Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia – 1978)

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The impetuosity of youth led to a pseudo-rebellion which dismissed Springsteen, nay ‘The Boss’, as some kind of relic of eighties excess and saccharine stadium rock and as a covert representative of The Man, jeans manufacturers and a gauche shiny commercialism. That could never sit well with first my teenage allegiance to Britpop’s fey heroes and later the post-rock cult champions which would define my attempts at defining a casual outsider chic in place of a personality. How could it not? The arrogance of the cover of ‘Born in the USA’; the gasping, seemingly outmoded saxophone which sounded nothing like anything that would possibly reach into a musical era enamoured with the whimsy of The Kinks or reimagining The Beatles through Noddy Holder’s nonsensical lense of communal stomp. There was also sense that this may well be a man who your mother found deeply sexually attractive. It said nothing to me about my life as The Smiths nearly sang, yet Springsteen’s career peak could just about be one the most quintessential albums that would connect with a young man growing up in a crumbling post-industrial town and a faltering desire to explore a romanticism he could barely articulate.

While ‘Born to Run’ was of course my way in, for not loving the title track is probably akin to saying you dislike the laughter of children or the concept of joy, replete with a groove the jet propulsion of a fifties B-movie soundtracked by Phil Spector, it’s the innate questioning of what comes after the first rush of romance that runs central to ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, for as sure as that first teenage love is the greatest rush of your life, the sickening come down and facing up to reality of life in a chokingly small town is just as necessary to growing up. ‘Born to Run’ may have adrenaline rush of ‘She’s The One’, but the melancholic sob for the barely realised expectations of a youth filled with a desire to escape in ‘Racing in the Street’ spoke far more of life’s realities. Yet irrespective of the lyrical concerns, it seems implausible that an album which glistens in reverb and irrepressible energy could have not moved a teenage heart so intent on discovering the new, had it only been given a chance.

One of the album’s most striking qualities is the sense of yearning which shoots through its heart, be that for an escape from small town blues or sheer sexual energy. Opener ‘Badlands’ plays like a fanfare but reads like call to arms against forces of greed and self-interest, while ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ is a furious portrait of working class life, with violence bred from desperation and an inability to articulate fury at the world. The title track and album closer explores this same theme with an inescapable melancholy of a town falling apart and the working man of ‘Factory’ losing his identity at the hands of an ever changing economic landscape. It’s of course a theme which seems a relevant now as it ever did then but the North East of England has been in decline from my earliest memory, so why couldn’t that have had a resonance with my instinctually and indoctrinated teenage socialist self?

Of course what that version of myself could not have possibly come to terms with is the fact that this album, for all it has a dark heart, has a sexual energy to it that I’ll perhaps never be able to articulate. The adrenaline rush as the drums kick in on ‘Candy’s Room’, the way that Bruce croons ‘I’m a liar’ on ‘Streets on Fire’ like he’s just invented seduction and that he can get away with singing ‘Prove It All Night’ without resorting to leather trousers, yet still we believe him as we suspend our disbelief and listen on slack-jawed and incredulous. Generational issues aside, could this have been a barrier? When growing up faced with notions of a Britpop England I recognised but barely felt a part of, that was often laddishly confrontational or meekly apologetic, could I really have taken a now middle aged man tell me he’d ‘prove it all night’? I suspect not but then I was almost certainly afraid of Prince too.

However, at its core, this is an album for whom the reoccurring motifs of ‘darkness’, ‘work’ and ‘dreams’ hint at the insecurity at the heart of us all. His much derided populism is of course his greatest strength, as even now at the age of 63 he and the E Street Band remain one of the most thrilling live bands whose music actually makes sense at the stadium of your local underperforming sports team. But nearly 35 years on and as he, just like some of his illustrious near peers he undergoes a relative creative revival, it seems unlikely that the first person narratives of this album, both brittle yet cocksure will ever speak a greater truth about what it’s like to be a confronted with the reality of accepting the tribulations of an uncertain future. No great philosophical introspection, just ‘the working life.

