Thursday, 22 November 2012

Our First Annual!

Obverse Books just released its first ever Annual!  With a crossword, comic strip, short stories, a board game and even cut out standees!

Written by George Mann and illustrated throughout by Mark Manley, the Annual is dedicated to Sir Maurice Mewbury and Miss Victoria Hobbes, along with their colleagues Sir Charles Bainbridge and Professor Angelchrist (fresh from the pages of Doctor Who!).  Hopefully this'll be the first Obverse Annual (an Iris one next yeat, maybe?) - there are only 100 copies and they're selling like proverbial hotcakes...

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Great Albums 37: The Golden Age of Wireless (Thomas Dolby, 1982)

It's another eighties album.  For a man best known for the borderline novelty hits 'Hyperactive!' and 'She Blinded me with Science' (with ace specky boffin, Dr Magnus Pike), this is a downbeat, lyrcally dense collection of songs (as, to be fair, was the next LP from Dolby, 'The Flat Earth', which I could just as easily have included).  Not that you'd know that from the music, which at times is as 80s synthtastic as anything from ABC.   It doesn't even start that well.  'Flying North' has some decent lyrics (Down with the landing gear/Up goes the useless prayer) but the backing track has a painfully intrusive pre-programmed drum and flaring synths, while the second track 'Commercial Breakup' is the weakest on the album.  It's only with the third track, which starts with (presumably lectronic) choir and big, slow chord changes, that everything comes right.  A soft vocal, trailing piano lines and an excellent bassline high in the mix, and we're off an running.  The chorus pushes things up an octave or two very effectively, then drops back into the soft stuff again.  It's effective stuff as is the next track up 'Europa and the Pirate Twins', whose faster sound and narrative lyric provides a nice buffer between 'Weightless' and the beautiful 'Windpower'.

Incidentally, I just realised that all of this is only true of the cd version I'm currently listening to.  The vinyl original would be the 1983 re-issue from Venice in Peril Records, which missed out the frankly rubbish 'The Wreck of The Fairchild', resequences several tracks and includes the by-then hit single, 'She Blinded me with Science'.  Looking at the track listing for that album, with the stand-out tracks 'Radio Silence', 'Airwaves' and 'Weioghtless' on side one and the equally good 'One of our Submarines is missing' and, especially, 'Clouburst at Shingle Street' split over two sides, I think I prefered that sequence to this.  That's one of the drawbacks of cds - of excessive storage devices in geenral, actually.  The original LP ended with the apparent positivity of 'Shingle Street' ('Come out of your shell/and look at the sea') mutating unexpectedly into something else entirely ('now there's only you') whereas the cd trails off in live tracks and b-sides, filling space that doesn't need filled.

Dolby with Bowie doing 'heroes' at Live Aid (it's nothing to do with this album but makes me so happy)

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Hartnell Years - things which occur to me...

So that's the Hartnell Years done.  Starting way back two months ago with a policeman in the fog (played by Reg Cranfield, fact fans), I watched the Doctor collapse on the floor of the TARDIS last night and morph into someone else entirely. And now I feel strangely but genuinely bereft, as though my beloved Grandfather has run away and my granny re-married a little mop-haired git, who tries too hard to be pals.

But I suppose, glass half full and all that.  I've never watched the series in order from the start before, and viewed this way Hartnell - already my joint-favourite Doctor - has been elevated to a position from which he can just about see previous fellow front-runner Jon Pertwee with a telescope, light years behind.  I've watched the three and a bit Hartnell seasons in a variety of formats - straight audio from 'Marco Polo', Loose Cannon recons for the likes of Myth Makers and Reign of Terror, damn clever animated photos for Mission to the Unknown, really bad animation for The Crusades - and a mix of dvd and vhs rips for the rest.  Plus reading all the Hartnell short stories in the annuals and Short Trips collections.  It's quite a lot to experience, but barely a moment dragged and the vast majority was, frankly and without hyperbole, wonderful.

Ian and Barbara's touching, astonishing, touching, beautiful, touching love affair is the absolute highlight, moving from friendship as Ian wanders unannounced into Babs' classroom in 'An Unearthly Child', through open affection and the sort of loving bickering which all real couples do, all the way to the post-coital scenes in The Romans parts 1 and 4 ('The Slave Traders' and 'Inferno' episodes of Serial M for purists). It's brilliantly done over an extended period, helped enormously by two actors who are, in my opinion, as good as the series has ever been lucky enough to have in all its 50 year history.  But even taking away the romance (and who could doubt they end up together after seeing that montage at the end of 'The Chase'?) these are two genuine characters in a way which the series later abandoned altogether (compare Ian to Ace - a character who sounds, looks and acts utterly unlike any real person of the same age, but who was lauded by fans in the 80s as a return to proper characterisation).  They learn and grow over the course of their travels and so do we, the viewers - not just by learning about Cathay and the reign of terror and the like, but also about the way the show changes format and outlook.  What started off as effectively a hostile kidnap, mellows into friendship and respect, and the series reflects this change, becoming less about trying to get back to Earth and more about experiencing the universe, less about staying out of danger and moving on quickly and more about seeking out people in need of help.

Ian and Barbara could have set the tone and established the  template for all companions to come, but unfortunately - possibly simply because Carole Ann Ford left first and so was replaced like-for-like first - writers chose to use Susan, sadly played by a far less able actor, as the ideal companion instead.  And for all that she's the alien, not Ian and Barbara, she's far more generically written than they - a screamer and a crier, prone to falling over and giving up the ghost, whiny and moany and a bit of a pin in the arse a lot of the time.  At least the producers also kept elements of the Susan of the first episode or of The Aztecs, refusing to marry some stranger; the best we can hope for for quite some time to come is that along with companion as screamer we also get companion as fighter.  Even then there's a gradual but noticeable growing preference for the Screamer over the Fighter which isn't overcome until the appearance of Zoe in 'The Wheel in Space' - Vicki to Dodo to Polly to Victoria is a descent from feisty to frightened, and even Zoe is a prototype for a better assistant in Liz Shaw.

If Carole-Anne Ford is patchy, and William Russell and Jackie Hill brilliant, Hartnell is, at times, awesome.  Years of character acting had given Hartnell exactly the skill set required for Dr Who, and a love of the character and the affection he engendered in the audience, meant that the actor puts everything he has into the role with, at times, quite wonderful results.  Look at the suspicious and dangerous Doctor of the first serial - not when he thinks about bashing a fallen enemy's brains in, since that seems reasonably sensible in the circumstances, but in the way he calculates that kidnapping Ian and Barbara is the best thing for him, and then does it.  That he then selfishly risks their lives in The Daleks is no surprise, but the change over the next few years is - this is the only Doctor in the classic series who actually changes (leaving aside the change in Colin Baker's Doctor from vicious psycho to good friend, a move so ineptly handled that I'm still not looking forward to reaching season 22) and the only Doctor in the entire series who changes in an interesting way (Tennant's descent into being a selfish shit being so dull that I may pay someone to drag themselves through his final year on my behalf).  By the time Susan leaves he's capable of the most touching moments and of putting someone else's interests first, and losing Ian and Babs, and his initial angry reaction, is played perfectly.  He's a wonder all round and the fan myth that he was past it by the end of his tenure is arrant nonsense, as anyone who watches 'The Tenth Planet' can see.

