Faith No More – Angel Dust (Slash – 1992)

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries cynicism in music was seen as bad.  Anything devised or calculated was frowned upon, in their obsession with ‘proper music’ fans and critics seemingly thought that only records that appears written, recorded, mixed, mastered, packaged, promoted and distributed in the space of 24 hours were authentic.  Cynicism was even worse than that, it was an attempt by deceitful to tag themselves on to some other movement or trend.  Cynical was working with Mark Ronson.  Cynical was anything Robbie Williams did post Take That.  But this was always cynicism about music, not cynical music.  It was marketing.  This mix on ‘Angel Dust’ sneers in its ugliness, tones lack sympathy for one another, beats are wrong, samples are comically loud, Mike Patton’s lyrics and overly dramatised vocal styling more like Zappa on Joe’s Garage than a band carving a career following the success of ‘The Real Thing’.  This cynicism manifested in a rejection of many rock norms, incorporation of the new and a fearless delivery of them.  It was all done like this on purpose, a taunt of a record, pitying our cruel lives then ending with covers of ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and ‘Easy’.  It isn’t a form of cynicism that is common in music and as a result can be one that people are uncomfortable with.

Faith No More themselves looked like they’d been the result of brainstorm session by a label, where the outcome was to intended to be the band with the broadest appeal.  The guitar guy had a Flying V and long hair and a beard, metal people will love that.  The bass player slaps now and again, how many did BloodSugarSexMagik sell?  Keyboards you say? Girls love them.  The drummer has dreadlocks and plays the drums?  The stoners will be on board.  The singer looks like he’s like one of those hip-hop skater kids, everyone will identify with him!  They looked they they’d been put together in order to secure the maximum musical instrument endorsement deals.  You can’t help but empathise with the record label upon receipt of the completed ‘Angel Dust’.  Even the title was provocative.  They’d played up to this ramshackle it shouldn’t work image by delivering a record that sounded what they look like at their worst.  While everything that was on this record was so Lalapolloza/MTV zeitgeist it was perfect, it was all there in a fashion so extreme that perhaps it was not.

‘A Small Victory’ achieved constant rotation as a four minute fade out, verses choruses chanting whispering air raid sirens and falsetto, in the end a network of rhythm, volume and pitch entirely unlike anything else on MTV at the time.  ‘Midlife Crisis’ started with a drum loop from Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Cecilia’ over which Patton told “My head is like lettuce, go on and dig your thumbs in, I cannot stop giving in, I’m thirty something”, it is uncomfortable, like when a comedy routine turns pained confessional.  ‘Land of Sunshine’ starts the album in that manner, “And life to you is a dashing, bold adventure, So sing and rejoice, sing and rejoice”, FNM put themselves above the listener, perhaps even mocking them, instead of funk-rock-pop its brash and harsh, it’s nearly right, it’s dressed to emphasise its flaws, maybe you’re in on the joke, with a chorus of “Does life seem worthwhile to you?”.  They had not held back in the extremity of their rejection.

Disgust is a keystone of this album, being fixated by it possibly equally so.  While this is no dumb frat party album it is filled with moments akin to Johnny Knoxville laughing at blood.  ‘Caffeine’, ‘Malpractice’ and ‘Smaller and Smaller’ are all filled with vocal inwards and (genuinely) grinding riffs that recall Pantera but are nastier, even unhinged to have done this on purpose, lyrically more so, ‘Smaller and Smaller’ referencing Taxi Driver with “Someday the rains will come, My blistered hands tell me, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow”.  ‘RV’ is a take-off on slick Hollywood Country and Western behind a rambling white trash narrative whose indignation spills all over the middle 8. A sense of actual bodily harm level violence stalks parts of this record, made more disconcerting given we’re use to other genres more sensational approach.