James Tiernan

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Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds (Columbia – 1978)

To paraphrase the concerned Nun at the start of The Sound of Music, how do you solve a problem like reviewing a prog rock double album interpretation of a classic science fiction novel that features the vocal talents of a world renowned actor, two stars of a hit West End Musical and Phil Lynott out of Thin Lizzy within a self imposed 5 paragraph structure? The short answer is that you can’t. It’s impossible. You cannot convey all that is great and all that is wrong with such an artistic endeavor within such constraints. So how did we do it? As with any of life’s problems we turn to Captain James Tiberius Kirk for our solution. We tackled this as our own Kobayashi Maru. Cheat? No, we just don’t believe in the no-win situation. Here is our solution… Two reviews of the same album each looking at different aspects of it; the music and the narrative structure. And no this paragraph doesn’t count; it’s a preface.

The Music

D minor D minor A7; A7 A7 D minor. Orchestral strings usher an invasion. The chord sequence staggers to a dramatic climax before the theme is picked up and propelled up by smooth disco hi-hats, fuzzed out guitars and layers of synths expanding in a firmament of wow and flutter. There is no great skill in applying some strings to a pop record to try and implant in the listener a dignity and maturity otherwise missing but Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (now shortened to ‘War of the Worlds’[now shortened to WotW]) was obviously written and conceived with orchestration in mind, paying homage as it does to traditions of Romanticism in its vision and portrayal. Listen to that ominous intro again and you can hear traces of Wagner’s dark bombast, concentrating as it does on the low violins, cellos and contra-bass for its throaty and Gothic representation of the Martian military operation. The layers of harmony, the inspiration from the fantastic, from a subject matter from an art other than music are all Romantic traits. This a canny move by Wayne given that the Romantic movement would’ve been a contemporary of this Martian invasion, giving its setting an air of authenticity. While telling a story with an orchestra was nothing new in 1978 its incongruous combination of that with the rock aesthetic of the time was, making this a baffling millions selling album.

The use of leitmotifs and instruments being assigned characters reveals further this classical aspiration. While Grieg, Prokofiev and Saint-Saens have endured beyond their years, giving us themes that we forever associate with a particular animal or place, rock musicians have often suffered when attempting such lofty feats. Wayne’s overture is already punctuation for threat in pop culture. Perhaps the vocodered ‘Ul-la’ of the Martians equally so, however, it would be folly to think that characterisation ran that shallow. On ‘Forever Autumn’ the hope of the hopes of humanity’s survival are voiced the traditional and Earthy muted drums, acoustic guitar, flute and mandolin. The Martians by the comparatively modern heavily effected guitar, synthesizers and drum setup, the 16th playing hi-hats in particular signal that Martian craft are nearby, in doing so preparing the listener for danger of some form, like the low bass rumbles that pre-echo attacks in ‘Jaws’. The opening bars of Horsell Common and the Heat Ray have the alien invaders seemingly stumble to life as the bass line comes to terms with the effects of Earth’s gravity, the rest of the tracks awash with new sounds, none of whom are particularly comfortable on the ear.

