On the other hand he had credibility, he could write songs, sang in a baritone voice and was good looking. Over a five year period Ayers drifted slowly from fringe to more accessible thanks to virgin records who wanted to find a way to make records that sold. As is often the case it didn’t work and Ayers didn’t have the work ethic to change things, By the end of the decade he was spending most of his time drinking in Majorca and became increasingly resistant to coming out of his semi retirement.

By ‘Whatevershebringswesing’ Ayers was probably at his peak although that’s a relative term. Its captured in the beautiful languor of the title track, relaxed to the point of comatose it features Robert Wyatt on background vocals. Another musical highpoint is the guitar solo by Mike Oldfield who, at the time, was the touring bassist with Ayers’s band The Whole World.

My summers were as unfocussed as Ayers career. After purchasing the record I went to a favourite pub where I had a few pints before adjourning to a river bank where I had a little sleep in the sun. On the inner sleeve of the album Kevin is seen frolicking in the water with a young lady, I was on my own and kept my trousers on (Ayers is on the verge of a wardrobe malfunction) but I knew where he was coming from.

At the moment I am still selling off what’s left of my vinyl and Whatevershebringswesing is arousing quite a bit of interest, the highest offer so far is £12.50 and I’ve had interest from Holland. It might not seem much but I’ve had to sell for 99p recently so this is the big time for me. What usually happens is I let it go to final auction and sell for a lot less but I need some excitement in my life.

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Can Any Bands Career End Well??

I happened to watch ‘Long Time Running ‘on Netflix a couple of weeks back. If you aren’t already familiar with this ‘rockumentary’ it’s a chronical of the final tour by Canadian band The Tragically Hip, I wasn’t familiar with their work,but they appear to be massive, at least in Canada. At one point in the film guitarist Rob Baker unleashes an analogy about a band’s career being like a hot air balloon, it can rise very quickly but at some point its going to come crashing down with disastrous consequences.

So, I got to thinking, is it possible for any band to have a career that ends well?

For the purposes of getting a working definition of a happy ending I’ve come up with a few ground rules.1. The band has to keep at least the classic line up together no ‘Trigger’s Broom’ *cases where its just the original drummer and a roadie.2. No major litigation post break up.3. No reformations4. No Deaths

On the face of it, it doesn’t seem a huge ask but its just about impossible lets take a few genre based examples. Prog Rock for example,just about every line up has been through a load of permutations, King Crimson, Genesis,Camel etc etc. None of them have had stable line ups for any time, the classic bad example was Yes which had so many ex members they could form two separate bands at one time.

Let’s try an even more niche example, British ‘two tone’ bands. The Beat were in with a chance until they reformed not one but two bands with various ex members, the Specials fell started to fracture into a different band formed around main man Jerry Dammers only to split and reform decades later with all the original members (for a while) apart from the aforementioned Dammers. Madness almost make the grade but their keyboard player Mike Barson left in the 80’s before the band split prior to reforming with the original line up years later..

See, its impossible to find a band that ends well. I did think the Smiths might be a decent result but there was major legal action from  the rhythm section post split, I think one of them settled out of court and got a small pay out and the other toughed it out in court and got a far better settlement but I might be wrong. The fact is that most bands cant resist extending their career forever with various band members substitutions along the way.

And, of course, the bigger the band the bigger the crash. The Beatles have spent more time in court than they spent playing live. Zeppelin needed a death to stop them, the Who had two but carried on and the Stones have a similar approach to hiring supplementary musicians to keep the brand alive when needed. The Small Faces almost finished properly if not entirely amicably when they split at the end of the 60’s but they couldn’t resist staging a reformation a few years later which, of course, was never going to be as good as the original.

Of course, I’m sure there are plenty of smaller bands who had their time in the sun and then split up with a minimum of fuss and bother but perhaps the hot air balloon analogy does hold up, the higher the ascent the harder the fall.