Though disgust is present throughout this album is essentially of moments of light pouring through cloud, melodies rarely do anything other than soar, vocal inflections beg to be mimicked, all the music thinks it’s big and it’s clever.  The greatest trick the devil ever played was pulling it off, this could easily have gone awry but instead it remains fresh in its difference.  No one since seems to have managed to have been both absurd and influential to this extent, to have been so earnest and humorous, to make something so ugly and beautiful.  For all the rejection and subversion Faith No More had maintained the inherent joy that can be had in rock.  While posting videos may not have been a trend here before the video for ‘Everything’s Ruined’ pretty much sums it all up http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5irHyoRNcR
Adam Hiles

The B-52’s – The B-52’s (Warner Bros – 1979)

November 2004, I’m stood backstage in an LA venue after McLusky have finished their set.  I’m wearing a New Kids on the Block t-shirt and combat pants eating a giant slice of cake which was somehow on the rider.  During a pretty open conversation in the room about music Jack tells me as an aside that I should “get the B-52’s first album”, I immediately recall Jack telling me of his academic study on the drumming in a single Dream Theater song and think that this B-52’s claim must be false.  Days later, while eating burgers after our final show together in Seattle he mentions again, now in more serious tones, that I should “get the first B-52’s first album”.  Again I did nothing as I already knew everything (and you thought the description of my outfit was extraneous).  Following numerous other instances of this same insistence from unconnected others in the intervening years, I started to think that this opinion must be more than just coincidence.  I finally relented in early 2011.  It is shame, this record revealed itself to be a joyous installment of the post-punk period, one whose simplicity in playing, melody and harmony is at first disarming but over repeated listens is revealed to be much knowing than it first appeared.

Coming out in 1979 means the B-52’s must certainly have heard Talking Heads: 77, First Edition, Q: Are We not Men? A: We Are Devo, the last in particular striking as the album’s opener, Planet Claire is partly credited to Henry Mancini, composer of the Peter Gunn theme to which the first 120 seconds bear such a resemblance to, particularly Devo’s adaptation, though this is coupled with the type of intensity that would rear its willfully ugly face on Metal Box.  The motorik drumming matched to riffs so simple they at first appear untalented, nervy keys stab inconsistently, bass Jah Wobble steady, a stark opening from the band who would go on to release that song and that Flintstones song too.  The pop sensibility of the aforementioned is already present in Fred Schneider’s vocal delivery, though here it is interspersed with the occassional bratty shout.  As the song shifts the surf guitar sound pulls into focus, adding 50s/60s optimism, a pleasing foil to post-punk’s pretensions of grandeur.

Tracks such as ’52 Girls’ and ‘There’s a Moon in the Sky (it’s called the Moon)’ try hard to be throwaway pop songs but fail gloriously, being the epitome of cool simplicity The Strokes are still trying to distill today.  By ‘Rock Lobster’ and ‘Dance This Miss Around’ their charm is to the point that this listener is little more than their plaything, not only am I trying to crack the secret to their casual efficiency but I’m also rooting for them, I want them to do well.  This isn’t normal for an album but the interplay between the instruments and the naivety in playing (again reminiscent of what Lydon and co. would seek on Metal Box) is such that they all sound as if they expect the other to make a mistake, and when it happens they would stop as one immediately in an embarrassed silence.  You don’t want this to happen as what is being played is so enthralling, charismatic, shambling and simply told, like Ed Wood had he been in on the joke.

With ‘Lava’ not only do we hear the album’s first and only use of distorted guitar but the some of the least concealed sexual imagery with ‘Turn on your love lava, turn on your lava lamp (volcano!)’, it’s all very tongue (possibly more) in cheek. ‘6060-842’ continues this more risque theme with a story of frustration at the number found on a toilet stall wall doesn’t pick up, finding out with great disappointment that ‘This number’s been disconnected’.  Whether anyone from the US would understand the term ‘end of the pier’ I don’t know, but this would be a prime example of a more Vegas version, lacking any sense of the more tawdry Carry On Blackpool associations, but instead more sleek and with a glint in its eye that maybe these double entardres are born of experience rather than urban myth.

The album ends with a cover of ‘Downtown’.  As a cover it’s more an approximation, half hearted and enthusiastic, the 60s glee of vocals work in counter point to PiL-like return of the repetitive groove, key board cutting, dragging, seemingly ever slower, as if this sunshine is difficult to maintain, hard to stay so madcap and tuneful, it has the sorrow of ‘Sure-Flo’ from A Mighty Wind and the futility in any Flight of the Conchords performance.  As an album the dynamic rarely changes; the desk might have been set once and then left for the whole record and the tones hastily chosen but this adds yet more the charm, if this had been too shiny, too right it could have been a hollow aside in new wave instead of being non-find it is.  In future I will certainly take record recommendations given to me by my countrymen when in foreign lands more seriously, instead of not and thinking that because of the surprising nature of the advice and the way it was imparted, maybe it was some kind of code or clue.