It would be foolish to think that entire of this undertaking is executed successfully. For a double album it is at least one side (possibly even one disc) too long. While fans of prog-rock may have been long accustomed to long songs and story-telling this is often simply too repetitive to maintain interest, WotW suffers in the same way as its neo-rock-classical cousin Tubular Bells, the rapid expansion in technology both in instrumentation and recording is embraced with open arms rather than used to full effect to further the narrative. Synths slightly different to last answer the strings, a newly effected guitar tones, such as phasers, chorus, fuzz and vox-wah are frequently introduced into the already sonically crowded diorama seemingly only there to pass time between the narrated passages. Playing, particularly from the rock side of things, seem to lack emotion, hitting the notes rather than creating the mood. While the chilling introduction and ‘Ul-la’ have gone on to be timeless certain sections seem ill-judged, even the keyboard breakdown of The Eve of War may act to add some light to the threatening shade of the rest of the piece, it goes too far, being reminiscent of a 70s cop show, specifically the part where it shows the protagonist’s skill in attracting the ladies or giving an example of their likeable humour and charisma. Unfortunately this trend continues throughout the record, from sections of Forever Autumn then through much of the 2nd disc the terror of the rout of man fail to convey the battle, underselling the immensity of the scene at hand. This recalls sci-fi wrier Brian Aldiss’ criticisms of his peer John Wyndham; ‘An invasion in a tea cup’, the trend of chocolate box funk and introspective synth jazz give no gravitas to this imagined alien holocaust, instead the listener wonders if for all the copies of this album sold, many of the 2nd discs are listened to only once.

With Brave New World, the central piece to disc 2 the lines of menace previously established are blurred as we hear the threat that Man poses to the Earth, how the hopes for the future may not be preferable to Earth under the Martians (coming as it does before the narrator decides to throw himself to his inevitable death in front of a Martian machine) and this is shown as the backing to David Essex’s main feature is scored in a way similar to that of the Martians, but one with all threat of a Paul McCartney Bond theme. Interesting as this is the track is it also makes this critic wonder if rather than classical Romanticism the main influence on this endeavor is the West End musical, with David Essex and Julie Covington at the time starring in Evita and this interpolation of the previous themes being a mainstay of musical theatre. This could go some way to explain the album’s otherwise confusing success, musical theatre (rather than opera) has been much derided as being of low cultural value while simultaneously selling out both live performances and recorded versions, ultimately for this album’s veneer of ‘newness’ it is a conservative record obeying various musical rules that even then were decades old. What is it about records telling stories that we just cannot get enough of? Whether this is Cats, Peter and Wolf or WotW it seems that listeners respond most to directed listening, while Tubular Bells (for the sake of this example) may have been a success, it pales next to the no more plausible concept of WotW.

As the story ends with Dead London it is one of fatigue not joy that overwhelms the listener, the return of the main theme, now with added fanfare as the humans have ‘won’, confuses the narrative more. Was this ever a Martian theme? Was it ever a human theme? Was this just a melody for the piece? Perhaps Wayne was simply just aware that the theme is one of the album’s strongest melodic sequences and after 80+ minutes which precede it, asking the listener to try and comprehend another new theme could be a step too far. The sense of disappointment is highlighted in the two epilogues, both punctuated by treated radio static percussion, teasing the listener with a flourish of creativity that had it been incorporated throughout could have resulted in a much more even weighted album. However, much like Mike Oldfield before him, Jeff Wayne may well laugh off this criticism while diving into his swimming pool from the elevated height of his wallet. That this curio of an album continues to sell despite all its flaws is disconcerting, that few similar projects have been undertaken since is reassuring. If like the animated Lord of the Rings feature of 1978 Wayne had been forced to abandon the project due to lack of funds after disc 1, this record would no doubt be a cult classic but instead as a whole of uneven quality it has become classic in its own right, thankfully without peers.

The Adam Hiles

The Narrative

No one would have believed, in the last years of the 1970’s that Richard Burton would appear on a Prog-Rock album. Why? How? Richard Burton? Seriously? These are all legitimate questions when it comes to WotW. It would be easy to write off my love of this album as childhood sentimentality and indeed I have fond memories listening to my Dad’s worn out cassette tape repeatedly as a child, scaring the bejesus out of myself even though I knew it almost word for word. But this record has prevailed where other Prog-Rock imaginings of other fantasy/sci-fi classics have not. On paper this is no more ridiculous that Rick Wakeman’s Henry VIII/ Centre of the Earth/ King Arthur trilogy and yet copies of those records now take up huge amounts of shelf space in charity shop warehouses whereas live performances of WotW can pack out arenas.