Which brings us back to the Tragically Hip. The reason for the film of the tour was that front man Gord Dowie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, it was their last tour. One of the many tragedies coming out of this was the band was one of very few who might have ended well. They were all from the same town and same backgrounds. They had also done the thing that is more likely to keep a band together than anything else, namely they were all on the same wage. If there’s one thing guaranteed to drive a wedge between friends, its inequality. U2 knew that and they are probably the most stable band around, on a downside I think Coldplay have the same financial equality.

So, for any band who hopes to ‘make it’ (if such a thing still exists these days) in the music business, the simple message that it’s not going to end well, all evidence is against that happening, to be blunt though life doesn’t end well and we all get on with that.

So, think I have found two bands who might have kept the same line up and broken up with the minimum of fuss if not regret. Significantly they are three-piece bands whether it’s the specific dynamics of a trio or just less people to fall out with, they are…

Rush, I don’t know a lot about the band, I do know it’s not the original drummer either but lets be positive. The existed and then they split up, I hope I got that right because drummer Neil Peart died not long ago and if they hadn’t split up by then that would have disqualified them.

The Jam, I’m sure Rick and Bruce would have liked it to last a bit longer but they split, they never reformed and no one died.

Also,I’ve just thought the Talking Heads might qualify

And that’s as good as it gets

I’m sure I’ve missed someone, have I missed a band that ended ‘well’, if I did do let me know.

*I realise my international readers may not be fully up to strength with life lessons from UK 80’s comedy series to here is ‘Trigger’s Broom’

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19. Who Loves the Sun…Velvet Underground

We filter music, not only through out own memories but through our collective consciousness and then add a dash of time distortion for good measure.

Take the Beatles for example, they haven’t existed since 1970 but they are constantly being re-evaluated. In the 70’s Sergeant Pepper was pretty much universally accepted as their best album ever, if not the best album ever, no questions asked, we could still remember the 60’s and SP captured our collective memory of those heady days. Skip forward a decade of so and Revolver had taken the number one spot, to be honest it probably had better songs and the summer of love was a more distant memory and also Revolver helped pave the way for britpop in the 90’s. For a while there seemed to be a flirtation with the White Album as the Beatles top trumps but now we have settled into Abbey Rd as the pinnacle, apparently ‘here comes the sun’ is the most played Beatles track on Spotify and despite an over reliance of half arsed tracks Abbey Rd is the nearest they came to a modern sounding record which hasn’t really dated sonically in the same way as their earlier records..

If you had asked me in 1979 what my favourite albums were the Velvet Underground with Nico would have got a namecheck somewhere in the evaluation. Bear in mind that the only way to hear a record was to buy or borrow it, I cant recall a whole lot of that record being played on the radio. On the other hand it was possible to read about the band who had been namechecked many times by the emerging punk groups. I liked the sound of them, at least culturally and visually so as soon as I had some spare money I resolved to purchase a record all of my own.

For my first choice I was seriously wrongfooted. I had been playing in a band The Aerials and we covered Sweet Jane so that was one song I knew fairly well. Rock and Roll had also had the occasional radio play because it was a straight-ahead pop/rock song. Putting the two together influence my decision to buy Loaded, the last VU album to be released.

Basically it was a big disappointment , it’s the Velvets most mainstream album, its also an extremely watered down version of the band. Drummer Mo Tucker was pregnant so wasn’t keen on squeezing behind a drumkit. Guitarist Sterling Morrison was around but was taking advantage of the time based in New York to study a college course. Lou Reed was about to leave, in fact by the time the record was released in 1970 Lou was gone. The one person who was committed to the record was most recent member Doug Yule. Originally recruited to cover John Cale’s departure on bass and organ, Yule had expanded his CV to singing, playing guitar and even drumming when his brother Billy wasn’t around to cover for Tucker. The album is at its best when Reed is audibly involved as in ‘Sweet Jane’ or ‘Rock and Roll’. Its at its worse when Yule is singing about ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’ it’s a question of degree, both of them were involved and I think Reed later won some lawsuit that confirmed he wrote all the songs.

For me in 1978 it wasn’t enough, I wanted to hear something more than good natured songs and as soon as I had a bit more money, I bought the first album with all the songs they wouldn’t play on the radio, it was challenging and edgy, it was so 1978.