Adam Hiles

 

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

Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars – 1997)

In a moment of ghoulish prescience, Hole pulled ‘Rock Star’, a song which had been the intended closer to their 1994 album ‘Live Through This’ at very short notice; indeed such short notice that the album sleeves had already been printed. The album, which was released four days after the death of Hole singer’s husband Kurt Cobain, had originally been intended to close with a bitter rant against media intrusion and the startling lyrics ‘How’d you like to be in Nirvana/ So much fun to be in Nirvana/ Fucking barrel of laughs in Nirvana/ Say you’d die’. Chilling stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. The song which replaced it, which was for many years was known as ‘Rock Star’, was ‘Olympia’, another acerbic Love bite which has been perceived by some to be a slur at some of the notable graduates of the very much liberal Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. This one college inadvertently gave rise to the sometime maligned Riot Grrrl bands, such as the Love adversary Kathleen Hanna’s Bikini Kill, and the scene which therefore produced the best all female rock and roll group of the last 20 years: Sleater-Kinney.

Formed in 1994 by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, they garnered critical support for the eponymous debut in 1995 and to a greater extent their sophomore effort ‘Call The Doctor’ the following year, but ‘Dig Me Out’ was their first classic. Joined by sometime Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, the formula of two serrated, tuned down guitars, edgily syncopated drums and vocals that went from abrasive, to recalling 50s girl groups in Sleater-Kinney’s more pop moments, was one that screamed out in the post-Britpop meltdown of what alternative radio existed in Britain in 1997. Tucker’s vocals, often a tremulous, yet melodic scream, bludgeoned their way into your consciousness and perhaps provide the most decisive point as to whether you take the band to your heart, are also are much of what make the band so thrillingly unique.

The album’s opener and title track is a study in the ragged two pronged attack sub-three minute pop that characterise the band, with the angularity of Sonic Youth captured and honed into an accessible burst. In contrast, the onomatopoeic motion of the ‘One More Hour’ which deals with jealousy and collapse of Tucker and Brownstein’s relationship, while no sordid ‘Rumours’ soul bearing, manages to be both intimate and fragile, while ‘Turn It On’ strikes at the same collapse with a chorus underpinned by handclaps sounding like a more emotionally honest Wire covering a Spector-produced girl band. But it’s songs like ‘The Drama You’ve Been Craving’ and the perhaps self-explanatory subject of ‘Words and Guitar’, where Tucker and Brownstein trade vocals and power chord flourishes at breakneck speed, are where they best flourish.

Perhaps the high point of the album is the single ‘Little Babies’ which combines a ludicrously infectious baby talk chorus matched to dissonant yet melodic hymn to clinging hopelessly to domestic bliss. For a band often on the margins, it was as insanely catchy as any pop act, yet just sufficiently discordant to stray away from being formulaic. There would be moments on their later albums, such as ‘You’re No Rock And Roll Fun’ from 2000’s ‘All Hands On The Bad One’, but rarely would they be able to nail pop perfection so well in under two and a half minutes. Of course it wasn’t all sweetness, harmonies and something for girls in hair-slides to self-consciously groove along to, as album closer ‘Jenny’ tonally evoked the slowly spiralling of desperation of Elvis Costello’s ‘I Want You’, with jealously and infidelity writ large over ratcheted-up guitar mangling.

Of their seven albums in ten years until they departed on indefinite hiatus after 2005’s ‘The Woods’, they consistently drew rave critical reviews, but never quite escaped that post-Riot Grrrl ghetto which allowed them to be conveniently pigeonholed under a feminist agenda, which while it existed, was never really overtly the point of Sleater-Kinney, even if it did dominate some of the other predominantly female bands from the Pacific Northwest. To call their musical output as ‘sexy’ could well be perceived as sexist shorthand, but only in the way that Led Zeppelin managed such urgent appeal. Few bands of that era churned out such consistently attractive rock and roll and ‘Dig Me Out’ is the perfect place to start a journey into the drama. There may have been bands capable of more spectacular headlines and disaster, but they will have the lasting musical legacy.