There are so many little moments which I could highlight as my favourite that it could soon grow tedious, so here's a selection:
  •  Hartnell inside a Dalek saying 'I am the Master' in 'The Space Museum'
  • Ian's coughing fit just before the revelation that the water is poisonous in The Sensorites, which I assumed was a mistake which the actors has ad-libbed around.
  • That montage at the end of 'The Chase'
  • Hartnell's hat in 'Reign of Terror'
  • The Sensorite at the window of the ship, floating in space
  • The design of the Robomen in 'Dalek Invasion of Earth' - so much better than the leather clad clones in the movie version
  • That Barbara was wrong in The Aztecs and because of that the Doctor loses and John Ringway's character wins.
  • Not shying away from the horror of Viking invasion in The Time Meddler
  • The delegates in Dalek Master Plan
  • Hartnell facing down a War Machine.
  • The wit of 'The Myth Makers', 'The Romans' and 'The Gunfighters' - Doctor Who can be broad comedy as well as all the other things it can be.
  • That everyone, including Peter Haining, was wrong about Galaxy 4 and The Gunfighters - both great.
  • The Cybermen in The Tenth Planet - still the creepiest aliens in Doctor Who history.
  • Every mention of 'Doctor Who', but particularly episode title 'The Death of Doctor Who' - that's his name and I much prefer it being used as a name than being some dull and asinine arc for Steven Moffat.
I'll shut up now though because I can think of something brilliant in every Hartnell story - even my least favourite, The Web Planet, where the design is fantastic, at least, and the Carcinome being a space hairdryer is inspired - anyway, I have Troughton to watch now....

Monday, 10 September 2012

Great Albums 38: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Lucinda Williams, 1998)

Considering Steve Earle described working on this album as the worst recording experience of his life, and the original co-producer walked out during recording, this is a spectacular album.

Coming from a blues/folk background, you'd expect something a bit downbeat from Lucinda Williams' breakthrough LP, and this doesn't disappoint.  It's littered with slices of what used to be called Americana, and I'd say that the slices are definitely intended to wound and cut.  From the opening track, with Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams on the radio and a child being driven away from home, right until the closer, a re-imagining of 'By the time I get to Pheonix', listing all the places the singer won't miss some unnamed lover, there's not a lot of happiness to be found.

But the guitar playing on this is wonderful, the lyrics are perfect little vignettes of loss, longing and - at times - lust, and Lucinda's voice is the best in country music, imo, cracking and breaking like it's about to burst completely. 

Happiness is over-rated, in any case...

Car Wheels on Spotify

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Great Albums 39: Autumn Might Have Hope (Small Town Boredom, 2008)

OK, so this isn't actually an album I've been listening to for years, with decades of pleasure behind it.  Sue me.

I've been listening to it compulsively all weekend, however, ever since I got a copy of the Hibernate Records / Wasistdas' Tom Carter fundraiser disc in the post.  To be precise, the fundraiser cdr (well worth a purchase, btw) has a track by Caught in the Wake Forever on it, so Fraser McGowan's curent incarnation, rather than this earlier, two man recording.  Still, it's good, this is good, it's all good.

Specific reasons it's good, I hear you ask?  Easiest way to describe it is to name some people it reminded me of; people you'll have heard of, I mean.  So bits of it sound like JJ Cale, bits of it sound like a less commercial King Creosote, bits of it sound like the first Malcolm Middleton LP, bits even remind me of Jandek (primarily the bits when McGowan's mouth is really close to the mic).  And there are bits which remind me of nothing at all, unique bits where the simple guitar lines, found sounds, snatches of dialogue and occasional drum fills come together with the whispered vocals to create something unexpectedly lovely, even if the loveliness is always tinged by a massive layer of anxiety, regret and genuine sadness.

Because this this is definitely music for dark, rainy days; miserable, gloom enshrouded tunes where, at times, it feels as though even the act of singing is too much effort.  You're not going to dance to this (well not in a good way) but that's no bad thing.  Sometimes what you want is something quiet and thoughtful, something which recognises that desperation is as valid a reaction to the world around you as big grins and high fives.

And maybe, just maybe, now and again there's a wee chink of light in the darkness...

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Great Albums 40: Hunky Dory (David Bowie, 1971)

First appearance by David Bowie, but by no means the last.  I wrote about Hunky Dory at some length earlier this year, so I won't labour things here.

Instead I'll point out two cool Hunky Dory facts and reprint Bowie's own publicity notes on the album.

1.  William S Burroughs, chatting to Bowie in 1974, told him that 'Eight Line Poem' reminded him of TS Eliot, specifically 'The Wastelands'.  Bowie replied that he'd never read Eliot.

2.  'Life on Mars?' was deliberately written round the same chord structure as 'My Way' - a tune to which Bowie had written rejected lyrics in 1968.  He described the well-known lyrics to the song as 'evil'.

Bowie's Own Notes

Changes - This album is full of my changes and those of some of my friends.

Pretty - The reaction of me to my wife being pregnant was archetypal daddy - Oh he's gonna be another Elvis. This song is all that plus a dash of sci-fi.

Eight - The city is a kind of high-life wart on the backside of the prairie.

Life On Mars - This is a sensitive young girls reaction to the media.

Kooks - The baby was born and it looked like me and it looked like Angie and the song came out like - if you're gonna stay with us you're gonna grow up Bananas.

Quicksand - The chain reaction of moving around through out the bliss and then the calamity of America produced this epic of confusion - Anyway, with my esoteric problems I could have written it in Plainview - or Dulwich.

There is a time and space level just before you go to sleep when all about you are losing theirs and whoosh void gets you with its cacopfony of thought - that's when I like to write my songs.

Fill - Biff Rose song.

Andy - A man of media and anti-message, with a kind of cute style.

Bob - This is how some see B.D.

Queen - A song on a Velvet Underground-Lou Reed framework s'about London sometimes.

Bewlay - Another in the series of David Bowie confessions - Star-Trek in a leather jacket.

Hunky Dory on Spotify
Life on Mars? video

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Great Albums 41: Suzanne Vega (Suzanne Vega, 1985)

It's no surprise that a lot of these albums are from the mid-80s, a period when I was obsessively listening to music and where every spare penny went on buying albums, and a lot of spare minutes on watching music on telly (there was a show on on a Saturday on, I think, Channel 4, which did an Indie Chart Top Ten, which was particulalry good). 

I first heard Suzanne Vega on The Tube, standing all alone on a wee stage, dressed entirely in black, playing a semi-acoustic guitar.  She was doing her new single, 'Marlene on the Wall' and I was, in memory at least, sitting in the rocking horse in my brilliantly pink carpeted, black walled bedroom waiting, as ever, for the Smiths to come on.  So Suzanne Vega came as a bit of a surprise - the song was full of intricate word play, layered over a sweet melody, with Vega constantly glancing off to the side, singing live with no real expression on her face.  You can visibly see her growing in confidence as the song goes on, though - at the end she gives a huge sigh of relief and a smile as the small crowd begins to clap.  It helped that she was cute, obviously, but the song was fantastic, especially in those days when I'd only just heard Joni Mitchell for the first time and was looking for more female singers who sounded like her.

I bought the album next day, and it was in no way a diappointment.  'Marlene' is the most accomplished song on there, but there's not a weak track to be found (and some of the guitar, particularly on songs like 'Small Blue Thing' could have come straight from my other obsession of the time, Billy Bragg) - for this sort of pop folk, it doesn't get much better.

Suzanne Vega on Spotify
Marlene on the Wall on the Tube

Great Albums 42: Roxy Music (roxy Music, 1972)

If I were giving proper credit, I'd have to give this album a more thorough analysis than a couple of paragraphs here.  In fact, there are single songs on this debut LP which deserve whole posts to themselves.  Is there a better opening quarter in music than 'Remake/Remodel', 'Ladytron', 'If There is Something' and '2HB' (well, yes, there are -  but not many)?  Is there a more ambitious single track in music than 'If there is Something' (probably not)?  Has a voice ever sounded as riddled with vice as Bryan Ferry singing 'Death could not kill our love for you' (not in popular music, no)?  Or as arch as the opening vocal on 'Strictly Confidential' (only - again - in Bowie's back catalogue)?