Success is perhaps due largely to the source material and Wayne’s reluctance to alter Wells’ prose. Indeed the record is split in the same manner of the book, the first disc (2 sides) dealing with The Coming of the Martians and the second The Earth Under the Martians. All Wayne has done is to edit down the text so that all that remains is key to the plot. Strip away the music and what you’re left with is a version of Wells’ original re-written as a Graham Greene short story; no syllable or consonant used unless absolutely necessary. Wayne resists the temptation of filling in the blanks of the source material. The Martians here still have no purpose, their invasion of Earth a meaningless assault on an inferior race. We the listeners are allowed to draw our own inferences, meaning the themes of Wells’ original book are not lost. How easy it could have been to add and embellish as in the 1953 Cold War influenced B-Movie version of the book which presents the invasion as an unprovoked pre-emptive strike. Wayne also allows the Science vs. Religion point of the book to play out in full. Phil Lynott’s maniacal Parson unable to stop the Martians with prayer and cross; the aliens eventually defeated by micro organisms. The 1953 Movie doesn’t credit it’s viewers with any intelligence and refuses to accept that Science may have won the day pointing out that the Martians had been defeated by the tiniest of creatures that “God in His wisdom had put upon this Earth.” That Wayne has continued to resist the temptation to play around with this record to cash in on its continuing popularity is commendable. Yes, there are remixes, live shows, outakes and documentaries but the original body of work remains intact, the audience given the choice of whether to access these extras or not. Parallels might be drawn with Star Wars released a year earlier. In its original form A New Hope allowed the viewer to interpret concepts such as The Force, parsecs and the Kessler Run within their own imaginations. Since the Phantom Menace most of us now know more about The Force and midi-chlorians than necessary and one can only assume that the next edition released by George Lucas will have Han Solo delivering a PowerPoint presentation on the Millennium Falcon’s schematics to Obi Wan and Luke in the Mos Eisley Cantina.

Even taking into account the above, the album’s continued success, not just commercial but artistic, owes much to Richard Burton in his role as the Journalist. In the hands of another actor (or musician), it’s easy to see how the rest of the album might fall apart. Here though Burton treats his script with the same reverence as he might treat Shakespeare. His delivery is earnest and wired, never tongue in cheek, never overplayed and never verging on pastiche. When a Martian claw grabs his boot in the dark of a coal cellar we feel his fear and when he walks into a deserted London and offers himself to the Martians his desperation and sense of loss are palpable, regardless of what the music may be doing in the background. Sadly I cannot find reason to praise either David Essex or Phil Lynott, the latter reeking of stunt casting. There is nothing necessarily wrong with either but like the gas station attendant at the end of Wayne’s World 2 you wish they’d put more effort into the casting.

The telling of the story is by no means perfect throughout. There are two particular points where Wayne and lyricist Gary Osborne misread the tone. Thunderchild sounds like a prog-creation but the name of the warship is lifted directly from Wells’ text. It offers hope that Man might overcome the Martians and their machines and this is echoed in the driving promise of the music. The hope of the people watching is captured well enough in the lyrics but when the Journalist reveals that the ship has been brought down there is no change in either the tone of the music or the manner in which the lyrics are delivered. This “mighty metal War-Lord” that once promised to deliver the Earth from Martian dominance has been defeated, the last hope of Man sunk without a trace… “Lashing ropes and flashing timbers/ Flashing heat rays pierced the deck/ Dashing hopes for our deliverance/ as we watched the sinking wreck.” From the music and almost joyous singing you wouldn’t know that all hope had been lost and so the lyrics become an almost Pythonesque parody of all that has gone before. The same can be said of David Essex’s plans to repopulate the Earth in Brave New World. Essex’s character tells the Journalist that with “just a handful of men, we’ll start all over again.” Biological impossibility aside, it is hard to ignore the homo erotic undertones; Essex, with raised expectant eyebrows, propositioning the Journalist when he sings “it’s going to have to start with me and you.”