A couple of decades on and I was engaged in the ongoing commitment of feeding the iPod, I had retired my vinyl but I would head to Leicester City library at least weekly and take out a few CD’s which, if I liked them I would load into my little white box. I made some great discoveries but there was also the option of downloading some old favourites including the Velvet Underground with Nico. Twenty-five years on though the record had nothing for me. I knew every track off by heart but there was no feel good nostalgia just a record that I had listened to as many times in my life as I needed to. I didn’t download it.

On the other hand Loaded sounds fine now, I still think ‘I Found a Reason’ is terrible but the rest is a good listen.

There was one other reason I bought Loaded though. Radio North Sea International used to play ‘Who Loves the Sun’ regularly. Naively I didn’t realise that this song was totally unrepresentative of the general Velvet Underground catalogue. Its actually possible that there’s no one apart from Yule on this track, its hard to find anything aurally to suggest Morrison or Reed were involved. Its not edgy or challenging at all it’s a song the Beatles or the Turtles could have created in 1965 but it’s a lovely song which I can still enjoy to this day.

Which is more than I can say for ‘Heroin’ or ‘Venus in Furs’

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70’s Instrumentals…more Mike Oldfield

Mike Oldfield made a huge but slow burning impression with Tubular Bells and was to follow this up with more of the same (but possibly better) Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn. But, like any right thinking person, Oldfield couldn’t resister a cheeky stab or two at the singles charts.

After Tubular Bells Oldfield had retreated to his parents home apparently to build a duck pond but in reality to escape the pressures of being a performer which makes his singles career more bizarre. The formula was simple, take a fairly straightforward folky tune, play it on something fluty, bung in a bit of trademark Oldfield  guitar hopefully turn 2 ½ minutes of tunefulness into a hit single.

First out was In Dulci Jubilo a medieval sounding tune which for some reason evokes a Christmas spirit without actually being a Christmas song.That was just as well as Bohemian Rhapsody was dominating the charts, there was no room for a proper Christmas no 1 but Oldfield’s effort made it to No 4 by January and unlike Bohemian Rhapsody we weren’t all sick of it. 

The thing I really like about In Dulce Jubilo is how Oldfield’s guitar takes of half way through, he’s such a lyrical player that the solo is an integral part of the tune and lifts a fairly routineperformance into something far better than the sum of its parts.

https://youtu.be/VCvz7uflMIU

He followed this up with Portsmouth, a fairly straight forward run through of a traditional tune where the melody was carried on the recorder and built up in layers in the traditional Oldfield way. No guitar though, the tune doesn’t really go anywhere which is probably why its only 2 minutes long

https://youtu.be/8CCf7gvmDEU

Oldfield had a huge potential fanbase, there were the hard core rock fans attracted to the new stuff on the virgin record label but he was an intriguing character with his ability to overdub himself on a variety of instruments and he was at the forefront of what would soon be called ambient music. He had the potential to be represented on Radio’s 1,2,3,or 4 . Symptomatic to that was a request to provide the new theme music to long running children’s TV show Blue Peter. The show was tremendously popular but also quite conservative so asking any ‘pop’ musician to be involved was quite a big step. Oldfield gave the tune his traditional treatment but with a synthesiser instead of a recorder as the main instrument. It’s a slippery tune so Oldfield had to record the melody at half speed. Here is the inevitable Top of the Pops appearance with the almost equally inevitable dance routine from Legs and Co, apparently put together in 20 mins.

He was now in the consciousness of millions of children who would hear this twice a week.

As an unwanted bonus feature here is Oldfield playing the William Tell Overture. Its an impressive but fairly pointlessexercise which I’ve never seen before but is unmistakably Oldfield. The strange this is that post Covid the internet is full of people choosing to produce videos of themselves playing all sorts of tunes and looking an awful like Oldfield 40 years ago

. Perhaps the future really is past

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70s Instrumentals…..Mike Oldfield

Instrumentals in the 50’s and 60’s were nothing if not tuneful. The hopeful artiste had about two and a half minutes to make an impression and they couldn’t waste that time with anything that was less than a great lump of tunefulness.