It's an uneven record, though not in the usual sense of good and bad.  More it's album that leaps all over the place in terms of style, tempo, tone and instrumentation both in between tracks and often within the tracks themselves.  'If there is something' starts as country twang in the style of the Rolling Stones and ends up as the sort of messianic cry that Bowie did so successfully at the time.  The frantic pop genius of 'Do the Strand' comes straight after the melancholy 'Sea Breezes' - though to be fair, the  'Sea Breezes' is as schizophrenic a track as anything else in pop, suddenly stopping the slow, sad keyboards about three and a half minutes in and changing into a different (though equally lonesome) song altogether, complete with stuttering, almost jokey vocal, jazz bassline, discordant, off beat drums and guitar feedback - then drops back into the initial sound for the final minute.  'In Every Dream Home a Heartache', menawhile is just bloody scary.

Roxy Music were the only artists in the seventies to get within touching distance of Bowie (and Ferry managed to out-louche even Dave at his most coked-up) - the fact this - their debut - is by a distance their best album possibly explains why they were never able to top him though.

Roxy Music on Spotify
If there is Something on Youtube

Great Albums 43: It'll End in Tears (This Mortal Coil, 1984)

I was sixteen in 1986.  Not a good age, really - no girlfriend, an obsession with kids' tv show Doctor Who (those two facts may be linked) and a preference for wearing diamante jewellry, white silk shirts and chains of pearls (that fact may also be linked to the first one).  Sure, I had the Smiths and Bowie but the real unflowering of music for me was still twelve months away.

Enter 'It'll End in Tears'.  Nicked to order from the Other Record Shop by the big brother of a guy at school, the tape of this album ended up in my schoolbag one rainy morning alongside that not quite Cocteau Twins album they did with Harold Budd (which I hadn't asked for) and Bowie's 'Heroes' (which I had). I can't even remember now why I wanted It'll End in Tears (possibly I never asked for that either - it was, in retrospect, quite a hit and miss operation but each tape was only a pound so even then not a huge amount of money - and the random nature of some of the stuff you ended up with was a little like an early, luddite version of doing playing random tracks on Spotify).

Anyway, in some ways this single album was as big a musical revelation as the now legendary Tape Dave Benger made the following year, but whereas the Tape was full of noisy guitar tracks by scruffy indie bands - the Weather Prophets, the Woodentops, Andy White, Rote Kapelle, the Shop Assistants, A Witness, Stump and many, many more - It'll End in Tears was full of cover versions of bona-fide forgotten classics, all of which I later tracked down and each of which added something vital and intriguing to my record collection over the next couple of years.  Two tracks stood out though - not least because they were sung by what appeared in every respect to be an actual, came-down-from-God-to-freak-me-the-fuck-out angel.  Coincidentally, the singer in question - Liz Fraser, for those who inexplicably don't know who I'm talking about - also turned up on the Harold Budd tape but while that was good, the Mortal Coil cover of Tim Buckley's 'Song to the Siren' remains one of the most astonishing vocals in music.

Even more astonishing though is the fact it's not even her best vocal on the LP.

'Another Day', a beautiful song by Roy Harper in which he sings with both male and female inflections to describe a love affair unfulfilled, is fairly wonderful in its original format, but Fraser makes it hurt, where Harper makes it pretty, and absolutely nails every one of the big moments in the song.  It's my favourite performance by her - and she's sang several of my all-time favourite tracks - and the fact that the album also contains 'Song to the Siren' (and several excellent non-Fraser covers amongst the atmospheric, string-bathed originals which fill out every Mortal Coil release) means it'll never be far from my turntable/cd player/iPod.

It'll End in Tears on Spotify
Another Day on YouTube

Great Albums 44: Ready for the House (Jandek, 1978)

A certain person will be along in a moment to claim that I'm being wilfully obscure, but nowadays Jandek is a cult classic, not a scary wierdo.

That's right, isn't it?  For years the story was more important than the music - the mysterious singer/songwriter who could neither play nor sing very well, releasing one or more albums a year for decades, every one attributed to the non-name 'Jandek' (well, except this debut album, which was originally credited to The Units), the only clues to the real person behind this most outside of outsider music being the polaroids which make up most of the album covers.

Since Jandek unveiled himself (admittedy as the Representative of Corwood Industries) in Glasgow a few years back, some (not all) of the mystery has gone and, possibly as a result, the music is getting a re-appraisal and, you know, there's something about it which is pretty special.

On first listening Ready for the House can sound like a joke - Emo Philips wailing over an untuned  two string shoebox guitar being played by a mentally deficient, tone deaf mentalcase.  But even on first listen there's an occasional phrase, a certain intonation, an unexpected set of not quite discordant twangs on the guitar, and you find yourself wondering - is it actually funny?  Is it even meant to be?

I think the latter, myself.  Jandek's not a con or a joke or an elbroate tax dodge.  There's real emotion in his signing and the lyrics - on this album more than any other - are terrifying at points.

Take the opening track 'Naked in the Afternoon'.  Stick it on in the car as you drive through the pouring rain one dark winter evening.  Put it on repeat.  And I bet you that you'll be starting to feel down and a little bit unsettled before you get tn miles.  It's creepy, and disquieting and even scary.

The rest of the album continues in the same vein, until the final track (the only electric one) finishes in mid-sentence (and then completes on another album entirely!).  It's not Brothers in Arms or some Joe Satriani guitar wankfest, but then that would be the antithesis of Jandek - soulless but competent, all pretence and style, no heart.  Ready for the House is all heart, it's just that that heart's been mangled and torn until ti sounds like nothing else you're ever likely to hear.

Go on, give it a try...

Naked in the Afternoon
What Can I Say, What Can I Sing

Great Albums 45: Delay 1968 (Can, 1981)

OK, so it's a complilation album, really, and of outtakes at that.  But those lovely fellas at WasistDas asked me to have a think about this album for a project of theirs and, you know what - it's my favourite Can LP.

Yeah, it's Malcolm Mooney, not Damo Suzuki, and the dynamic is totally different.  Originally intended to be their first album (aparently to be named 'Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOM') and rejected by the shower of clueless clowns who evidently ran music at the time, it languishe din the doldrums of bootleg land for over a decade before been issued in 1981, on the back of Can achieving a degree of mainstream success.

It's an odd, fractured sort of album, and a diffcult one to pin down.  At this point in time, Can sound like a proper rock band, albeit a messed up and disjointed one.  Touchstones for the sound of Mooney-era Can aren't the usual fellow travellers, NEU!, Tangerine Dream and Faust, but US freakout bands like the Red Krayola.  Mooney can't sing in a totally different way from the way in which Suzuki can't sing, but  it's a strangely hypnotic failure all the same.  Lines repeat over and over again (famously, Mooney is supposed, in his last Can gig, to have reated the same two words over and over again for three hours, before collapsing), Mooney yelps, screams and whines over the top of some great soundscapes (the rest of the band are as good as they were when amazing everyone on Ege Bamyasi et al) and amongst the freakishness genius tentatively pokes out its head.

(Dying) 'Butterfly', 'Nineteen Century Man" and 'Little Star of Bethlehem' in particular are as close to actual 'songs' as Can ever got, ever, but every track - even the very short Pnoom - are worth a listen, if only to hear Mooney's paranoid, druggy mutterings combine with the sound of the US psych scene, all wrapped up in Teutonic drive.