James Tiernan

Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express (Kling-Klang – 1977)

Aged 17 I was listening to Underworld and Led Zeppelin.  I was in a band who wanted to cover ‘One’ by U2.  I heard U2 for the first time purposefully through some pirate best of which concentrated on their later career.  Numb and Lemon stood out.  I bought Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop.  I bought the Popmart video.  During Discotheque Bono added ‘this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around, this ain’t no Mud Club, or CBGB’s, I ain’t got time for that now’.  My eldest brother’s Sand in the Vaseline two CD best of Talking Heads.  Life During Wartime, I Zimbra, Cross-eyed and Painless stood out.  U2 and Talking Heads credits, Underworld interviews, all saying Eno.  I buy More Blank Than Frank, last track 1/1, I buy Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Apollo: Atmosphere’s and Soundtracks.  I buy David Bowie’s Low and ‘Heroes’.  V-2 Schneider.  If I like this so much then I may like the thing they are paying reverence to.  Kraftwerk.  I would soon own every CD they had (and hadn’t) released.  I would be 28 before I saw them live, literally in 3D with my other brother, at Manchester Velodrome.  By that point I had bought their entire back catalogue for a second time, though re-mastered and with German vocals.

I recently read Jon Ronson’s ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’, in it I learned of what became known as the Bucha Effect. “Why are helicopters falling out of the sky?” asked the mid-1970s military. Investigating scientists found that the strobing light from the rotors was at a frequency near that of human brainwaves which has an effect; in this case it was the pilot’s passing out.  It is with this type of repetitive interruption of the silence that ‘Europe Endless’ starts.  It unfurls as an arpeggio in G, falling into itself like the Mandelbrot set.  The bass and drum tracks are precise, each emphasising exactly what it should and more.  A perfectly efficient machine is working.  In it you can feel the intelligence and patience that went into its making.  Even before the vocal has entered you are more than aware of the aesthetic for the album; sparse layering and rhythmic interplay, both exquisitely judged.  Though not yet at the title track are already aboard TEE we are already in motion.  ‘Parks, hotels and palaces (Europe Endless)’, Europe is all becoming one during this journey as boundaries blur and nations disappear in parallax.  Vocals are reserved and optimistic.  Clean vocal, vocoder vocal, clean vocal, vocoder vocal. Lulling and enthralling to the extent that when the song ends its nine minutes plus you immediately miss that little arpeggio, you are soon uncomfortable in its absence.

‘Hall of Mirrors’ and ‘Showroom Dummies’ move on to themes of the vacuous nature of modern European society and the music takes a music darker turn.  Over minor drones Hutter tells us that “Even the greatest star, find themselves in the looking glass” in ‘Hall of Mirrors’, a comment on vanity and celebrity also empty and throwaway, a ‘placebo profundity’ as I once heard it put.  They move as close to a shout as Kraftwerk would ever get in announcing “We are showroom dummies”, the latter of these two quotes is the most interesting, and being as it is both a comment on Western society’s ultimately pointless obsession with defining ourselves through fashion and a rebuttal to critics of Kraftwerk’s understated live performances.  By responding to the accusation that ‘they just stood there’ in song they winked at those who knew they were doing so much more but seemed to say to everyone else, “YOU’RE showroom dummies”.

By the time of the title track you are firmly centred in Kraftwerk’s European vision.  It’s main melody sounding like a continental anthem, one filled with the drive and capital of Western Europe and mournfully aware of the sacrifice for the greater good over to the Communist East.  Travelling by rail may have been an obvious and easy step post-Autobahn given its success and the possibilities available representing the sounds of sleepers and points etc. but it is executed with aplomb.  Kraftwerk’s knack for subtlety ensures our carriage is safe, what could have easily turned into tawdry pastiche is instead treated with awe and respect.  They replicate both the train and what it embodies.  Frontiers are wider, travel and communication between them is quicker, possibilities are greater, possibilities are endless, Europe is endless as it spreads across the world.

This spread of technology bringing with it a more homogenised Western culture would see Kraftwerk propelled along with it.  Their effect on all electronic music is unquestionable.  Their influence on hip-hop well documented.  It is one of my greatest my greatest musical disappointments that Kraftwerk are often considered by others as being pioneers in the sense that they are unlistenable, intelligent in a way that they satisfied only the brain,  that their vocals are to be laughed at, that they are considered boring.  The fact is much Kraftwerk’s enduring success lies in their ability to write joyous small songs of such detail and scale.

A Hiles

Rufus Harley with Georges Arvanitas Trio – From Philadelphia to Paris (Blue Cat – 2007)

1963; a young maintenance worker from Philadelphia is watching JFK’s funeral procession on television moved by what he is witnessing. It is not the passing of a President, nor the sense of occasion that moved him but the sound of the Black Watch regiment and their bagpipes. Barely able to contain himself, Rufus Harley searches the city in vain for a set of bagpipes of his own before finally finding some in a New York pawn shop. This was 1963. Fast forward to 1965 and Harley is releasing his first material through Atlantic. Already proficient in a number of wind instruments such as the saxophone as well as the trumpet, Harley applied himself and learned to play without any formal tuition.

