Archives for the month of: October, 2012

Minelli, better than The Stone Roses in 1989 according to actual music journalists.

This started off as a brief comment then became a short article. Later it merged with another idea but then detached itself again to become what can be found below these italics. Apologies for any structural inaccuracies that may occur as a result. It’s very difficult to check for these errors when you’re not sure what you want your final outcome to be anyway.

What is the album of the year? It used to be a mystery until the December publication of various music magazines and other sources. Actually, there would only be a couple of lists worth checking. Others you knew were being perused because liking music beyond a certain point is quite an anal activity. As a result I would always want to know what my subscribed music magazine’s favourite albums of the year were. This was initially the Record Mirror getting me into Big Audio Dynamite by making their debut release ‘This IS…’ their album of the year of 1985, of course they were wrong about that and should have given it to Prefab Sprout or The Jesus and Mary Chain. The Record Mirror just wasn’t left field enough (though they would have loved Leftfield) and in 1989 they felt The Stone Roses debut album was only the 6th best album of the year. I’d be willing to state that they might have had a point with hindsight and yet records reveal that they put Liza Minelli’s ‘Results’ at 5 and never paid any attention to their opinions again. Subsequently I would switch between the Melody Maker and NME quite regularly but really both Xmas issues would be purchased for this very anal of activities. I’d also look at Sounds to see what they said although their goth tendencies always threw my wary suspicion on the lists…Rose of Avalanche, you say? Hmm…

When throwing ourselves over to listings we are basically giving up judgement in case we make errors and we instead depend on the opinions of others to form our own. This would be an annual issue and has been furthered by many more monthly magazines coming into the equation, then there’s websites and blogs. Now we have lists every 6 months just in case you want to catch up in advance and there is also Album of the Year, a website dedicated to key reviews of albums and producing an average percentage rating based on the reviews it has covered or is allowed to cover. As a result, you can tell at a glance what the album of the year would be if the year were to stop immediately. Currently it looks like Frank Ocean is holding off Swans – an enduring image or possibly an ill-conceived metaphor for the former’s sexuality issues which he left off the album. Want to know what the best rap album of the year is? Well, there’s a separate section for that. Want to go out or stay in and find out about new music using your own wits? Well, this site can still be of interest but shouldn’t be a crutch. The discerning music obsessive needs to be more attentive to certain details.

Facts emerge – rap albums may get slated but regularly seem to average higher than indiekid or hipster music – why are the reviewers universal within the genre? The top albums often have great power and impact but I honestly don’t see the songs emerging either from the second most famous Ocean in pop or Swans’ low growling genius. I am writing about Swans album before actually getting around to buying it – but I feel it’s fairly safe to make these claims. The opposite of low growling genius has to be white indiepop. It’ll never average above 80% because it is always so-so. So why do people buy so much of it? None of it seems to sell a lot of copies anymore but there will be about 3 new quite good albums of it to choose from every week. By the end of the year, the songs have made their mark and these albums which will be 20th best of the year in April, miraculously hold that position through the rest of the year despite a few albums released since April being above them in the chart. Surely this is a flaw in logic. Yes, but more than that, listing and number scores will always produce flawed results. Also, there will always be average which groups everything in together. So far this year on AOTY, 85% would get 5th place but 82% might not make the top 25. Are a bunch of 20 or 30-somethings opinions ever going to be that exact a science? I’d like to think not and at, some level, I would imagine they would too as it would leave them open to further Portlandia satire – not that that hasn’t happened already to Pitchfork. Maybe they will go for Album of the Year next.

Yes, the facts seem to be that the highest average scores for albums in a year may also reflect the albums which journalists are scared to put down. Any old indie crap can be slagged off in a review or two, lowering their average into the 70s but would those same journalists dare to claim that Frank Ocean’s album leaves little in the memory afterwards even if it sounds good when it’s on? How do you go about claiming that the massive Swans package, a summation of the career of a genuinely frightening group, might not be any cop? Occasional anomalies break through and I have no idea why they and readers think the Grizzly Bear album is so good when the reality is that it seems to drift after 4 or 5 songs and shows distinct dangers of heading towards the stadiums to become the thinking hipster’s Coldplay. It is interesting to note that, while site users agree that Tame Impala and Kendrick Lamar have produced 2 of the best 5 albums of the year, they don’t feel as moved by Ocean, Swans or Fiona Apple. This is in no way surprising and yet while it allows Grizzly Bear to move into the 5, the users’ ratings seem to also go a little left field by selecting the Burial EP and Lost in the Trees.