Mooney didn't last long, incidentally - he's on one proper album, Monster Movie plus the reunion Rite Time, this LP and a chunk of the recently released Lost Tapes and that's it.  He left the band in 1970 on mental health grounds and seems to be in good health now, recording as recently as 2006 and working on his art, unlike other casualties of the time.  Best of luck to him, I say, and thanks for this.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Great Albums 46: The Marble Downs (Bonnie Prince Billy & The Trembling Bells, 2012)

A friend of mine is fond of saying that you can compile a sensible Worst Ten Hollywood films list without once stepping outside the back catalogue of Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger, and while I'm not so sure of that (any Top 10 with no Braveheart or The Incredibles is nonense, IMO), I am inclined to say that you can create a Ten Great Albums and never leave the ouevre of Mr Will Oldham, in his many and various guises.  Like Bowie, he's going to pop up in this Top 50 more than once...

This first entry though is his most recent release, in company with Scottish alt-fok band The Trembling Bells.  It starts like, well like nothing else you're likely to hear this year.  'I made a date (with an open vein)' sounds like it should be a miserable dirge but instead it starts off with over two minutes of repetitive yet pleasant instrumental layered with Lavinia Blackwell's equally repetitive but wordless vocal, then some drums kicks in and what may be the most unlikely opening lines to a love song ever.
"I made a date with an open vein/And with scarlet matter emblazened your name"
 The song continues in sinilar vein - brilliantly unexpected lyric, great melody, two excellent voices, clever instrumentation - and in doing so sets the template for the rest of the album.  Not every track reaches the heights of the opening song, but a couple - 'Riding' (as bleak as call/response tale of incest and death as Nick Cave ever managed - and, in passing, a far better version of the song than the solo version which appears on the Palace Brothers 'Lost Blues' album ) and 'Ferrari in a Demolition derby' (proving intense can also be funny) are on a par with anything I've heard this year or last, and even the 'weak' songs have lots to recommend them.

Like I said there'll be more Will Oldham (as Bonny 'Prince' Billy, himself or Palace Brothers) to come, but this is worth savouring for now...

Spotify Link to Album
I Made a Date video

Great Albums 47: Extricate (The Fall, 1990)

In 1990 Mark E. Smith, the driving force behind the mighty Fall, had just divorced his wife and one-time Fall guitarist Brix Smith. The band, for years a cult favourite championed almost exclusively by John Peel, were surfing an unprecedented wave of popularity after Brix pushed Smith into recording far more poppy and commercial tracks (both 'Victoria' and 'Ghost in My House' had charted in the top 40 in the preceding couple of years while the ballet soundtrack LP, 'I am Kurious, Oranj' had gained the band favourable reviews from other than the usual music press suspects).

Those of us who loved the Fall approached this new, first post-Brix album with more trepidation than usual (and, tbh, you approach every new Fall album with more trepidation than optimism - he's a cantankerous and unpredictable old bugger, MES). The presence of Martin Bramah, invited back into the Fall fold 11 years after leaving, was a reassurance though - even if Smith took the Fall all the way back to their late seventies punk roots, with Bramah it'd at least be competent (he'd played on the brilliant Live at the Witch Trials).

The first single off the album 'Telephone Thing' was a bit of a concern.  I saw Smith do it with dance floor types, Coldcut, and - with the exception of the reference to elderly Easteneders' actress Gretchen Franklin -  can't say I thought much of it.  Shades of bandwagon hopping (as Madchester dominated the music scene) are not accusations usually aimed at the Fall, but they could have been at that point.

But I needn't have worried.  The LP, when it came out, was a fabulous synthesis of MES' love of old rockabilly songs, memories of Brix poptastic hooks and a completely unexpected but excellent dip by the singer into crooning on the slow lovesong 'Bill is Dead' (which came top of Peel's Festive 50 that year).   I've seen it  mentioned that song began as a parody of the Smiths, which seems unlikely - it sounds nothing like the Smiths - but whatever it started off as it ended up being the highlight of an album which already contained the brilliantly scabrous 'Sing! Harpy' and 'Black Monk Theme', the pop genius of 'Popcorn Double Feature' and the simply fantastic 'Chicago Now'.  It's a shame that Smith only really uses his crooner voice once more (on the following year's 'Edinburgh Man') but maybe it would've got boring if he'd over-used it. 

What I wouldn't do for Fall album as good as this nowadays...

Spotify Link: The Fall – Extricate
"Bill is Dead" on SnubTV

Great Albums 48: Secrets of the Beehive (David Sylvian, 1987)

Stripped down to their bare essentials, with Sylvian's soft as Andrex voice whispering huskily in the middle of everything and Ryuichi Sakamoto's string arrangements draped over anything left over, these songs are as near to perfect a collection as any songwriter has ever managed. 

When I was a stuent, my flatmate, Alistair, had the album, not the cd, and for some reason when he put it on always started with side two. Which meant I always started with a track which is now mid-album, 'When Poets Dreamed of Angels'.  With fantastic spanish guitar and Sylvian's stylised, impersonal, velvet voice counterpointing a lyric about wife beating, violence and medieval poetic imagery, it felt like the place the album should start, rather than the actual first track, the brief, conversational 'September'.  Re-listening on cd though, 'September' is exactly right - sparse piano and a brief (just over a minute) sketch of a couple lying to one another in what I tend to assume is continental autumnal sunshine (the September sun - now 'so cold it blisters' is revisited in one of the last tracks, 'Let the Happiness In').  From there, the mood wanders up and down without ever settling on one, unless the faintest scent of nostalgic melancholy counts.  Which I think it does, not least because nostalgic melancholy is my favourite kind of melancholy.

Sylvian's voice is so high in the mix (in a good way) that at times he's almost all you can hear, which is no bad thing with a voice like his, but there's still space for Sakamoto's lush (damn, I promised myself I wouldn't use the word 'lush' in this post) strings and some lovely bursts of trumpet and what sounds like double bass  and jazzy piano(on 'Mother and Child'). He never did anything even approaching this good again, but most people never do so even once.

Spotify Album Link
Sylvian singing 'September' live, 1995

Great Albums 49: It's So Hard to tell who's Going to Love you the Best (Karen Dalton, 1969)

 Such an unexpected album, this.

Following a snippet in some music review or other, which described Karen Dalton as a white Billie Holliday, I found a copy of her debut album, put it on and ended up playing it half a dozen times in a row.  I don't really understand the Billie comparisons, or the suggestion that some might find her voice difficult to listen to.  Like a quieter Janis Joplin who *really* liked a ciggie, or a half-cut bar singer slurring wonderfully into her drink, every track is a mix of blues and folk, with a bit of country thrown in for good measure.  It feels to me like an entire hippy commune turned into a series of songs, something reinforced by my later discovery that every song on the album is a cover version (of tracks written by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly and Fred Neil).

I say later discovery because I had no suspicions that they weren't all originals, so completely do they feel like the singer's songs.  On the best tracks - 'A Little Bit Rain', 'Ribbon Bow', 'Sweet Substitute' - the weary, druggy voice is better suited to mood and lyrics than pretty much any other singer I can imagine.  The best track of all though is the one which feels slightly out of place, the 'proper' blues 'Blues on the Celing' - though it's horribly ironic that the refrain 'I'll never get out of thse blues alive' proved to be true.

Sadly, though Karen Dalton lived until 1993, she only recorded one more (more popular, but inferior) album and succumbed to AIDS after to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.  This album though is a better epitath than any numbe rof more prolific singers have ever managed.