By the 70’s things had moved on a bit, we were now used to extended instrumentation in  pieces of work, progressive bands were extending solos, the Who had produced a kind of opera with musical interludes which proved to be a breakthrough record. Most significantly LP’s were more important than singles and that meant there was a whole load more space for music.

A significant composer who pointed a possible way forward from instrumental music as being more than just a good tune was Terry Riley. ‘In C’ and ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ from 1964 and 1969 respectively were tremendously influential among a small group of forward looking musicians with the introduction of repetition using repeated groups of notes to set up layers of pulsating sound.

Along with Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, Riley produced a sort of dynamic ambient music. Compared with writing a conventional symphony it was pretty easy to emulate. Pete Townsend copied the approach for Baba O’Reily (a direct tribute in the name), by the mid 70’s sequencers would be able to reproduce Riley’s minimalist string of notes which made a whole lot of songs sound a whole lot better.

Around the time Townsend was emulating Riley’s work for the ‘Who’s Next’ album a young guitarist called Mike Oldfield had got a gig playing bass with ex Soft Machine Bass player Kevin Ayers who was enjoying a brief but fertile solo career. As well as getting to play assorted colleges and polytechnics around the country he also got to spend time at Abbey Rd Studios where he found plenty of time to tinker away at the plethora of instruments the studio had to offer.

Oldfield was very much a product of the early 70’s. His mother suffered enduring poor mental health and his own health was compromised by LSD. Oldfield was a pretty insecure introverted character who was happiest escaping into a world of his own music.The difference between him and a thousand other studio dabblers is that Oldfield was able to produce discernible pieces of music and get someone to listen them. Eventually he ended up at the Manor Studio, newly built by Richard Branson by virtue of his undouble skills as a session musician. Engineers Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth were able to recognise the potential of Oldfield’s sound pieces that he was working on in his spare time and persuaded Branson to allow some studio time.

Mostly he worked on his own, overdubbing track after track. This in itself proved to be quite a novel for the album which was to be called ‘Tubular Bells’, overdubbing had existed almost as long as recording but now there was the technology to support it and listeners were amazed at one man’s ability to play so many instruments. In fact most of the instruments were variation on guitars, mainly the same one with various treatments.

The enduring impact was down to more that Oldfield’s precocious talent on stringed instruments. Most notable was the piece that inevitably became known as the exorcist theme after it was picked up as music for the film which helped catapult Tubular Bells into public prominence. Here was a piece that seemed to emulate the work of Riley and is the most evocative piece on the record. Elsewhere there’s quite a lot of folky melodies, Oldfield had initially been in a folk duo with his sister Sally and throughout his career was prone to revisit bucolic tunes which inevitable gave him the chance to break out recorders and penny whistles.

By the mid 70’s it seemed like everybody under the age of 30 had a copy of Tubular Bells along with Dark side of the Moon. My mate Phil’s Sister had a copy which we would listen to whenever she was out, people were very touchy about their vinyl getting scratched. Although I heared to it quite a bit at a formative age it didn’t make a huge impression on me. There’s only one piece of music on the album that uses drums (which Oldfield couldn’t play) and at 15 there was a limit to how much recorder and marimba I wanted to listen to.

The other big centre piece of the record is the actual tubular bells theme. Narrated by Viv Stanshall who was next due to record in the studio, it’s a less funny version of the Bonzo’s intro and outro which he also featured on (and wrote). At first it was quite a novelty hearing the introduction of various instruments such as bagpipe guitar, but after a couple of listens it started to grate a bit. The final instrument to be added was the titular Tubular Bells which had probably been appropriated by Oldfield before being removed after a John Cale Session.