The Hipster Coldplay? Certainly not very grizzly anyway, unlike…

Proper grizzly and probably more of a Swans fan.

The problem with basing album of the year on reviews is that they have no ability to sense the album’s impact. They may be written when the band is unknown but they may become huge by the end of the year. I don’t recall the first Stone Roses getting superb reviews when it first appeared in May 1989, good but not superb. Its reissue is described as divine though. Even ‘The Second Coming’ seems to get a lot of critical sympathy these days. The current desire for immediacy cannot be healthy and also allows music journalists to truly set trends and leave those inconvenient punters out of it. In this world Shack albums will get attention rather than disappearing once the excellent review has been published. Can any more bands ever be allowed to fall through the cracks? Or will the cracks get bigger if an 80% average is needed to be among the top 25 for a year. However, aren’t lost bands just exceptions to a rule which generally seemed to get rid of most of the rubbish…most! Besides, for me, this still fails to explain the users’ love of Lost in the Trees. Maybe people still genuinely and sincerely appreciate music, maybe it’s the tragic personal history behind the album which grabs people more than journalists or maybe this really isn’t an exact science and I should drop it. After all, I’m not sure the sales of this album have shot up due to its continued status as a reader favourite.

Another factor negating lists can be that an album still finds itself on rotation and getting notice 8 or 9 months after its February release but a lauded album reviewed in November doesn’t have to hang around in the reviewer’s mind for as long to make the top ten and, equally, that November slow burner only gets appreciated during the following year. It makes you wonder why some groups seem to have a policy of deliberately avoiding the lists with some albums that are released in December and also cynically releasing albums in January that might be get lost in October, but with little competition now receive album of the month plaudits. This is precisely why lists don’t work in my view. I cannot compare the Tame Impala album that I’ve been listening to for a couple of weeks or so with The Twilight Sad album I got in January. Reviews suggest the latter to be weaker and yet, until the Tame Impala album becomes more familiar, the former seems to have the best tunes. If a January album is the best album of the year then surely a great album released in October can only be fully appreciated almost halfway into the following year.

Lists, for me, are indicative of a more worrying trend. Liking music is now a quaint obsession and terribly polite with it. Few albums seem to score less than 50% and so the website also reveals to us that no music is shit anymore, which is possibly the opposite of many viewpoints on the matter. I don’t expect musicians to be dead before they hit 25 and to boast of criminal records even if the polite set likes its rappers to do so. No, it’s more of an issue with opinion, division, discussion and the following essential truth about music: MY FAVOURITE BAND ARE BETTER THAN YOUR FAVOURITE BAND! Believing anything else makes for unworthy viewpoints to be expressed. We don’t have to hate each other’s choices but there must surely be disagreement rather than clusters of hipsters at festivals discussing how good everything is. There is an economic downturn; we therefore need to use taste to cull some of the chaff that has crept into our lives with its 73% award and vaguely comforting songs that we can’t remember. This is supposed to be music that we care about, not just another disposable consumer item. People who want to discuss consumer culture are on the rise and seem unable to live without this year’s mobile, maybe they are the ones to blame for turning music appreciation into a meaningless trial by list and review.

I hope to continue trying to put substance into my music use rather than substance abuse into my music. I will of course be preparing my own end of year list which will be similar to the others. Apologies in advance to Swans then, as your album costs 250 pesos on iTunes, I’m going to get it for under a tenner from the UK and brought over in a suitcase by my mother. As she arrives on December 14th, the only way that Swans album can make the top ten is to be on endless repeat over the festive period. Much as I love that idea, it probably won’t be happening.

Back in the summer of 1988, strange things were happening to my musical taste which was otherwise hell-bent on a C86 indie obsession that wouldn’t let up. However, I had also bought ‘Trout Mask Replica’ and developed an interest in Rubble. The Rubble series of compilations of mid-late 60s obscurities seemed to attract me because of the naiveté of the whole experience, much like the C86 fanzine thing. The lyrics of these 60s tunes could be obscure, the production terrible but certain qualities shone through which appealed to me. The first Rubble album I bought was volume 14, ‘The Magic Rocking Horse’. However, before even getting around to buying a Rubble album, I stumbled across a cheap sampler album from the same label, Bam-Caruso, in Shrewsbury’s dependable but unappealing branch of Our Price. Actually, all branches of Our Price were fairly dependable but unappealing much like the bland suburbs and towns where they could be found. If the shopping was so-so, then the town shall have an Our Price; if the shopping were slightly better then there will be HMV!!!