Spotify Link
Dalton singing 'Hurts me Too' live

Great Albums 50 - The RIse and Fall of Madness (Madness, 1982)

So 50 great albums, eh?  Not - obviously - the 50 greatest, since that's a value judgment of massive proportions, possibly requiring a metric which is beyond me.  Not even My 50 Favourite Albums, since there'll be a band I've never hear dof along any minute now with an album which requires me to listen to it fifteen times a day for the next two months and which would spend those entire 80 weeks in my Top Ten.  Just 50 albums which, on the day in question, I happen to think are great, for one reason or other (I might mention the reason, I might not - depends if it has anything to do with Doing It, I suspect - it could go all 50 Shades of Grey in here quick as fuck, you know.  Or not.  Annnyyyyway....)

The Rise and Fall - Madness (1982)

This was the first album I ever actually asked someone to buy me.  It was December 1982 - and wait,  stop there.  That's actually quite odd, since I've always thought that the first albums I ever owned were Now That's What I call Music and Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, but I got them from my dad at Christmas 1983, and this predates that by a year (I definitely got it for the Xmas it came out because Scott got it too,  and we wouldn't both have got an old record for a present.)  There you go - JNT was right, memory cheats.

Madness were Scott and my favourite band by the length of Princes Street, even though we could only really hear them on the radio (and also possibly via the Greatest Hits' LP, Complete Madness - which came out even earlier, and which I listened to compulsively, thus confusing my personal Timeline of Music Ownership even further!) and this album had already been called Madness' best by the Edinburgh Evening News!

It didn't disappoint, for all that it was a long way from the pop ska of their singles.  Though I didn't realise it at the time, Madness presents The Rise and Fall to give it its full title, started off life as a concept album, revolving round memories of childhood.  The concept quickly got dropped though you can still catch glimpses of it in songs like 'Our House' and 'Rise and Fall' itself.  Instead, the LP is a fantastic fusion of all sorts of unexpected bits and bobs - Indian influences, olde-time music hall, foot-stomping ska, political commentary - even a bit of jazz.  It's been described as the 80s version of the Kinks' excellent 'The Village Green Preservation Society', and they're both albums about Englishness (much like Blur's 'Parklife' in the 90s and PJ Harvey's 'Let England Shake' in the last decade) but I think it's better than the Kinks' release, because there's a huge amount of energy and positivity amongst the pop nostalgia and underlying strands of melancholy.

Spotify Link: The Rise and Fall
Our House video

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Manleigh Books - Open for Business

Cody Quijano-Schell and I are delighted to announce a new ongoing ebook series! Available right now, The Periodic Adventures of Senor 105 will appear monthly and feature the exploits of scientist, explorer and semi-retired masked Mexican wrestler: Senor 105.

Senor 105 has been with Obverse Books from its very first release three years ago, but this is something very different and has prompted the creation of a new sister e-book imprint, Manleigh Books. The series is designed to appeal to people who like getting a monthly jolt of storytelling in the form of low-priced, short novellas.

The first book is available for download now. “The Gulf”, written by the character’s creator Cody Quijano-Schell, is a good starting place for anyone new to the character. A lot of details get nailed down for the first time in this book, including the origin of the villainous Terrible Kings and their leader, a shadowy figure from Mexico’s future. There is an exploration into the contents of the Chicxulub Crater that has always been in the background of 105’s stories. And a new recurring character is introduced in the form of Lori, the Royal Canadian Mounted Policewoman.

"The Gulf" also contains hints about the origin of the crater and strange goings-ons in the solar system, on the Moon and Earth’s lost twin. This will lead into future stories such as Blair Bidmead’s novella, which takes place on Venus and features the Venusians as originally seen in Paul Leonard’s “Venusian Lullaby”, a Doctor Who Missing Adventures novel.

Some authors who have never written for 105 have been brought aboard; including Richard Wright whose “The God of Many Masks” will be released in September. Later novellas will follow from Lawrence Burton and Blair Bidmead (both former 105 and Faction Paradox authors) followed with Stuart Douglas taking us into a special Christmas story and a first 105 story from Selina Lock. So it’s an exciting first 6 months!

There will be ongoing arcs resolved over time, but the novellas are designed to be self-contained. The long-term reader will be rewarded, but newcomers won’t be punished with heaps of continuity. But if you have been curious about 105’s jukebox, Sheila’s family, the history of 105’s “Golden Age” mentors, Tierra, Viento y Fuego, then you’ll be pleased to know they’ll all be explored in time.

There will be times when open submissions are accepted, watch for announcements on the website and on this forum.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Tale of Hill Top Farm - Susan Wittig Albert

I've been away on holiday you know.  In company of my learned colleague and all round good egg (rolled on a barber shop floor) Scott.   Cruising round the Mediterranean, he taking photos of things, me typing furiously away at the Great Novel on Notes on an iPad (that teaches you to have nerves of steel - push the wrong button and 'whoosh!' - due to the lack of an Undo facility everything you wrote disappears beyond hope of rescue - like writing using pee in snow and hoping it doesn't turn cold any time soon*).

Anyway, obviously I did a bit of reading too, in the gaps between tramping round Cadiz's narrow streets with Julie and Cam and taking the wee train to the beach in Corsicaand whizzing down Lisbon's steep hills on a tra which cost a pound as opposed to Edinburgh's 3/4 of a billion.

Spcifically, I read Susan Wittig Albert's 'The Tale of Hill Top Farm' and finished it with a great desire to read not only the rest of the books in the author's series of Beatrix Potter stories but also the various biographies of Potter listed in the acknowledgements and even the likes of The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.

For one thing, it's a great idea.  Unlike the often dull trend for having A N Historical Figure solving crimes for no apparent reason other than implausible authorial caprice - the Jane Austen Investigates school of fiction - this is a sweetly heart-felt fictional biography of a certain period in Potter's life, complete with small village crimes and misdemeanours, mischief not murder, misuderstanding not mayhem.  Two pounds is misplaced, a church registry goes missing and - most criminally of all - a small painting disappears.  That's the extent of the nefarious activity in this book.  Instead of criminal masterminds, the author gives the reader an array of lovingly sketched village characters (think of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford, and you wouldn't be far wrong) and, brilliantly, the thoughts of both Beatrix's pets and the village animals.  I particularly liked the way that the human characters react to the speech of the cats and dogs - hearing only squeaking and mewing as the animals discuss the events around them.

Had the animals remained as just that - animals who can speak amongst themselves - then I'd have been delighted, but Ms Albert inserts an extra layer of non-human characters which jarred for me (though I know it worked for other readers).  An owl professor with a telescope in his tree suffers from obvious comparisons with the very similar friend of Pooh Bear, but he, Fritz the Ferret and the various rats, all of whom wear cutdown human clothing, feel out of place - creatures from an entirely different sort of story.  Obviously that entirely different sort of story is one of Miss Potter's own, which feels like something of a mis-step to me.  On a similar note, it seems reasonable that a cat might learn to read by listening to her mistress reading out loud, but silly that the same cat would think to write a note for the humans to read.

Still, after reading this first installment, I immediately bought the rest of the series for my Kindle - and you can't say fairer than that, considering I had the on-ship delights of Berni Flint in Concert and Paul Daniels' laddie doing magic tricks as an alternative source of amusement.

* Actually, that's a rubbish comparison, but I just got cleaning chemicals in my eye and it hurts a lot, so I can possibly be forgiven.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Bye bye Barbara and Ian!