Listening to the album 35 years on its interesting how home recorded it sounds in the days of cut and paste and quantising of sounds. Bear in mind Oldfield had to play all of the instruments in real time and apparently there are about 2,000 ‘punch ins’ (ie corrections). That’s without slowing down of and speeding up of tapes to get different effects, it’s a testament to the skill of the engineers as well as the musician. It must have taken hours and hours of studio time which it takes a certain type of person to be able to endure. Its also interesting what a unique guitarist Oldfield is having an immediately identifiable sound (when he’s not messing about with it) which is almost devoid of any blues influence. The lack rhythm instruments seems strange now, the only drums are a brief appearance by Steve Broughton of the Edgar Broughton band, we are so used to the availability of drums whether by machine or sampled that a lot of the time it just sounds like this is a rough cut waiting for a rhythm track.

That’s part of the appeal of Tubular Bells though it’s the imperfections which would be ironed out when Oldfield’ s music entered the next decade. The record helped establish the Virgin empire but there was no where left to go. The next record Hergest Ridge was criticised for being too much like Tubular Bells and the last time I really listened to an Oldfield LP was 1979’s Incantations whch seemed to have a lot of choirs on it.

By that time Oldfield himself had undergone some sort of personal transformation following a self growth Exgenesis seminar. I hope it did him good as to the casual observer he’s become a bit of an arse, leaving Britain because of the smoking ban and living in various tax havens and supporting Donald Trump.

No matter how many years have passed he couldn’t escape Tubular Bells. The sleeve is iconic and now synonymous with Mike Oldfield the brand. He’s revived it on two occasions with tubular bells II and III which have revived the format with contemporary technology which is kind of interesting but neither better of worse than the originals. Recognising the lost potential of the original recordings some older tunes have been enhanced with state of the art (ie soon to go out of date) as Tubular Beats, so far he has resisted tubular grime or tubular dubstep but even on reduced tax he funds might need topping up at some point in the future.

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70s Instrumentals…..Mike Oldfield

Instrumentals in the 50’s and 60’s were nothing if not tuneful. The hopeful artiste had about two and a half minutes to make an impression and they couldn’t waste that time with anything that was less than a great lump of tunefulness.

By the 70’s things had moved on a bit, we were now used to extended instrumentation in  pieces of work, progressive bands were extending solos, the Who had produced a kind of opera with musical interludes which proved to be a breakthrough record. Most significantly LP’s were more important than singles and that meant there was a whole load more space for music.

A significant composer who pointed a possible way forward from instrumental music as being more than just a good tune was Terry Riley. ‘In C’ and ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’ from 1964 and 1969 respectively were tremendously influential among a small group of forward looking musicians with the introduction of repetition using repeated groups of notes to set up layers of pulsating sound.

Along with Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, Riley produced a sort of dynamic ambient music. Compared with writing a conventional symphony it was pretty easy to emulate. Pete Townsend copied the approach for Baba O’Reily (a direct tribute in the name), by the mid 70’s sequencers would be able to reproduce Riley’s minimalist string of notes which made a whole lot of songs sound a whole lot better.

Around the time Townsend was emulating Riley’s work for the ‘Who’s Next’ album a young guitarist called Mike Oldfield had got a gig playing bass with ex Soft Machine Bass player Kevin Ayers who was enjoying a brief but fertile solo career. As well as getting to play assorted colleges and polytechnics around the country he also got to spend time at Abbey Rd Studios where he found plenty of time to tinker away at the plethora of instruments the studio had to offer.

Oldfield was very much a product of the early 70’s. His mother suffered enduring poor mental health and his own health was compromised by LSD. Oldfield was a pretty insecure introverted character who was happiest escaping into a world of his own music.The difference between him and a thousand other studio dabblers is that Oldfield was able to produce discernible pieces of music and get someone to listen them. Eventually he ended up at the Manor Studio, newly built by Richard Branson by virtue of his undouble skills as a session musician. Engineers Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth were able to recognise the potential of Oldfield’s sound pieces that he was working on in his spare time and persuaded Branson to allow some studio time.

Mostly he worked on his own, overdubbing track after track. This in itself proved to be quite a novel for the album which was to be called ‘Tubular Bells’, overdubbing had existed almost as long as recording but now there was the technology to support it and listeners were amazed at one man’s ability to play so many instruments. In fact most of the instruments were variation on guitars, mainly the same one with various treatments.