This record is far from perfect and there are times when the Wayne over indulges himself, adding little to the telling of the story. However when listened to in its entirety, with the lights turned down or driving through winter fog, it still has an ability to scare the bejesus out of me. It’s difficult to know whether this is psychological trauma retained from my childhood or perhaps it’s because, aside from the Journalist’s opening monologue, there is nothing within the telling of the story that dates it (although one might wonder why David Essex has to walk to headquarters to report back rather than picking up a radio or satellite phone). Maybe this, most of all, is why the record still affects me as a listener. This could happen. It really could. Tomorrow. Or the next day. Maybe you’re sceptical? What are the chances of anything coming from Mars? A million to one? Ha. D minor D minor A7; A7 A7. D minor.

The Cameron R. Black

Leonard Cohen – Death of a Ladies’ Man (Columbia 1977)

Schlepping round a recent Robert Breer retrospective it was impossible not to be struck by the both the breadth and narrowness of his work. Ranging from fast-paced, jerky animations to playful, moving sculptures, Breer clearly delighted in working in a range of mediums, but despite this it was hard to escape the feeling that in his later work a certain sense of perspective has been lost. The animations in particular feel repetitive and unfocused, not just on their own (as they are supposed to be) but also collectively, giving the impression he has lost sight of his overall aim and is instead concentrating on “perfecting the process”. It’s a trap that has snared many artists as they begin to micromanage their creativity in the hope of achieving perfection but succeed only echoing their past work, with each small change failing to have any significant impact on the finished piece.

It was perhaps a fear of such micromanagement which lead Leonard Cohen to form an unlikely partnership with producer Phil Spector, two men whose musical sensibilities were so far apart they must have both known the collaboration would be fraught before it began, but that it would also produce something very different from their past works. At this point in his career Cohen had released four largely acoustic albums, while Spector’s background lay in pop and it seems unlikely the pair could have ever come to agreement about how Death of Ladies’ Man should have sounded. The producer, perhaps sensing this took what Cohen regarded to be rough vocal takes of each track and then locked the singer-songwriter out of the studio while he added brass, strings, keyboards and, of course, drums with plenty of reverb. Cohen, meanwhile, was prevented from reworking his lyrics and, as such, there was no chance to self-censor, meaning the songs carry a sense of rawness and honesty that may have otherwise been lost.

The final result has many more good moments than bad. For the most part Spector’s arrangements complement Cohen’s singing, most noticeably on the opening track, True Love Leaves No Traces, where the lounge-style instrumentation mingles effortlessly with lyrics about just how complicated sexual intercourse can make life, even if you pretend it doesn’t – this subject being something of a theme across the album. Spector also successfully highlights Cohen’s often-overlooked humour. On Memories, an ode to adolescent lust, the deliberately-over-the-top backing track captures the mood and the bitter comedy of a desperate advance rejected. Tenderness isn’t an issue either, with I Left A Woman Waiting, one of many Cohen’s ballads dealing with the issue of a lover regretfully betrayed, treated with a lightness of touch that will surprise many who have dismissed the album out of hand.

For the most part, the Cohen/Spector collaboration works so well it’s even more jarring when it goes spectacularly wrong as happens towards the end. Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On is as childish and pointless as it sounds and no amount of production could have saved it, while Fingerprints, a jaunty country-esque, ditty is the only track on which Spector misses the mark. Given greater creative control, Cohen would have surely ditched or reworked both of these tracks, but then again given greater creative control Cohen may have ultimately scuppered the project entirely and that would have been a great shame.

Most Cohen aficionados, along with the artist himself, will always view the album with a sense of distain, but it would be churlish to dismiss it entirely, especially as it clearly took the Canadian out of his comfort zone and stopped him doing the same thing over and over again. The fuller sound of his later albums although never coming close to Spector’s excesses is clearly informed by them. An odd collaboration was inevitably going to produce an odd album, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good.

Wm Stevens