Ian and Barbara are gone!  They selfishly shot off at the end of The Chase leaving the Doctor covering his hurt with bad temper and new girl Vicki spouting platitudes about it being all right in the end.  Shut up!  What do you know, you Joaney-come-lately?  Ian and Barbara have been there since the beginning, arguing, bickering and fighting, laughing and loving and shagging, getting on with things in a very British manner and emerging triumphant alongside the Doctor, Susan and the viewer.  I love them both.

They were shagging, incidentally, for those who care to debate.  I reckon they were at it even before they joined the TARDIS.  She's all together too comfy in his classroom when she pops into discuss Susan, and he too willing to bundle her in his car and drive alone with her in the fog.  Hoping to find nothing to investigate no doubt, then back to his bedsit for spam fritters on a plate balanced on their knees and a swift bit of nookie on the fold down bed in the other room.  Then drive Babs home as she fixes herself up in the car mirror, and hope her mum doesn't notice that her hair's askew and her face a bit flushed, still.

Still don't believe me?  How about that bit in The Romans when the Doctor and Vicki are still on their way from Rome.  If that's not a post-coital Ian sending Babs to make him a drink, then crashing waves on rocks in black and white movies aren't symbols of coitus either.  Only a couple could bicker like they do in the corridors of  The Space Museum, only a boyfriend would be allowed to slip his hand inside a lady's waistband as Ian does with Barbara on the ledge of the Mechanoid City, and only prospective life partners would run through Regents Park hand in hand  as they do at the very end.

I supect they'll end up a slightly odd elderly couple.  No kids, but an absolute fascination with each other. A love of one another's company to the exclusion of everybody else's, and a reserve which is difficult to pentetrate even a little and impossible to penetrate fully.  And all the while the two of them looking at the stars, wondering if they'll ever get another visit.

Not for the moment, they won't - after battling deadly Daleks, evil Administrators, vicious plant life and giant bastards they've flitted back to the sixties in the Daleks' ludicrously named DARDIS.  I console myself that at least it's 1965, not 1963 - that'll teach that selfish pair to leave the Doctor and me!

Friday, 1 June 2012

Work Catch Up

Lots of Obverse Books coming out soon, so most of my reading has been on a Kindle with a pencil and paper to hand, the better to write down things like 'Surely the hero is a Count - you've missed a letter out there!' 

In the past few weeks, therefore, I've proof-read Philip Puser-Hallard and friends excellent 'Tales of the City' (which set a new record for fewest typoes), fiddled with gorgeous images by Bret Herholz in Paul Magrs' The Ninnies (which set a record for best review comparison- reminiscent of Roald Dahl and Stephen King!) and created ebooks of various things.  I've also been writing a story for a collection not by Obverse (shock!) which involves me finding out about train timetables in days of yore and completed another article for an online friend's new imprint (with a flowchart and everything!).

After I finish the secret short story, it's onto the equally secret novella for a new series of linked e-novellas (my effort is due oout at Christmas and is currently called 'The Secret Santa') and reading and editing the next book in the second year of the Obverse Quarterly, the Iris Wildthyme collection, 'Lady Stardust'.  Oh, and I said I'd typeset a book of Mary Danby's short stories for Noose and Gibbet supremo, Johnny Mains - plus I have hopes of submitting a novel to someone or other at some point this year.

All go, situation normal, then...

Friday, 25 May 2012

Pin Ups (1973)

I always liked the idea that Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was supposed to include the Chuck Berry number 'Round and Round' as an example of the sound of the 'real' Ziggy and the Spiders. And one natural progression from that is that Ziggy and the Spiders ended up as a fifties and sixties covers band, and this album is a compilation of their live favourites.

That approach certainly fits with the quality on offer here.  I wouldn't go as far as some fans who have described the album as weak and individual tracks as 'failure[s] by any reading' but neither would I go with Iggy Pop's appraisal of it as 'tight as a bitch from the bottom up on every cut'. It's undeniable, I think, that some of the tracks on Pin Ups add very little to the original versions, which is the aim of a cover, to my mind (though, again, I wouldn't go as far as the Rolling Stone reviewer who, ungramatically, claimed that 'none stands up to the originals').  It's also an album where Bowie is very obviously trying out new vocal styles and voices, which some people see as a weakness. That said, Bowie apparently looked on the LP as a way of shaking the dust of Ziggy off his shoes, which it certainly does, so from his point of view (and whose else really matters?), it was a successful release.

Part of the problem for people who are not David Bowie is an obvious one.  If these are all songs Bowie loves from the period, then he's bound to approach with a degree of respect which prevents a really experimental approach.  So he either has Mick Ronson outplay the original guitarist, camps things up a bit or simply copies the original almost as is.

One thing which is immediately evident is that the originals are largely far more trebly than the remakes, with the result that listening to the original then the cover lends a murkiness to the Bowie versions.  On the first track, The Pretty Things 'Rosalyn', this has the added effect of drowning the great bassline of the source single, which is particuarly unfortunate.

Track two, Them's 'Here Comes the Night', is more successful for exactly opposite reasons.  Where 'Rosalyn' loses a key component as Bowie adds layers to his version, the Pin Ups version of 'Here Comes the Night' is infinitely preferable to Van Morrison's pretty weedy vocal and his band's dated, country-style guitar work.  From Mick Ronson's first screeching guitar note (my phone ringtone for long enough!) Bowie's version is beefier musically and if the vocal is typically mannered, I far prefer DB's emotional exaggeration to Morrison's dry intonation.  To be honest though, the version by Lulu is the best of the three, veering from resigned drawl to a near stacatto spit of anger and ending like an impersonaiton of Roy Orbison's 'Running Scared' (listen out for the weird backing vocals towards the end though).

'I Wish You Would' by the Yardbirds is virtually the definition of a UK garage band track - simple, circular guitar progression, harmonica in counterpoint, very basic lyric and the entire thing sounds like it was recorded by dropping a mic into a metal cow churn. Bowie tidies things up a bit and Ronson tries to do something interesting with the guitar line, but it's all a bit by numbers, even when Bowie attempts a bad boy growl.

Whereas Bowie's 'See Emily Play' manages to sound awesome even when compared to the brilliant original.  The best song recorded by Syd Barrett's version of Pink Floyd, 'See Emily Play' sounds like a child's song in Floyd's hands, with carnival organ sounds breaking the song in two, and lyrics which recount a small girl playing dress up, failing to understand the adults around her and getting lost in the woods.  Bowie's version, on the other hand, makes the line 'You'll lose your mind and play' the centre of the song, and as a consequence produced a more perverse song entirely, in which the adult Emily is insane, double and treble layered vocals shout at her like monsters, and the guitar is an assault on her health not a comfort.  Mike Garson hammers a single key on his piano as the song approaches its end, then starts interposing little runs as violin, guitar and drums create a dischord around the suddently silent singer.  The only genuine triumph on the album, but worth the cost of the whole just for this one track.

The next track up, 'Everything's Alright' by the Mojos is a rotten original, and a pretty bog standard cover which at least manages to make the song listenable.  That's more words than the track really deserves.

I'm starting to flag a bit now, so let's do both Who covers at once.  Both of David's versions of 'Anytime, Anwhere, Anyhow' and 'I Can't Explain' appear to get a bad press from fans of both Bowie and the Who but I don't see what's so wrong with them myself.  Which version you prefer largely boils down to a single question - Pete Townsend or Mick Ronson, and it'll always be Ronson for me.  I've seen 'I Can't Explain' described as 'an act of vandalism' but that, if you ask me, is due to a hagiographic attitude to the faintly unpleasant Townsend rather than any inherent weakness in either song as covered by Bowie.