The enduring impact was down to more that Oldfield’s precocious talent on stringed instruments. Most notable was the piece that inevitably became known as the exorcist theme after it was picked up as music for the film which helped catapult Tubular Bells into public prominence. Here was a piece that seemed to emulate the work of Riley and is the most evocative piece on the record. Elsewhere there’s quite a lot of folky melodies, Oldfield had initially been in a folk duo with his sister Sally and throughout his career was prone to revisit bucolic tunes which inevitable gave him the chance to break out recorders and penny whistles.

By the mid 70’s it seemed like everybody under the age of 30 had a copy of Tubular Bells along with Dark side of the Moon. My mate Phil’s Sister had a copy which we would listen to whenever she was out, people were very touchy about their vinyl getting scratched. Although I heared to it quite a bit at a formative age it didn’t make a huge impression on me. There’s only one piece of music on the album that uses drums (which Oldfield couldn’t play) and at 15 there was a limit to how much recorder and marimba I wanted to listen to.

The other big centre piece of the record is the actual tubular bells theme. Narrated by Viv Stanshall who was next due to record in the studio, it’s a less funny version of the Bonzo’s intro and outro which he also featured on (and wrote). At first it was quite a novelty hearing the introduction of various instruments such as bagpipe guitar, but after a couple of listens it started to grate a bit. The final instrument to be added was the titular Tubular Bells which had probably been appropriated by Oldfield before being removed after a John Cale Session.

Listening to the album 35 years on its interesting how home recorded it sounds in the days of cut and paste and quantising of sounds. Bear in mind Oldfield had to play all of the instruments in real time and apparently there are about 2,000 ‘punch ins’ (ie corrections). That’s without slowing down of and speeding up of tapes to get different effects, it’s a testament to the skill of the engineers as well as the musician. It must have taken hours and hours of studio time which it takes a certain type of person to be able to endure. Its also interesting what a unique guitarist Oldfield is having an immediately identifiable sound (when he’s not messing about with it) which is almost devoid of any blues influence. The lack rhythm instruments seems strange now, the only drums are a brief appearance by Steve Broughton of the Edgar Broughton band, we are so used to the availability of drums whether by machine or sampled that a lot of the time it just sounds like this is a rough cut waiting for a rhythm track.

That’s part of the appeal of Tubular Bells though it’s the imperfections which would be ironed out when Oldfield’ s music entered the next decade. The record helped establish the Virgin empire but there was no where left to go. The next record Hergest Ridge was criticised for being too much like Tubular Bells and the last time I really listened to an Oldfield LP was 1979’s Incantations whch seemed to have a lot of choirs on it.

By that time Oldfield himself had undergone some sort of personal transformation following a self growth Exgenesis seminar. I hope it did him good as to the casual observer he’s become a bit of an arse, leaving Britain because of the smoking ban and living in various tax havens and supporting Donald Trump.

No matter how many years have passed he couldn’t escape Tubular Bells. The sleeve is iconic and now synonymous with Mike Oldfield the brand. He’s revived it on two occasions with tubular bells II and III which have revived the format with contemporary technology which is kind of interesting but neither better of worse than the originals. Recognising the lost potential of the original recordings some older tunes have been enhanced with state of the art (ie soon to go out of date) as Tubular Beats, so far he has resisted tubular grime or tubular dubstep but even on reduced tax he funds might need topping up at some point in the future.

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70s Instrumentals….Rock

There were 9 entirely instrumental number ones in the UK chart in the 1950’s. The 60’s had even more, ten to be precise. By the 70’s there was two. The 80’s saw a complete drought and after that there’s been a couple every decade.

Number one hits don’t tell the story of a decade, believe me, the 70’s were more interesting musically than a version of Amazing Grace by the Scots Dragoon Guards would suggest; but there’s a pretty clear indication that instrumentals are not as popular now as the 60’s though.