This album is not easy to listen to; it should come with some sort of public health warning lest people stumble across it by accident and get the wrong idea. It is after all the coming together of Jazz and bagpipe, something you might expect to see on one of the Fast Show’s Jazz Club sketches (nice) or described as part of some unbelievable Hunter S. Thompson trip. This album rewards those that persevere with it. I cannot deny that it takes a few listens to tune your ear into Harley’s peculiar playing style but soon you find yourself tapping your toes along to the wild snapping of the snare, the walking double bass, the pounding piano and the screech of the bagpipes. 

There is an awkwardness when Harley tries to play it straight, the start of Scotland The Brave sounding more like a nervous 13 year old rushing through the National Anthem at the start of a local Agricultural Show than a great jazz musician pushing boundaries, but when the Georges Arvanitas Trio let fly and Harley plays the instrument his way it sounds like nothing you have ever heard before. That phrase, is of course a cliché, over used in the realm of music criticism and rarely in any meaningful sense. It is often a symptom of the writers own narrow frame of reference rather than any shortcomings on the part of the artist. But here, when Harley wails over the top of Georges Arvanitas’ piano, playing around with the melody there is a definite alien feel to the sound; like a Martian returning home from Earth, reinterpreting the music of our planet on his Martian anal nose flute.

Harley’s oeuvre is well respected within Jazz circles and no doubt some aficionado will stumble across this and berate me for presenting this album as a one off curiosity. Yes, there are other Rufus Harley records, not least the reissue of his Atlantic recordings but the presence of the Scottish National Anthem (the traditional one anyway) as well as decent Jazz interpretations of Moon River and Amazing Grace make this album a more accessible introduction to what Harley was trying to achieve.

The bagpipes were never meant for Jazz or maybe Jazz was never meant for bagpipes. Either way it doesn’t matter. What is exciting is that records like this exist. This is what great music is about, pushing boundaries, trying new things, experimentation. In a time when almost any song is available to the listener in an instant, it is too easy to stick with what is familiar. Why endure something that may prove ultimately rewarding when you can obtain instant gratification elsewhere – press shuffle on your Ipod – skip to the next track. We become like addicts, drawing on some brief momentary high before desperately looking for our next hit.  Writing for this blog has reminded to me that pleasure from music has to be earned by the listener as much as it has to be earned by the artist and even though, sometimes, it seems too weird to live it is also too rare to die.

Cameron R. Black

Alice Cooper – School’s Out (Warner Bros – 1979)

June 1972.  There’s still hope that The Beatles will reform, no matter what they say.  Pink Floyd have not yet visited The Dark Side of the Moon.  David Bowie has just released Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.  Alice Cooper releases School’s Out.  While Alice and David may shared much both in terms of heritage style, it was always Alice who was most conflicted.  While David was the outsider, deconstructing rock ‘n roll and giving it a future, Alice blurred the lines more, incorporating humour and more topical references.  Simply put David was serious, Alice might be a clown.  While David’s stage shows would be art, Alice’s would be entertainment.  From the beginning of his career Cooper wanted to play the villain not the hero, while Ziggy became so successful the band broke up and he was ‘killed’ onstage, Alice was disinterested in circumstance making actions evil, he was evil to start with, he’d been killing and getting killed on stage for years. It was unjustified.  He was uninvited. He was shocking.  He was winking.  He was joking.  While David’s opening salvo may have been concerned with the death of our planet, Alice saw fit open his album with a chorus of children’s voices declaring that ‘school’s been blown to pieces’, Alice was the light to David’s shade. While David was paralyzed by the magnitude of what he must comprehend, Alice reminded us of the glorious days when comprehension only applied one way, the world had to understand us and bow to our whims.  David’s concern was one of escape and its impossibility.  Alice’s was of escape and its inevitability and with it an unknown freedom.