The sampler in question was called ‘It’s Only a Passing Phaze’ (Ha-ha! ‘Phaze’ not phase! Like, wow, man!!!) and cost but a mere couple of quid. At the time this seemed good value to my tightly funded existence of the time, but on reflection it may have led to countless further vinyl, CD, box sets and now faulty downloads being purchased. It may still be the only place where John’s Children’s version of ‘Hippy Gumbo’ can be found on vinyl even though Bolan did it later with Tyrannosaurus Rex. Not that anyone cares.

The compilation album seems to be a dying art these days as downloading tracks for under a quid means no-one is going to realistically believe that they will want everything on most compilations and so instead they take the pick ‘n’ mix approach presumably as they can no longer have that experience at Woolworths, so people download for nostalgic reasons…well, I am talking about downloading a 1970 album which I heard a track off when I was 16 and now want when I’m 40, so yes! Anyway, compilations used to be significant if they were good – ‘C86’, ‘Pillows and Prayers’, ‘Doing It for the Kids’ or ‘Lonely is an Eyesore’. Often they were rarely attempted by a label but would then be sold for a few years afterwards as an introduction to their wares. Creation Records managed several legendary compilations before they disappeared into Oasis-dullness. These compilations led people, well…me, into exploring more Creation bands, these bands might then have greater sales of their next release and so the compilation had done its job.

If the above model for the Creation compilation is the norm, then presumably each record buyer will easily be able to select their favourite compilations by simply judging how many albums they bought by artists on said compilation. ‘In Love With These Times’ was a Flying Nun label compilation that has meant that I automatically look favourably on independent music that comes from New Zealand, Sub Pop 200 did the same for Seattle and probably inspired more than a million further sales. Though ‘It’s Only a Passing Phaze’ may have had a more limited impact on the wider music world, it directly led to my purchase of 10 albums featuring some of the 15 songs on it. That’s a pretty good ratio. Other comps tended to feature at least a track or two that I already owned but not this one. This one led to my rather strange and anal obsession with late 60s obscurities like ‘Tamaris Khan’ by The Onyx and, most importantly for this piece, ‘When You’re Dead’ by The Ghost.

Now, a little research (err…thanks tells us that The Ghost were a Birmingham band set up by a former member of The Velvet Fogg, joined by a local folk singer and the drummer would later end up in Wizzard. All highly fascinating stuff – have I really spent almost 25 years searching for a recording featuring the drummer from ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’? Apparently I have and am now deeply concerned for my mental well-being. Roy Wood of Wizzard once entered a record shop in Shrewsbury where a friend worked, my friend rather pathetically said: “Are you going to be releasing your Christmas single again this year, Roy?” to which Roy Wood replied “F**k off!” and left the shop never to return. Let’s be clear, I sympathise with Roy in this anecdote. Ramble, ramble, ramble…

Right, back on task again, The Ghost track stuck out to me from the rest of the material on the compilation for sounding so other-worldly, in part due to its poor quality mastering, presumably straight from vinyl once their original Gemini label disappeared in a fog of joss sticks. It’s an up-tempo number led by an eerie 3 note Hammond organ motif and almost a Motown drumbeat. Most of the rhythm section is recorded in an inaudible blur and the vocals distort during all the multi-tracked harmonies. Part of the reason for the blurred sound may be the overwhelming hum of a Hammond high in the mix. Essentially, it feels like listening in on a secret recording of witches, albeit witches jamming in a late 60s west coast style. To this day, I cannot decipher more than the odd word from the lyrics – something about “Jonah”? The guitar emerges for a west coast solo but otherwise remains buried with everything else in the mix. The overall effect is hypnotic and slightly bewildering as the listener is left thinking ‘who made this and why?’ or possibly ‘who bought this and why?’ The song begins on an offbeat but at full speed which is maintained and even intensified by the time of the equally sudden ending which causes the song to almost disappear during what should have been its glorious finale. It’s all ominous build which ultimately leads us nowhere. If all prog sounded like this, it would never have been described as boring.

It sounds a little reminiscent of ‘Evil Hoodoo’ by The Seeds, only faster and with the fun and the style taken out. Perhaps ‘Silver Machine’ also sounds similar though recorded slightly later. It seems defiantly anti-commercial and cultish as if a wannabe Manson Family have got it together to record an album in their barn but for some reason set the instruments up outside the barn…in a different field.