For the rest, 'Friday on my Mind' is competent and no more, while Don't Bring Me Down' has a subtle reworking of the song's opening line so that Bowie has 'nowhere to roam' rather than 'just want to roam' and a peculiar bur effective near-spoken line towards the end where Bowie puts on his best drawling American accent to good effect.  Nicholas Pegg isn't wrong, too, when he says nowhere are Bowie's most basic influences more obviously on show than here.  'Shape of Things' and 'Where have all the Good Times Gone', om the othe rhand, are pretty decent originals given nothing extra by Bowie and his band.

Which leaves 'Sorrow'.  I love this song, but even I'd have to admit that Bowie's version doesn't really add all that much to The Merseys version (even if David Buckley described it as the album's highlight).  What it is though is MILES better than the Status Quo version below...

Great Lost Track

There's not one really, as evidenced by the way that Rykodisc padded out the 90s reissue with two covers not from the Pin Ups sessions - a note perfect cover of Springsteen's 'Growin Up' and the brilliant but utterly unlike Pin Ups cover of Jacques Brel's 'Amsterdam', at one point planned for Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

I suppose the best we can do is this - the instrumentation for a cover of the Velvet Underground's 'White Light/White Heat' was recorded but not used by Bowie, eventually ending up on Ronson's second album Play Don't Worry.

Compare and Contrast

And finally, have a listen yourself - a Spotify playlist with every Bowie song on Pin Ups alongside the original version...

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Interlude: Bowie with Dick and Cher, 1974/75

1974 and The Dick Cavett Show. 

Bowie swaggers on stage with an orange quiff and DA, wearing what appears to be a brown Balero jacket, and dances like a rubber legged spastic attack throughout 1984, like a drunk man bouncing off hedges as he staggers down the road only just in control of his limbs. The voice is still fine and he exudes confidence, but close ups on his sweaty, skull like face and his half forced shut eyes tell a different story - any brash self-confidence is obviously based on false, coke fuelled self belief, the thinnest layer of ice over the deepest, coldest lake. How the fuck he didn't end up dead is quite miraculous based on this and the interview that follows, which is filled with Bowie misunderstanding and avoiding questions, laughing at the wrong point, wittering about black noise and even getting words wrong, all the while sniffing constantly. Cher wouldn't have touched him with a stick...

Skip forward a year or so to late 1975, and Bowie dueting with mine host on the Cher Show.

They appear, one after the other, head shots floating in clouds of gender specific colour and croak their way through their opening lines.  Cher, in Una Stubbs' stolen hair (possibly literally) and wearing what - in the fuzz of a fiftieth generation tape - appears to be a black kimono, serenades Bowie in grey slacks and blue blazer; he dressed like the secretary of his local bowling club, she like the Oriental trophy bride of some fifties US executive, as they torch at one another in a studio filled with orange smoke.

But above the collar is the all that matters with Bowie, and above his light blue shirt there's the head of a full on degenerate, drops of pale sweat and slicked back dyed blond hair like straw, Draco Malfoy all fucked up but having the time of his life.Bowie has never looked so close to Nosferatu as this.  If Cher, in her Good Life frock and Charlie's Angels bob, values her life she best not get too close, frankly.

Usually the song itself wouldn't matter at all - see the medley with Cher later on in the show for sheer fun where the song is immaterial - but in this case the song is the perfect complement to the murky, dirty visuals; it's that rarest of things, a genuinely sensual performance.

Even in '75 Bowie's still messed up and you doubt he could even see the corner he needs to turn, but rest assured, Berlin's just over there...

Friday, 18 May 2012

Aladdin Sane (1973)

In a recent interview, Bowie described this album as 'Ziggy goes to America', and as a bit of a filler - a semi-Ziggy album droppe dinto his recoridng schedule almost as a placeholder for a different, non-Ziggy album. He's uner-playing the quality of the songs on offer but he's not wrong about the American influence.  At its most obvious - the very title 'Panic in Detroit', the flirtation with doo-wop at the start of the same track, the Muddy Waters steal for 'The Jean Genie' - it works very well, even if at the lower end  -  filtering the States via a Rolling Stones fixation, the chugging rock of 'Watch That Man' - it comes across as a mildy (if appropriately) schizophrenic mix of the sort of straight-forward US rockers not seen since 'Man Who Sold the World'  and slices of weird Americana, science fiction and even a smattering of torch song.

Side one
No. Title Length
1. "Watch That Man"   4:30
2. "Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)"   5:06
3. "Drive-In Saturday"   4:33
4. "Panic in Detroit"   4:25
5. "Cracked Actor"   3:01
Side two
No. Title Length
6. "Time"   5:15
7. "The Prettiest Star"   3:31
8. "Let's Spend the Night Together" (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards) 3:10
9. "The Jean Genie"   4:07
10. "Lady Grinning Soul"   3:54

This album was banned in Rhodesia as 'undesirable', you know.  They musn't be big Rolling Stones fans is my theory, because that band pops up all the bloody place on Aladdin Sane.  For a start 'Watch That Man' is like a Stones song if anyone in that band had any genuine imagination, and 'Let's Spend the Night Together'. while being my second least favourite Bowie cover (see a few hundred words below for anyone desperate to know what track I think is even worse), is a considerably better version of the Stones' original.

Ignore those two, however, and concentrate on the great bits on this lp.  Mike Garson's wonderful trails of piano, Bowie's fragments of lyrics and his voice, moving from wavering insecurity to bellowing grand-standing - and back again - in the space of ten songs.

The title track in fact contains my favourite piano playing of any song ever.  Garson starts off letting runs of notes tinkle up and down, then throws in some dischordant chords, as though he's just thumping his hands on the keys, before launching into a long, mad, rocking piano solo described by one very good Bowie blogger as the best such solo of the decade.  Afterwards he combines with Bowie on sax for a while, like geese farting the fog, before that brilliant ending of little trills and single thumping notes.  It's the end of the world, just as propheised in the dates in the song title.

'Drive in Saturday', in contrast, is the first really American song on the album.  True, it first name-checks Mick Jagger, but other than that this is one of Bowie's very best stabs at sci-fi pop.  Ostensibly a song about two lovers (one more keen than the other, but isn't that always the way) and their attempts to 'get it on', but it's peppered with the same sort of post-apocalyptic lyrical asides which make the song come across as a musical accompaniment to the movie 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'.

Perhaps the strange ones in the dome/ can lend us a book we can read up alone
And try to get it on like once before/When people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored

Mentions of the Astronette and fall out saturation (treading similar territory to Kate Bush and 'Breathing' a few years later), cement the science fiction disaster setting but at heart this is still a pop song about a young American, taking his car and his lover to the drive-in, hoping to take things further, but she's not sure whether she should let him, for all that she tells herself she loves this latest Buddy in a long line of nameless lovers.  Ooh, even as I type that ridiculously unpunctuated sentence out I'm gobsmacked that Bowie fits quite so much into lyrics which I've heard described as meaningless by some people. Bizarrely, it's long been rumoured that Bowie offered this song to Ian Hunter, but the Mott the Hoople frontman turned it down.

Whether 'Panic in Detroit' is actually about the Detroit Riots of 1967, thugs that Iggy Pop knew as a kid or something else entirely, it remains the most amazing b-side to a genuinely crap a-side of all time.  Bowie's cover of 'Knock on Wood' remains his only real creative mis-step of the seventies and backing it with a track voted Mick Ronson's greatest guitar masterpiece serves to highlight that fact something awful.