A major reason for the 60’s glut were the Shadows, pre-Beatles they were the most significant group in Britain by a very long way. They had no less than 4 number one records in that decade. All of these before 1963 when the fab four side lined them considerably. By the end of the decade band members Bruce Welch and Hank Marvin were producing CSNY type vocal tracks, the twangy guitar forgotten for a while. The band has cast a long shadow in just a few years though, there weren’t many teenage guitarists in the early 60’s who hadn’t spent a lot of bedroom time copying Kon-Tiki or Apache.

By the 70’s those Teenagers might be in successful bands and a small piece of the Shadows might be carried on into the next decade. It was still considered   pretty acceptable for people considered to be rock artists to put out an instrumental single and sometimes to get at least a minor hit in the process.

I’ve already written about Dutch group Focus too much, but they were significant in having two instrumental singles in quick succession and Sylvia, at least, channelled the spirit of the Shadows.

https://thefutureispast.co.uk/2020/05/10/13sylvia-focus/

Another notable piece of rock instrumental snuck it’s way into the UK charts and disappeared again but survived the rest of the 70’s thanks to radio 1 DJ Alan Freeman who was the nearest the BBC had to a hard rock DJ and who I listened to more than I really wanted to because he broadcast on Saturday afternoons. Freeman would intersperse short musical clips as jingles and a 5 second burst on ‘Frankenstein’ would be repeated and repeated. I still have no idea how the song really goes beyond the theme but it does give me the chance to share possibly the most outrageous Old Grey Whistle Test performance ever.

Warning, this clip contains drum solos

https://youtu.be/4WFfqEjEkZo

Funkier still was Billy Preston’s  single Outa Space, low on tune, high on funk, Preston’s clavinet groove was never really intended as a single (it was initially a B side) but DJs  loved it and it got to number 2 in the states. Probably too funky for the UK in 1971 though. The Commodores distilled its essence for Machine Gun a couple of years later

Who doesn’t love a drum solo ? Sandy Nelson and the Surfaris has already had drum featuring instrumentals in the 50s/60s. Pop producer Micky Most had already scored an unlikely hit for Jeff Beck and decided he would do the same thing for one-time Beck employee Cozy Powell. This time there would be no attempts at coxing a musician to sing. Powell’s first and biggest hit is a drum solo instrumental which managed to lift Hendrix’s ‘Third Stone form the Sun’ without any legal action, they were the days!

Powell was a rare example of a celebrity drummer, for a while he was all over TV whether it was Top of the Pops or kids shows. He didn’t stick with anything long moving from pop stardom to bands like Rainbow and Sabbath before being killed in a car accident.

A strange anthropological feature about the Scots is that musically they tend to look to USA rather than England. The Average White Band was their disparaging name for a group of Scottish guys who wanted to play funk and soul. Luckily, no one had invented cultural appropriation and the band were able to just get on with doing what they loved. 

Pick up the Pieces is a piece of James Brown influenced funk with a slippery horn line. It was the first time I had heard music like this, and it took me a while to appreciate it, bear in mind previous instrumentals had been Eye Level by the Simon Park Orchestra and the aforementioned AmazingGrace so this was something of a cultural leap. Unfortunately the drummer on this track, Robbie McIntosh, died shortly afterwards from  cocaine  laced with strychnine which rather tempered the achievement of a great instrumental hit which seems to sound better, in no small part to McIntosh’s drumming, every year that passes.

The 50’s saw two number one hits in quick succession with the same tune (Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White). Its hard to imaging that sort of appetite for a tune anymore. I’m sure out there there are loads of instrumental tracks being created in home studios. The last British number 1 from 2013 is one such track. Animals by Marin Garrix is a huge sounding track which at one point features a synth sound not a million miles away from ‘Popcorn’ recorded over 40 years earlier. Unsurprisingly, given the history of continental Europe in instrumental music, Garrix is Dutch. Animals hasn’t got a great melody its not the sort of thing that your milkman would whistle, modern composers have a lot more tools at their disposals especially in texture and rhythmic options which means that the tune no longer has to be the main thing.

And the tune based instrumental is now as endangered as the milkman.

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