It’s perhaps odd then that one of Cooper’s most successful works contains few of the lyrical references to the world of horror with which he went on to become associated with.  The themes for this record are all teenage, universal in the Western world; hatred of school, passion, gangs, rebellion, wide horizons, confining walls.  In the verse of Public Animal #9 Alice tells of the limited vista, ‘Me and GB we ain’t never gonna confess, we carved some dirty words in our desk, we cheated at the math test, and now it’s time for recess’ while on My Stars is over wrought, hyper-sensitive, ‘All I need is a holocaust to make my day complete’, it’s an album willfully fuelled by hormonal imbalance lacking perspective, imbued with the feeling that these are the greatest days of your life and the feeling that others’ days are greater than yours. Perhaps the most shocking part of the lyrics is just how witty and considerate they are, it is truly an album of nostalgia but the fears of a teenager are not belittled, instead the bar room blues easiness of the band thrown together Bob Ezrin’s (both the album’s producer and keyboard player) lush orchestral arrangements mean that with the delivery of ‘I can’t find the exit, I quit looking for ghosts, I stole a razor from the commissary, I just couldn’t take it no more’ you’re there with him, overreacting, that teenage desolation crystallized, the immaturity of such a statement juxtaposed against your adult self now being immune to feelings of such extremity.

Unsurprisingly for vocal music it is Alice’s voice that is the centre point of this album.  Much of the small scale comedy and the tragedy is a result of Cooper’s control and judgment.  Not only does Cooper have  sweetness to his voice that prevents Rod Stewart styled ‘rock’ typicality but he has a willingness to ‘act’ that sets him apart.  While dictating a narrative from the perspective of a character is nothing new, Cooper’s change in delivery, often within a few lines, allows him a depth of emotion that seems missing from his classmate Bowie’s masterpiece.  While Bowie has always been some kind of alien the conceit in this record is inclusion, Cooper details shared experiences; people thrown together with little in common but age and locality.  An experience both individual and universal.  Everyone has been to school.  Everyone had a good time.  Everyone wanted it to finish.  That said, the final ‘joke’ of the album sees Alice directly speaking to his class mates on the last day of school, while the verses detail a litany of teenage high jinx it ends ‘I hope I see you again some time, don’t forget me or nothing, remember the Coop’, Cooper’s voice moving from a warm nostalgia to an unnerving fear, as if the ballsy punk of the previous seven tracks is now aware that far from being popular, was merely tolerated, the people he considered peers are happy to have a future without him, Cooper will be left, some kind of Fonz character, out of time, only good at goofing around.   After school everyone wants to go back.

While Alice Cooper is no doubt central to any Alice Cooper record, its success cannot be attributed to one man alone, the musicianship and production are all exceptional, everyone sounds like they are having a good time.  From the swinging rat pack bass of ‘Blue Turk’ to the half time groove with  bar of a snare roll that is the opening to ‘My Stars’, playing is fresh and lively.  Bowie comparisons continue as the backing vocals and guitars throughout pre-echo ‘Lust For Life’ by a cool five years while the ever building twisted groove of the album’s closer ‘Grand Finale’ and ‘Public Animal #9’ as call to mind both the instrumental work of Isaac Hayes or David Axelrod and the dark, stark funk that Bowie would inhabit from Station to Station and not leave until after Heroes. It is a school a young Sparks may have attended.  Faith No More scratching their name on the same desk.  Comedy and subversion is a strong theme in the music, aside from the still hilarious brass section fart noise that, try as it might to, manages not to derail the entire of ‘Blue Turk’ that precedes it, it is the interpolation of West Side Story’s ‘Gutter Cat Vs. The Jets’ that provides the biggest surprise centrepiece, not only in that they play it,but that they play it so well, it is vital and well judged.  This isn’t yet the age of ubiquitous ironic cover versions, Alice and band going through an intense build up (so intense it is part bass solo) only to peak with ‘Here come the Jets like a bat out of hell, someone gets in our way some one don’t feel to well’.  This one sly reference works to show that the rebellion Alice details is nothing new, preempting angry parent protest by getting their kids to sing the same songs they had about the same things they did, while at the same time having that sly smile that only comes on when a violent street gang sing and dance in unison.

While Cooper would follow this album with another two greats in the form of ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ and ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ he would never again release an album so focused and compact, of such musicality and variance, a place where he would play both ringmaster and victim to such extremity.  As an album of genuine warmth and fondness it may never bettered, delivered in almost Vonnegut like fleeting detail and humour.  Perhaps the only disappointment is never knowing the feeling of excitement in that June of 1972 as School’s out and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars were released, that rock had such a range of innovation, but more than that, just sounding so good.

Adam Hiles