'Cracked Actor' is vile.  Probably Bowie's most unpleasant lyric of all time.  No, not probably - definitely.  Did he ever again write a line as brilliantly horrible as

Forget that I’m fifty/Cos you just got paid

 or create a character as revoltingly self-obsessed and grubby as the eponymous actor, stiff on his legend, a few years from his Hollywood highs, coked up and looking for cheap sex?  That the description (if not the loss of fame) could, in part, equally apply to Bowie himself a mere year or two later is the world's least surprising irony - a lack of surprise made concrete by the title of 1974's Alan Yentob helmed documentary on the man himself...

The second side kicks off with a song which is less unpleasant, but not by a lot.  In fact, the first few verses would work just as well if you took them as descriptions of the cracked actor himself.  Probably not, though, because that character would still be wanking now, still be buzzing on Quaaludes and red wine, still be looking old.  Whereas by the end of this the singer is crooning that perhaps Billy Murcia (recently decased New York Dolls band member, the Billy Doll of the second verse) is in a better place, smiling now.  It's been described as  'terrible' lyric, and it's certainly lacking in subtlety, but that doesn't seem out of place to me on this album and besides, even when the lyrics aren't perfect, this is an track where the music is always interesting.

I like 'The Prettiest Star' a lot, especially in single format, backed by the original (and best) version of all but forgotten classic 'Conversation Piece'.  But it's the cuckoo in the nest on this album.  Where 'Watch That Man' and 'Let's Spend the Night Together' out-Stones the Stones, and 'Cracked Actor', 'Time' and 'The Jean Genie' are by turns brutal and nasty, 'The Prettiest Star' is a slight, pretty, love song showing its roots as a song from three years previously, when 'Letter to Hermoine' and 'Memories of a Free Festival' were ideal examples of Bowie's work .  True, Bowie and Ronson coated the original in more Aladdin Sane style instrumentation, beefing up the guitar, adding horns, throwing in some backing vocals but for me this attempt to shoehorn the track into the album ends with it being less than it was, like a young girl trying to put on her mum's makeup, or a nice fresh piece of steak slathered in BBQ sauce (or some other strained simile of your choice).

Anyway, in both forms I like it better than 'Let's Spend the Night Together'.  Yes, it out-rocks and is in every way better than the Stones' version but since I could barely fill a double album of great Stones' tracks, even using their entire sprawling back catalogue, that's not exactly the biggest and proudest boast ever.

Rolling Stone's review at the time only mentioned 'The Jean Genie' in its final paragraph, dismissing the track as one of the three weak ones on the album.  But as the reviewer was also apparently under the impression that one of the tracks was called 'Pretty as a Star', I think we can ignore his opinion! Apparently arising from a jam on a bus trip by Ronson and Bowie' equipment manager, Will Palin where the lyric was 'Bus, Bus Bus, - we're going 'Busin'!', the track is now thought of as a Bowie staple, on a par with 'Rebel Rebel' and similar rockier Bowie numbers from the period (Bowie has claimed, incidentally, that the harmonica in the song was a deliberate attempt to ape the Rolling Stones).

(Want to hear a lovely, Dr Who related story from Kevin Cann's 'Any Day Now' regarding Bowie playing 'The Jean Genie' on British chart show, Top of the Pops?

Wednesday 3 January 1973

Dressed in their unusual stage outfits, The Spiders spend time between takes in the BBC bar. "An episode of Doctor Who was also being recorded, so there were actors in futuristic costume drinking there", said Trevor Bolder. "People were approaching us asking what parts we were playing.'

Sadly, Bolder was probably wrong and these were people recording somehting else - no Doctor Who was being filmed at the Beeb that day, so he's either mis-remembering or it was another show entirely. Ta to Jim Smith for the Dr Who info.)

And finally, 'Lady Grinning Soul', the lushest, most sensual song Bowie had written to that point - possibly the lushest and most sensual he's ever recorded (and in another Stones' reference allegedly about the same person as the Stones' 'Brown Sugar').  Hearing it for the first time as a thirteen year old, busily buying every Bowie album I could this was the track that I kept putting on, over and over again, flipping the needle up and back a bit every three minutes, doing my best to make sense of the lyrics - what's an Americard? (a credit card, I discovered years later).  And canasta? (a card game not played very often in Wester Hailes in the early 80s).  

And as for the mention of breasts...well I was thirteen...

The Great Missing Track

Has to be Bowie's version of 'All the Young Dudes'.  Written - allegedly - while sitting cross-legged on Ian Hunter's living room floor, this ode to glam and side-swipe at the rock 'n' rollers of the previous musical generation is, to be honest, better when done by Mott the Hoople but it's no slacker when Bowie has a go either.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Little Cheapies

Well I'm never going to get rich publishing Obverse Books, but the payment in cheapies is ongoing and constant.  On the same day that I get hold of a physical copy of a book with a story of mine alongside stories by Michael Moorcock, Paul Magrs, Mark Hodder and George Mann, the little Iris sampler I put on Amazon last week reached number 16 in the sf short story charts.  Means nothing and makes even less, but I think that's cool :)

Yopu can buy a copy for a pound here...

Friday, 20 April 2012

Fourth Doctor Adventures!

Co-incidentally, I've read two new adventures of the fourth incarnation of Doctor Who (Tom Baker, for th eperosn readin gthis who doesn't already know!) in the past few months.  One of them is a big-money, big-splash hardback adapatation of the 'classic' lost story, 'Shada' by current tv writer Gareth Roberts, based on a script by the late Douglas Adam.  The other is a Lulu published paperback (very loose) adaptation of the even more lost, Baker and Marter script 'Doctor Who Meets Scratchman' by author and blogger Nick Campbell.

I liked them both a great deal, I must say.  The Baker-era has not been brilliantly served in novel format, I think, though the high points - Steven Marley's Managra, say - have been pretty high indeed.  But both of these examples illustrate in their own way the strength of the TV show at the time they were initally conceived and which authors should use far more when writing for the Baker Doctor now.

They are very different though.

'Shada' is an big budget production, with Gareth Roberts - an able prose writer but, I think, a better dramatist - bringing both bow strings to bear on Adams' script, to generally pleasing effect.  It's a book designed to appeal to the casual Who fan, the sort of people who watch the new series on telly and who know the name 'Douglas Adams' from somewhere or other.  It's funny at times while overly obvious at others, clever but also clumsy and well-written but unsure if it's a Target novelisation or a Douglas Adams' book.  I didn't care for the gushing over the genius of Adams towards the end, which felt forced and out of place, but for all that it's a decent rendition of a certain point in TV time and very welcome amongst the bland uniformity of much of the Who prose output since the TV series lurched back onto the screens.

'Doctor Who meets Scratchman', on the other hand, reads like the fabulous but slightly scary love-child of Paul Magrs and Terrance Dicks, midwived by Barbara Euphan Todd and Rosemary Sutcliff.  It's a Cajun stew of a novel, full of peculiar textures and odd tastes, alive with an outpouring of ideas, and so obviously in love with the whole era that it's virtually palpable as you read.  From the Target style cover featuring Vincent Price as Scratchman all the way to the last page which promises the upcoming 'Dr Who Discovers the Miners', this book is a proper wallow in something actually wonderful, in the real sense of the word.  At times while readng it, lying on my bed with the rain battering on the window, I disappeared into 1975 again, with Tom striding about, cabbage companion to hand, and Sarah and Harry to the rear, the sexiest couple on TV.  I can easily picture myself slipping this book into place on the long shelf which ran above my bed when I was ten, in between 'Revenge of the Cybermen' and 'Terror of the Zygons', then mentally hugging myself as I considered the every growing rank of spines, each little adventure mine to keep and re-visit whenever I want. There's something genuinely brilliant in a book which can conjure up that kind of memory so clearly, I think.