‘When You’re Dead’ was the first song from this area of music that I truly loved. Many more were to follow once I’d fully explored the Rubble catalogue which I now have on 2 10CD box sets. The Ghost set me off on a long line of similarly unsuccessful groups from Wimple Winch to Fire and songs as hopelessly ridiculous as ‘Neville Thumbcatch’. However, none really matched The Ghost’s sole single for genuine weirdness then or since.

As I was new to the whole obscure 60s crate digging concept back then, I assumed that The Ghost would be fairly easy to buy. After all, another of their album tracks, ‘The Castle Has Fallen’ turned up on my first Rubble compilation mentioned earlier and purchased in Cirencester. However, at around the same time that I was discovering their old Rubble releases, the Bam-Caruso label seemed to be going through some of the financial problems which many small labels experienced back then when distribution networks would collapse from time to time. The Ghost album which they reissued seemed entirely impossible to get hold of within 6 months of its release though it did reappear on a slightly different label in 1991. Since then nothing seemed to appear on my radar though there was a vinyl reissue in 1999 which I missed before the album reappeared on vinyl from the original Gemini label and CD from Mellotron of Italy. However, my Mexican iTunes version is credited to Tam-Tam Media 2009 and it doesn’t work properly.

I heartily recommend getting hold of the title track but am sad to report that the iTunes version of the whole album seems incomplete as the promising sounding ‘Night of the Warlock’ is cut short and it is possible to detect a classic needle jump on one track. iTunes were most efficient in helping with this problem and did provide a full refund which is appreciated though the album remains as elusive as the horse in The Byrds’ ‘Chestnut Mare’. However, from what I can tell having listened to the album a couple of times, nothing on there comes close to ‘When You’re Dead’ for sounding so of its time and so unique too.

I suppose I must have had some consciousness of The Fall as far back as 1985 from mentions in the Record Mirror. ‘L.A.’ might have been the first Fall song I heard but the memory didn’t take hold as much as a later encounter. An early summer holiday in Devon in 1986 led to me having just an AM radio for company at the point where I desperately wanted to hear and absorb more new music. I can recall a Thursday night – possibly the night we arrived at the seafront house in Torcross – and a radio reception that made lots of interesting high-pitched sounds due to the proximity of the sea. At least, that was always how I understood it. I’ve been looking around for an appropriate word or phrase for these ghostly sounds but have failed to find one. Googling ‘ghostly AM radio howling’ just leads to lots of hackneyed lyrics related to memories which are of course vastly inferior to a piece of writing like this. I always hoped ‘wow and flutter’ might apply, but it doesn’t. This was always worse when there was no music and so John Peel’s usual seemingly random mutterings seemed to almost encourage single syllable words for clarity. That may be why I made out the name ‘The Fall’ amidst a description of the next song and some half-remembered reference made me stay listening.

The song was ‘Living Too Late’ and when I finally got it on the cassette of ‘Bend Sinister’ a few months later, it was obvious to me that I had liked something which had a tune I couldn’t remember. I may have just liked the line ‘crow’s feet are engraved on my face’ which might have been mentioned in a review I had seen. It’s hard to tell as I clearly just got a feeling from this listening experience and that would be a familiar feeling over the next 26 years. That summer seemed to allow the idea of a tune or a style to grow. The trip to Devon would not see any further development of Fall-love but did also see me by the double 7” of ‘Some Candy Talking’ by the Jesus and Mary Chain in the Dartmouth Woolworths. Why, when we went on holiday, did we always have to visit towns where I spent hours wandering backwards and forwards around John Menzies, Woolworths and the inevitable Our Price? – and they didn’t even seem to have them in Devon . I think a review also prompted the JAMC purchase though the novelty attraction of a double 7” certainly did no harm.

Come September, I wanted more obscure records than Oswestry would ever provide – well, at that time certainly. During the previous school year I had ordered a 7” single through a friend at school: Wait for the Blackout by The Damned. Now I decided to take this further and ordered a further couple of 7” singles: ‘Almost Prayed’ by The Weather Prophets (a classic possibly also first heard in Devon with added AM effects possibly provided by the sea, the atmosphere or even the ground according to my brief bit of radio wave research) and ‘Mr. Pharmacist’ by The Fall.

‘Mr Pharmacist’ excited me. It came in a really interesting sleeve with little bits of information and obscure references all over the back, as did all Fall releases in those days. It was certainly a beguiling way for me to be enlisted into this cult of fans – look, James!…lists of things and stuff! Yep, that hooked me. I can recall looking at it while awaiting a check up at the dentists on Salop Road. That set out like it was going to be a profound memory and yet it really isn’t, just a small moment stored away ever since.

The actual song itself (finally!) also excited. It felt like slow punk rock or like slow punk rock was supposed to feel as I understood it then: less frantic than a shouted manifesto lasting three minutes and yet more sure of itself and defiantly militant – yet decidedly apolitical. It felt ominous as well as fun to be involved in, though that may just be my idea of fun. It was drugged but not druggy despite seeming to be about a dealer or just a pharmacist selling over-the-counter ‘legal’ highs. The production sounds like it was an afterthought, but any Fall fan soon gets used to that. After all, this song was from an album that was mastered from a C90 cassette and probably an extra-brown ferric Memorex cassette at that. What impresses me most about ‘Mr. Pharmacist’ is that it manages to sound exactly like the original by 60s garage band The Other Half and exactly like a Fall song at the same time. It brings to mind the classic John Peel quote about the group:  “The Fall: always the same; always different.” This also points to the fact that the song sounds like it belongs in 1986, a garage band from the mid to late 60s and yet its punk spirit oozes the late 70s. Of course it would also sound at home in the future within the later sounds of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the inevitable White Stripes. Now, it could be the sound of yet another Ty Segall single, if he could summon up the undercurrent of malice suggested by Mark E. Smith’s vocals. In The Fall’s version of this song, you suspect the pharmacist might get done over for his product if he doesn’t comply with the singer’s wishes whereas the original suggests the group might be chased off by an ageing pharmacist wielding a broom or shaking a fist at those cheeky monkeys. The Fall’s pharmacist would of course be a chemist and therefore probably wondering why this sarcastic-sounding Salfordian fiend is addressing him as ‘Mr.Pharmacist’ while his band members are in the background throwing items from the shelves at each other. It’s the scene in the shop from ‘This is England’ without any racist overtones – you can’t technically be racist if you feel contempt for everyone as it sounds like MES does, it’s a more universal version of unpleasantness.

The opening syllable is uttered without the band, they come in on the second. This is the same on the original yet here it sounds deliberate rather than ramshackle, or possibly deliberately ramshackle? That seems almost a neat summary of The Fall’s entire recorded history. As a result of the band’s late entry, they seem to spend the rest of the first half of the song trying to catch up with the vocals. They almost seem to achieve this with a slight reggae lilt to their developing competence. Of course, in reality, being in The Fall generally meant trying to keep up with Mark E. Smith and his whims and sometimes having to do so while he tried to unplug the bass guitar…live…mid-song.  Maybe the reggae lilt is false confidence or an attempt to skip a note of two as the band only truly sound comfortable during the sped up break in the middle – as perfect for an indie disco wigout as it would have been for the 60s version possibly first experienced via The Count Five’s ‘Psychotic Reaction’. The Other Half’s original borrows the wigout and adds the customary garage band harmonica (something for the singer to do while the real musicians are playing?). The Fall have no harmonica, punk rock generally shuns them. Once we get back to normal speed, it seems like the band have caught up with the vocals and the song really does seem to have developed its swagger now and so it ends. I can’t imagine MES tolerating a band swaggering behind him for long without a good kicking being administered. The song ends as it began – this seems to be dictated by Mark E.Smith and the sudden, shuddering stop suggests his absolute control.

The original song sounds like some guys hanging out and having a joke and some fun, The Fall’s version doesn’t. The original song sounds like it was recorded for a keg party. The Fall sound more like they have been taught to follow using this track and maybe it was a way of introducing new drummer Simon Wolstencroft to the methods of his new band or, more pointedly, his new band leader.

I could go on to discuss the b-side, but that’s never a sentence opening designed to encourage readers or audiences to declare “Oh please do!” unless sarcastically. Also, said b-side appears to be one of the few Fall songs I don’t own digitally but the title alone backs up my points about malice or the threatening tone of The Fall: ‘Lucifer Over Lancashire’.

Liking The Fall became a badge of mine very soon after this point. Liking The Smiths seemed easy, but this lot of Mancs were a different kettle of fish and suggested a private club rather than the Salford Lads Club. There was definitely an element of pretension there but a worthy one. Better to be pretentious about music like this than many of the other 80s options. I shudder involuntarily at the hint of a memory of once considering Lloyd Cole ‘deep’. Of course, Lloyd Cole’s brain and face are actually made out of cowpat, everyone knows that – according to Mark E. Smith in one of his more famous putdowns.